Friday, April 21, 2017

Plotting: Historical Fiction with Real or Fictional Characters

Release Date: July 1, 2017

To write a story of a real historical person is quite different than writing a novel of a fictional character. These two types of historical fiction travel in parallel plottings (for lack of a better word). Their twains rarely meet.

I’ve done both. Each type has its own challenges. With the real person, you know how the story will end. With fictional characters, you must face a stiff challenge to find a good plot with a satisfying ending. 

Oh, you can insert a real person in a fictional protagonist’s world, but that’s not the same. You are only showing a vignette of the real to give your protagonist more dimension. 

The storyline of a real person follows a person’s life. The plot must center around what that person did with his/her life, their mistakes that affected their well-being and that of their family members. Because we are following a real person, his/her actions create the plot.

The storyline of fictional characters are affected by historical events and how they manage through these events. The author must create a plot that will keep the reader interested. To do both of these, the research must be correct. 

When I begin a new project, I dive into a plethora of data. Since my expertise is one tiny decade in the 17th century, and Pillars of Avalon takes place between London England & Ferryland Newfoundland/Labrador during the period of 1628 and 1675, my latest WIP (of real people) required a great deal of research. 

Then, I know a lot of shopkeepers in the 1660’s London but knew nothing of the sack trade (trading fish for goods). I had studied ships of sail and how they were built and sailed upon the sea, but little of fishing boats plying upon the grand banks off Newfoundland. The mansion Calvert had built in Ferryland, NL is now an archeological dig. There are some letters that describe the old mansion but little else. 

As a result I had to research almost every sentence, slog through published books from the mid-17th century to today. I ran into duplication, brazen verbatim copies of original books, data that did not coincide with the rest, as if that author did not like history and tried to change it. My co-author, Jude Pittman, helped me through this immense amount of data. 

Keeping data organized:

  • As I run across good data for the storyline, I make notes on the manuscript per year, adding where to find the data. When I use the data, I strike through the sentence or paragraph. Later I remove this note and put into an archive document, just in case I must refer to it again. 
  • For hard books, I insert post-its on the pages that are important, with a small comment or two. 
  • I rarely use wikipedia but hard sources. 
  • When I run into a pdf file book, I read through it and on a word document, make notes attributing the event per the pdf page number. (PDF book pages are always different from the PDF page numbers.)
  • I use links from museums and newspapers.
  • And I write notes on paper that will fit in a 3-ring binder. These notes keep me right on names, the color of eyes and hair, where my people lived in London. This data also helps from duplicating names and characterizations from past or future stories. These pages are referred to until the paper starts crinkling.  

And that’s how I plot.


  1. Your research is amazing, and so are your characterizations, fictional or real.

  2. As always, fascinating. I was happy to see how you deal with books in PDF, especially those with restrictions on copying. From now on, I will use your system to keep track of interesting info in a word file, with page numbers. Why didn't I think of that myself? :-)

  3. and your attention to detail it shows--

  4. No wonder your books are such a pleasure to read! All that research shows.