AMERICAN HISTORICAL NOVELS discussion

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How to Get the Details Down When Writing Historical Fiction: Watch a lot of TV!

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message 1: by Michelle (new)

Michelle Cox | 122 comments Hello! Today I'm going to be talking about how to use quality period dramas or movies to help in writing historical fiction.

Below is an excerpt from an article “Taking the Mystery out of Writing History” that I wrote for Writers Digest and which I feel is worth revisiting for this week’s discussion:

“Watching a lot of TV” sounds counter-intuitive to a post about writing, but much can be learned by simply watching good period drama. Something along the lines of Downton Abbey; Poldark; Grantchester; Upstairs, Downstairs; The Paradise; Mr. Selfridge; Call the Midwife; Foyle’s War; Miss Fischer’s Murder Mysteries; Dr. Blake; Father Brown—you get the picture. (No pun intended!)

Watching a quality production is worth a lot of research time. This is a great way to train your ear to dialogue. Really listen to not just what they say, but how they say it. Look at the clothing, the hairstyles and the background set. Whatever catches your eye has been put there for a reason.

Use this same technique when planting details in your story. They should be scattered about enough to give your piece flavor, but not overpower it. The smoky haze in the pub; the cracked china cup in the cottage; the thin, gray, balling sweater that the heroine pulls tighter in the drafty barn; the lace curtains floating in the breeze in the back kitchen. All these are great details that your eye picks up and stores, adding to the richness of your viewing pleasure. Copy this!

Likewise, watching any well-crafted drama, period or otherwise, can help you in writing any sort of fiction, not just historical. It can immensely help your sense of PACING. A TV or film production only has so many minutes to convey the story, so every scene absolutely has to have a purpose and the story has to move along in a timely manner. Mastering this sort of selectivity is key to writing an engaging, successful novel.

I’d love to hear what your favorite period dramas or movies are. Always on the lookout for new ones— you know . . . to help me with my writing!


message 2: by Laurel (new)

Laurel (ldhuber) | 27 comments What a fun way to research - and important stuff about details and pacing. Thank you Michelle!


message 3: by Michelle (new)

Michelle Cox | 122 comments You're welcome, Laurel. What has been your biggest research method?


message 4: by Martha (new)

Martha Conway | 255 comments Mod
You know, I often watch period pieces to get an idea of clothing, but I don't necessarily take notes on the language. That's a really good tip. All of these tips are good, actually. :)

My problem is that I love English period pieces but the American ones often feel a bit preachy. And then I wonder: but did they wear the same things in 19th century Ohio as they did in London? (Answer: no!). Maybe I should watch American historical pieces and just skip the preachy bits. Hmm...

Here's a question I have: do you think that the writing teams, in general, do their due diligence in terms of research?


message 5: by Michelle (new)

Michelle Cox | 122 comments Martha wrote: "You know, I often watch period pieces to get an idea of clothing, but I don't necessarily take notes on the language. That's a really good tip. All of these tips are good, actually. :)

My problem ..."


So much to comment on here, Martha! Being married to a Brit and being an anglophile before that, I think I've watched every British period drama ever made. Well, maybe not all, but close! I haven't noticed American ones being overly preachy, but maybe because I have seen fewer of those...

As for language, if I'm being perfectly honest, I think my dialogue in my series sounds much too British/aristocratic, except for the thugs/poor people - they "sound" very Chicago. That's why the 3rd book in the series was a dream to write because Clive and Henrietta travel to England for their honeymoon. No one has dinged me for sounding too British in the series, however, because I think to most ears it just sounds "old-fashioned."

I do think some period dramas are better than others (British and American) in terms of language and details. I don't know if you've ever watched Ripper Street, but I the language in that one is jarring. I think they are trying to speak as though they are actually Victorian, though I'm not sure how accurate it is. It's very strange phrasing and word usage. The syntax is sort of all messed up. That's a perfect example of how something can be accurate but sound "wrong" to a modern audience.

