Thinking like a historian when writing historical fiction

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You don’t have to be an expert historian to delve into historical research. Learning how to be a thoughtful and clever historian takes years and years of practice. But you can start your journey by understanding how to think like a historian.

Always consider context

The old adage, “hindsight is 20/20,” can be a detriment to historical storytellers. Challenge yourself to think about events or interactions not from your modern perspective, but using the details you uncover from your research.

Be mindful of your sources

Different sources covering the same era or event can tell wildly different stories. Consider the 1940s — a New York newspaper covered WWII far differently than a German publication. Investigate multiple sources to see what unique perspectives you can find and use in your story.

Draw conclusions with evidence

If you have a hunch that a certain character would react in a certain way, use your research to support that behavior. This helps you think more objectively about context, and can also fuel your narrative.

Ask specific questions

Being specific will guide your research process. If you’re writing a book about Ancient Rome, that’s a huge topic and can be overwhelming! Focus your questions based on your story or characters, such as: what did teenage Roman girls in wealthy families wear during the summer months?

Research topics from different perspectives

See what you can find out about the same events from the perspective of multiple characters. For example, what would a married Roman woman talk about while watching Gladiators battle in the Coliseum? What would a Gladiator in slavery think about as he is sent into the arena?


Download the free guide, Researching Your Historical Novel, by clicking below!
 

How to do research for your National Novel Writing Month project

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It's almost November, which means it's almost time for one of my favorite events of the year: National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo)! I've written about NaNoWriMo preparation before, but I want to go into more detail about actually doing research for your project.

It's not just historical novels that require research; every novel and writing project requires some research. A science fiction book may include research about spaceship design; a fantasy novel may include research on mythical creatures. I've participated in NaNoWriMo about five times (winning twice), and I can tell you firsthand that the month goes by FAST, so the more you can tackle ahead of time, the better. Since it's the first week of October, it's the perfect time to knock out your research before November 1.

Below are my tried-and-true research tips for your novel, regardless of genre or topic.

Start with a thorough outline

Not all writers use outlines for their books, but it makes a huge difference during NaNoWriMo; the two times I "won" were because I had very clear outlines, so every day was just a matter of "filling in" the outline. An outline will also help you identify the parts of your story that require research. 

You can outline digitally, or get out a big piece of paper and just start writing down the main plot points of your story. (Here's a great resource on what your outline should include.)

Prioritize your research points

Your outline should reveal the parts of your story that need research, and you'll want to make a list of what research you want to tackle first. Research is often overwhelming to writers because there's just so much of it to do, so take it piece-by-piece.

Consider the following:

  • What are the "big picture" details in your story? For instance, what's the location or era/time that you need to study? 
  • How will your characters interact with their world? You'll need to research the day-to-day details, such as clothing, food, architecture, music/art, and cultural events. 

Start with the "big picture" details. What is the most important research you need to do before you can actually start writing? Start broad, and you can drill further as you go. 

Create a research schedule

Once you have a sense for the research you'll need to do, come up with a reasonable schedule. It's impossible to knock out all your research in one day, so make a plan to tackle a little bit over the span of a week (or a few weeks). I always recommend going into a research session with a specific goal in mind. Your schedule should include the specific research questions you plan to tackle every day. For instance, researching the clothing worn by a battle nurse in World War II is a specific and attainable goal to meet in one research session.

Spend an afternoon at the library

It's tempting to conduct all of your research online, but I highly recommend committing an afternoon to a library visit. You'll have books and librarians at your disposal, and you can knock out some of the "big picture" details of your research. If your research includes studying places or architecture, scan or take pictures of the images you find in books.

Annotate your outline with your findings

Rather than documenting your findings separately from your outline, add your findings directly to each part of your outline. I love using writing apps such as Scrivener, which makes it really easy to create folders of research and link them to chapters. For the book I'm writing this November, I have folders for each of my main characters and locations in the book. In each folder, I've added the research images and documents that correspond to each. Then, I made folders for each of my planned chapters, and I put the documents into each relevant chapter. 

If you don't want to shell out the $$ for a tool like Scrivener (although I highly recommend it, especially for research-intensive projects), you can use a free service like Google Drive. Create a folder that contains the doc in which you'll write your story, and then create a folder for each chapter/part of your book. These folders will grow over time, but it makes it easy to quickly reference the research you need in that particular chapter. 

I also recommend using Pinterest, especially for your web-based research. As you're doing research on the web, create Pinterest boards for your chapters and characters, and save your findings straight to your board. You'll also have a visual moodboard of your story, which I find really helpful.

I'll be writing more tips and tricks for conquering NaNoWriMo, so stay tuned! Have you announced your novel yet? My username is AshleyWarrenResearch, so be sure to connect with me!



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Scrivener, Novlr, Ulysses: Which writing tool is best for you?

Whenever I hear about a writing tool, I’m compelled to try it out. In the past couple years I’ve been focusing more on fiction instead of solely journalism/academic writing, and I have been searching for the best writing tools for longform writing. Three programs that frequently appear at the top of lists are Scrivener, Novlr, and Ulysses. I have been using all three programs for several months now, and thought it would be useful to share what I like and what I don’t like about each of these programs.

Overview

Scrivener, Novlr and Ulysses are all, in essence, word processing programs. They are used to write, edit, and export pieces of writing, such as books, novels, or longform projects. They each offer additional features, such as formatting, organization, and outlining. Each program connects to cloud services to save your documents.

How I’m using the programs

To get the most out of each, I have used each program for multiple projects, including:

  • Revising the manuscript of a nonfiction book. The bulk of this book has been written elsewhere for an email series, so this has required importing the text and formatting it.
  • Writing a multi-part novel — with research, such as images and maps.
  • Writing short stories to submit to literary journals.
  • Writing articles, help docs, and blog posts.

Because I use these programs for different types of writing projects, I’ve been able to explore and try features I may not have normally discovered.


I’ve been using Scrivener since November, after National Novel Writing Month. I bought the software using the NaNoWriMo Winner’s discount, which also helped me get over the pricing hurdle. In the long run, $45 doesn’t seem very expensive for dedicated writers, but it’s hard making the leap when you’re not sure what to expect.

What I love about Scrivener:

Scrivener is a great program to use for any stage of a project: outlining, brainstorming, writing, editing, revising, and preparing for publication.

My absolutely favorite thing about Scrivener are its research capabilities. You can easily import images and documents into the research section of your project, and have them visible or accessible as you’re writing. Since I am a researcher by profession, this has been a wonderful discovery, and I think writers who are writing research-intensive books (like historical fiction) should absolutely take advantage of this.

Scrivener templates are also extremely handy. I now rely heavily on the character templates to help make my characters as real and well-rounded as possible. Making resources like that readily available in the software shows that Scrivener was made to help writers be more thoughtful about their projects.

Another unique feature of Scrivener is its statistics. Beyond just tracking your word or character count, you can set writing goals, and Scrivener will calculate what your word count needs to be daily to meet that goal. You can also look at the stats to see what words you used most often throughout your manuscript, which is helpful when revising.

What I would like to change about Scrivener:

As a UX researcher by day, I have really high standards about design, and sometimes Scrivener can feel a tad dated. What’s nice is that you can tailor most of the interface to your needs, but every now and then, I feel like there’s just too much going on.

Bottom line:

Scrivener is excellent for big projects, such as novels or series, because you can get really specific with how your book is organized. Plus, its research capabilities make it a good option for people writing research-based books or academic projects. Scrivener’s templates make it easy to be organized and detail-oriented. And, the statistics feature is insightful about your writing habits.

Cost:

$45. Available for all operating systems.


Novlr is a gem of a program, and I began using it a few years ago during a prior NaNoWriMo challenge. It’s browser-based, so there’s nothing to download.

What I love about Novlr:

A lot! First and foremost, I love how simple it is to connect Novlr to Google Drive and make backups. Novlr makes multiple backups every time you update a story, and that is really important to me since I normally do that manually.

The design of Novlr is lovely. They offer daytime/nighttime writing modes, and that makes a big difference! (Especially if you find yourself writing late at night, like I do.) I really love the way their goals feature works: once you’ve set a goal, the program gives you support and reminders as you work toward that goal. Since I frequently participate in writing challenges, I like knowing that my tool is essentially rooting for me to finish.

What I would like to change about Novlr:

Although it’s easy to outline and organize your chapters and parts, Novlr doesn’t have as many research tools built in to it, so I find that I still have to organize my research outside of Novlr. Novlr is focused on a great writing experience, but in my opinion, research is ingrained in that for many writers (especially historical fiction) and I’d love to see more integration for this in the future.

I’d also love a few more options for formatting. Novlr’s goal is to help you write efficiently, and they’ve designed their writing space to be conducive to that, but I wouldn’t mind a few more font options or the ability to make headers and whatnot. Not everything I write is fiction, so when I’m writing a journalistic article, it’d be nice to be able to continue to use Novlr but format it for a different type of piece.