And as far as your last question goes, I think it depends. I think some writing teams are better than others. I've noticed that for many period dramas, season 1 is really accurate, and then season 2 and 3, etc. (maybe because the writers are rushed) have more dialogue errors.

The thing I seem to pick up on the most in watching period dramas are mannerisms and dialogue. Fashion references I get from a big book I own on the history of fashion because it includes verbage to describe the items. I can be stunned by costumes in a period drama, but hopeless at trying to describe it.

Thanks so much for the great questions! They were fun to answer!


message 6: by Angela (new)

Angela Sanford | 82 comments Miss Fischer's Murder Mysteries, Downtown Abbey, Hercule Poirot Mysteries, and Miss Marple Mysteries. I could go on forever. I honestly think the British Shows have a more realistic feel then the American ones. I liked The Tudors also.


message 7: by Angela (new)

Angela Sanford | 82 comments I found a great mini series called Wolf Hall on Amazon that was originally broadcasted by BBC. It is about the rapid rise to power of Thomas Cromwell in the court of Henry VIII. The White Queen is also a great series based off of Phillipa Gregory's book. BBC 's adaptions of Pride & Prejudice and Jane Eyre are great also. I told you I can go on and on about British TV. I am so excited to get your books. Pay day can't get here fast enough. Thank you for talking about a subject that is close to my heart.


message 8: by Michelle (new)

Michelle Cox | 122 comments Angela wrote: "Miss Fischer's Murder Mysteries, Downtown Abbey, Hercule Poirot Mysteries, and Miss Marple Mysteries. I could go on forever. I honestly think the British Shows have a more realistic feel then the A..."

I am definitely a big fan of Miss Fischer and Downton Abbey, of course! Haven't watched all the Hercule Poirot or Miss Marple yet. Some of my favorites are Grantchester and Endeavor. Watching Poldark and Dr. Blake right now. Also loved The Paradise and Mr. Selfridge. I agree - the British ones tend to be better produced. Maybe it's the accents? I didn't like Murdoch Mysteries (filmed in Canada) because it just seemed too clean and sunny. Ha!


message 9: by Michelle (new)

Michelle Cox | 122 comments Angela wrote: "I found a great mini series called Wolf Hall on Amazon that was originally broadcasted by BBC. It is about the rapid rise to power of Thomas Cromwell in the court of Henry VIII. The White Queen is ..."

Loved Wolf Hall and the White Queen. Haven't yet tried the Tudors. Heard it was pretty gratuitous, but still...
Pride and Prejudice is probably one of my all time favorite movies, but I much prefer the Keira Knightley/Matthew MacFadyen version! How about you?


message 10: by Debbie (new)

Debbie | 78 comments I like Vikings and Outlander.


message 11: by Michelle (new)

Michelle Cox | 122 comments Yes! I forgot about Vikings! I think I only saw season 1. I tried to watch Outlander, but stopped a few episodes in, as I thought it was straying too much from the book....but maybe it gets better?

Also forgot about Call the Midwife and the The Last Kingdom!


message 12: by Angela (new)

Angela Sanford | 82 comments I absolutely love Pride & Prejudice, in fact, that was the first book that I read in School, that gave me the love of reading. I agree that the Keira Knightly and Matthew McFadyen version was my favorite also💖


message 13: by Angela (new)

Angela Sanford | 82 comments I read The Outlander series before I started watching it on TV. If I watch a series and try to read the books at the same time, I tend to pick the show apart and I can't enjoy it. I love to watch Outlander now. As far as The Tudors, it is true that it is gratuitous but, in all fairness, I believe they tried to make it as realistic as they could.


message 14: by Michelle (new)

Michelle Cox | 122 comments Angela wrote: "I absolutely love Pride & Prejudice, in fact, that was the first book that I read in School, that gave me the love of reading. I agree that the Keira Knightly and Matthew McFadyen version was my fa..."

Whoo-hoo! Friends forever!


message 15: by Michelle (new)

Michelle Cox | 122 comments Angela wrote: "I read The Outlander series before I started watching it on TV. If I watch a series and try to read the books at the same time, I tend to pick the show apart and I can't enjoy it. I love to watch O..."