Bottom line:

Novlr is deceptively simple, but you’ll quickly come to love and rely on its additional features, like writing modes, analytics, and goals.

Cost:

$10/month.


It took me a little longer to come around to trying Ulysses; it’s a hefty investment of $45 USD, and that can be hard to justify when there are cheaper programs out there. However, I was drawn to how simple it is, and I wanted a better way to write throughout the day instead of using Evernote or Google Docs. Reading their blog gave me insight into how other writers use their program, so that motivated me to give it a shot.

What I love about Ulysses:

Using Ulysses is like a digital form of a handy notebook: it takes no effort to have it open at all times, and it’s super easy to jump into a blank sheet and just start writing. As such, there’s no friction to just getting started on a new idea.

I really appreciate the minimalist design of this app. I’m inspired to write when I use Ulysses because it’s so clean. The organizational features are subtle, and you can create “libraries” to group particular documents that are part of the same project. I love being able to set a custom icon for each library. Little details like that make using programs more enjoyable.

What I would like to change about Ulysses:

I am familiar with using markdown, but I find that sometimes it disrupts my editing and revision process. For instance, using the *emphasis* markdown turns anything in italics bright blue, and when I’m reading through a document, this makes it hard for me to visualize what it will look like without that type of formatting.

Unlike Scrivener, I don’t find Ulysses to be great for research. It’s certainly good for note-taking and outlining, but it has limited options for importing documents or media. That’s not really it’s goal as a program, but it’s something to keep in mind if you are working on research-intensive books or projects.

Ulysses is an Apple-only product, so it’s not be accessible to all devices. (For example, I have a Macbook, but my desktop is a Windows machine, so I can’t move documents around from device to device. Ulysses does have an iPhone app, though, so you can sync with your smartphone.)

And lastly, I’m not too fond of backing up my projects to iCloud or to my computer itself. I always prefer being able to save versions of my projects as actual documents, not as program files. With Scrivener and Novlr, I can constantly sync my stories to my Google Drive account (and from there, I make backups again, because I am super anal about saving my work!). They do offer a kind of workaround for this, but it doesn’t export and save the actual files, and that’s a limitation for me. I find myself writing in Ulysses, and then copying and pasting my writing into a Google Doc, just in case. Overkill, I know, but something to be aware of.

Bottom line:

Ulysses is great for outlining and early drafts. The program is beautiful and distraction-free while writing. I enjoy the little details, like custom icons for each project. The markdown capabilities can be handy for copy editing, but I find it a tad distracting when doing actual revision.

Cost:

$44.99. Only available for Apple devices.


Final thoughts

In essence, all three programs are very robust. I would recommend Scrivener to writers whose projects require research, because Scrivener’s research capabilities are unparalleled. If you don’t need bells and whistles, and you own Apple devices, Ulysses is a great, unfussy platform that makes it easy to just write. Novlr is a wonderful bridge between the two: it has the formatting features I love from Scrivener, and the simplicity/minimalism of Ulysses.

I think you get the most for your money with Scrivener, and Novlr is easily worth the cost too, although it does require a monthly subscription (which can be paused at any time). Ulysses costs the same as Scrivener, and the thoughtful design and functionality justifies the amount, but if you need more planning and outlining features, you may find that it doesn’t offer enough. However, for writing alone, it’s perfect.

If you have to choose just one, I’d recommend Novlr. It’s browser-based, so it works on any device, and it’s easy to save backups to popular cloud services. They are adding new features all the time, and the writer analytics are a fun way to learn more about who you are as a writer. Their goal feature is helpful and encouraging for staying on track.

All three programs offer trials, so you have nothing to lose if you want to try them out.

Regardless of what program you use, it should inspire you to be a better writer. You’ll be spending a lot of time with whatever tool you use, so you might as well find one that you love!

How to prepare for National Novel Writing Month

October is quickly coming to an end! I don't know about you, but I feel like this month flew by. And while I'm bummed that my favorite holiday, Halloween, will be over soon, I'm really excited about November, because it's National Novel Writing Month! (NaNoWriMo, for short.)