My mom read the whole series, and she said they get better as they go along, so maybe I should give it another try. I stopped after the first one. And you're probably right about The Tudors in terms of trying to make it accurate!


message 16: by Martha (new)

Martha Conway | 255 comments Mod
Michelle wrote: The thing I seem to pick up on the most in watching period dramas are mannerisms and dialogue...

I think you've hit the nail on the head when you point out that overly realistic Victorian dialogue can be problematic, too. If a reader is too conscious of the language, that interrupts the story dream. So the trick is to try to make it real without being too real, if you know what I mean.

Your attention to mannerisms is wonderful. That's something I'd like to include more of in my work. It's a good way of reminding the reader of the character's physical presence.


message 17: by Martha (new)

Martha Conway | 255 comments Mod
Angela wrote: "I read The Outlander series before I started watching it on TV. If I watch a series and try to read the books at the same time, I tend to pick the show apart and I can't enjoy it. I love to watch O..."

The thing that I noticed about The Outlander series (I've only watched the first season) is that in the books Jamie talks so much, reveals so much about himself, which for me is part of the romantic pull. In the series, they rely mostly on his good looks — which are considerable! — to do the job. It made me think about how dialogue is so important to romance.


message 18: by Michelle (last edited Aug 31, 2018 09:50AM) (new)

Michelle Cox | 122 comments Martha wrote: "Michelle wrote: The thing I seem to pick up on the most in watching period dramas are mannerisms and dialogue...

I think you've hit the nail on the head when you point out that overly realistic V..."


Exactly! I've written in other articles/posts that perception is key with dialogue. Like my example of the phrase "hang out" which sounds very modern, but actually dates from the 1800's and was used in the same context that we use it now. But using "hang out" in a historical fiction novel is going to jar the reader. So to me, a book on etymology is kind of pointless. It doesn't matter if you can prove a word or phrase is actually old, if it doesn't sound old to a reader than they will discount your writing as sloppy.

And thanks for the nice compliment about my use of mannerisms! I do tend to use them a lot because it makes the scene very visual to the reader, and so they see it as they would a film.


message 19: by Angela (new)

Angela Sanford | 82 comments That is very true Martha. I know when Outlander was made into a TV Series, they have downplayed Jamie based on his knowledge and how he carries himself. It is more about his Sex appeal and his good looks. You know how the saying goes, "Sex Sells". In my opinion, I would like to see the Jamie that is portrayed in the book.


message 20: by Michelle (new)

Michelle Cox | 122 comments Martha wrote: "Angela wrote: "I read The Outlander series before I started watching it on TV. If I watch a series and try to read the books at the same time, I tend to pick the show apart and I can't enjoy it. I ..."

Yeah, I'm probably going to get bashed here, but I'm not a huge Outlander fan. I could say a lot, but I won't!

Instead, I'll comment on your observation about dialogue being so important in Romance. Also the subtly of movement in those scenes is very key - at least in books. They are so hard to write, aren't they? Actually, I find action scenes where characters are punching each other more difficult to write....but that's another subject, and luckily I have few of those!

Anyway - Thanks, Martha, for your awesome questions and insight and for asking me to host. It's been a great experience!


message 21: by Kari (new)

Kari (karibovee) | 98 comments Mod
Michelle, we read the same books and watch the same television shows! I find so much inspiration for my writing in all of the period dramas you've mentioned. It's so easy to get lost in the stories, I have to be careful not to binge watch!!


message 22: by Michelle (new)

Michelle Cox | 122 comments Kari wrote: "Michelle, we read the same books and watch the same television shows! I find so much inspiration for my writing in all of the period dramas you've mentioned. It's so easy to get lost in the stories..."

That's so cool, Kari! I see you're going to be at Bouchercon!! Maybe we could meet up and compare notes in person. How cool! Also - are you going to the SWP/SparkPress retreat in November?


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