This year, I am dedicating November to writing a historical fiction novel. To make my month of writing easier, I'm spending this week outlining my book and doing some research. Here's how you can prepare for November writing: 

Pick your writing tool

A writing tool can make or break your writing experience! You may prefer good ol' tools like journals or typewriters, but I think most writers these days prefer a digital word processor. Here are a few I recommend:

+ Novlr

Novlr is a book writing tool that I absolutely love. Their interface is minimalistic, and it's easy to create new chapters or new books. Each novel you create also has a section for taking notes; I use this for organizing my research, writing my outline, and documenting character/place descriptions. It costs $10/mo, but automatically stores all of your writing in the cloud (you can sync it with Dropbox or Google Drive) so you never have to worry about losing your writing. One of my favorite features is their analytics, which shows me how many words I've written that day and what my writing preferences are (I like to write in the evenings, for instance). 

+ Google Docs

If you want a free option, Google Docs is also an excellent free tool that I use every single day. Docs are automatically stored in their cloud, which again alleviates the fear of losing your story (every writer's worst nightmare!). Use their comment tool to make edits as you go without having to delete things entirely from your story. 

+ Scrivener

Many of my writer friends are diehard Scrivener fans. Scrivener is writing software that helps you organize and complete your writing. It's a bit more technical than the other tools I've shared, but it's excellent for longform writing. You can download a free trial to give it a shot. Scrivener Coach is a great resource to learn how to use this tool to the fullest. 

Create your outline

Even a book with a simple narrative still needs a good outline to ensure continuity. An outline will help you set goals. If you're not sure about what's going to happen yet during a part of your book, your outline may help you think this through. Your outline may look like this (this is actually part of my outline for the book I'm writing!):

Outline for The Red Violin

Prologue
Plot: Introduce Julia and Daniel
Time: Present day (2016) 
Location: Reno, Nevada

Part 1
Plot: Introduce Lidiya, who meets Dmitri
Time: November 1941
Location: Leningrad, Russia

And so on. Your outline is like a storyboard: an overview of what happens, who it happens to, and how it happens. 

Do your research

The challenge of NaNoWriMo is to write a whole novel, start to finish, in one month. But if your story requires some research, such as historical research, there's no harm in doing some of that this week. Compile photographs, documents, audio clips, and notes that you can reference as you write. Add your notes to whatever writing tool you choose to use, and annotate them so that you know where in your story you want to incorporate this information.

If you're new to writing historical fiction, you'll enjoy my mini course, Researching Your Historical Novel. Because of NaNoWriMo, it's just $5, and comes with a worksheet that will help you organize your research and your story. 

Happy writing!

Creating your family narrative

In honor of my new e-course launch, Genealogy 101, I thought I'd give you a sneak peek into a small part of this course: creating your family narrative. 

People do genealogy research to learn more about their family, their culture, their heritage, and their identity. In the genealogy community, I see a lot of focus on filling in the branches of a family tree. And that's certainly important, but it's not the end-all-be-all of genealogy. It can also cause discouragement when you can't piece together all of the puzzle pieces. Instead, I encourage genealogists to focus on writing a family narrative. 

What is a family narrative?

A family narrative is a creative interpretation of a person's life. This can take the form of a memoir or biography, in which facts are elaborated on with speculation or relevant details. Or this may be more in the realm of historical fiction, where you would use what you know about this person to craft a story. Research is the first step for this: the goal is to contextualize an ancestor, and that still needs to be rooted in real details and facts about their life. Knowing when they were born or where they lived can help you delve into the history of that place and time. 

Why is this important?

To truly understand more about who our family is and was, it's important to think about context. Without talking to the actual person, narrative is a way to think about life from their perspective. The more details you have, the richer your narrative will be. A narrative is also a great teaching tool. Think of parables, fairytales and campfire stories; these types of storytelling continue to be used to pass down stories and information from one generation to another. 

A family narrative doesn't have to be long or complicated. You don't have to be a skilled writer to do it. It's a fun way for you to delve into a moment in history that, in some way, helped shape who you are. To get started, grab a notebook, and use these prompts as a guide. 

Start your family narrative by following along with these writing prompts:

  • Who is your narrative about?
  • When and where were they born?
  • What are some notable world events during this era that may have impacted their life? (Tip: Think about wars, inventions, technological advancements)
  • What are personal challenges this person may have faced because of their identity?
  • What kind of food do you think this person may have cooked or eaten?
  • What kind of music may this person have heard or liked?
  • Who may have been important people in this person’s life?
  • Think about this person at age 16, or age 32, or age 50. What may have changed about the world that impacted their life at different ages?
Want to learn more about your family history? Register now for Genealogy 101.