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Writing Great Historical Fiction

Writing Great Historical Fiction Guest post by Samuel Marquis


In Blackbeard: The Birth of America, Historical Fiction Author Samuel Marquis, the ninth great-grandson of Captain William Kidd, chronicles the legendary Edward Thache—former British Navy seaman and notorious privateer-turned-pirate, who lorded over the Atlantic seaboard and Caribbean during the Golden Age of Piracy. A Robin-Hood-like American patriot and the most famous freebooter of all time, Blackbeard was illegally hunted down by Virginia Governor Alexander Spotswood, the British Crown’s man in Williamsburg obsessed with his capture. This year marks the 300th anniversary of Blackbeard’s death.

Writing Great Historical Fiction Guest post by Samuel Marquis
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The story of Blackbeard the pirate is a story that has been lost to us in a “fog of legend, myth and propaganda” for three hundred years. So, when I had to recreate the world of swashbucklers for my historical fiction book Blackbeard: The Birth of America, the task before me was a daunting one: I had to tell the truth. Believe me, it wasn’t easy.

The image of Jamaican Edward Thache as a villainous cutthroat was spawned by the overactive imagination of the world’s first pirate author, Captain Charles Johnson (Nathanial Mist), who wrote A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pirates in 1724 six years after Blackbeard’s death. As Blackbeard historian Arne Bialuschewski states about the book upon which the last nearly three hundred years of pirate literature has been based: “This book has been plundered by generations of historians, despite the fact that it is riddled with errors, exaggerations, and misunderstandings.” So to get the story right in my historical recreation of Blackbeard—in other words, to portray the legendary Edward Thache of Spanish Town, Jamaica, as accurately as possible—I had not only to synthesize available records from countless primary sources from colonial archives and the most reliable modern researchers, I had to resist the temptation to indulge in the myriad Blackbeard and pirate myths that have regurgitated Captain Johnson’s handed-down tropes and permeated books like Treasure Island and Captain Blood, movies like Pirates of the Caribbean, and TV shows like Black Sails and Crossbones.

As I said, it wasn’t easy—and it won’t be easy for you in writing your historical fiction novel—but you must do it. To accurately portray your historical figures in your breakout novel that every agent and publisher will want, it is most helpful to place the actual historical figures where they physically were during a given recorded historical event and use, to the extent possible, their actual words based on case files, contemporary transcripts, trial documents, memoirs, and other quoted materials. Like Michael Shaara in his excellent historical novel about the Battle of Gettysburg, The Killer Angels, do not “consciously change any fact” or “knowingly violate the action.”

At the same time, the interpretations of character and motivation are up to you. That’s because the book’s characters are ultimately a part of your overall imaginative landscape and are, therefore, the fictitious creations of the author, reflecting your personal research interests and biases. But the scenes themselves and the historical figures should be as historically accurate as a non-fiction history book. Why, you ask? You want your story to be accurate because all the other important things—sympathetic characters, edge-of-your-seat suspense, and unexpected twists and turns—spring from portraying your beloved heroes and villains in all their glory and infamy just like the real-world, flawed historical figures they were. You also want to pass muster from history aficionados and your most demanding readers, who will pick you apart if you don’t get the details right. The bottom line is that history itself provides plenty of conflict, tension, and drama, and does not need to be consciously changed to generate more excitement. It is up to you as the author to select those scenes of historical significance and bring them back to life in vivid color, while filling in between known historical events with scenes that shed light on the historical figures’ true motivation and character.

Of course, this means that you will need to go full-method on your research. Like an overzealous Hollywood method actor who stays in character through a film’s production, when I write my books I become literally immersed in the world of WWII spies, modern intelligence officers, or pirates by reading everything I can get my hands on. To develop the story line, characters, and scenes for Blackbeard: The Birth of America, I consulted over a hundred archival materials, non-fiction books, magazine and newspaper articles, blogs, Web sites, and numerous individuals, and I visited most every real-world location in person. These principal locations included London; Bath Town, Ocracoke, Beaufort, and Charles Town in the Carolinas; Bermuda; and the Bahamas, the U.S. and British Virgin Islands, and other locations in the Caribbean. At the end of my books, I provide a full listing of all my primary sources and secondary references for readers to explore on their own, which many often do and tell me so in their book reviews.

You can do the same. Going full-method on your research helps ensure historical accuracy and that you don’t put forward an “agenda” to make your history-based works more palatable to today’s readers, a common sin of historical fiction authors. Just tell the true story, while injecting your own subtle spin on character and motivation since that is the subjective part where some degree of freedom makes sense.

What about the level of historical detail you might ask? Many so-called writing experts would have us believe that one of the most common mistakes historical fiction authors make, particularly neophytes, is to overload their books with historical details because they cannot resist the temptation to show off their research skills. Actually, I find just the opposite to be true. Many historical fiction novels, often those by major brand name authors, have too little detail and are technically wanting, or they simply contain too much detail without actually advancing the plot or having characters that captivate us. The objective, of course, is to immerse the reader in a new and exciting world, like WWII or the Golden Age of Piracy, while still propelling the plot along at a furious pace and making the reader feel as though the details are not details at all, but at the very heart of the characters and setting in which they live. The key to consistently achieving this goal is to maintain a brisk pace with ample external historical events, to create characters that are both memorable and lovable (or at least intriguingly despicable), and to construct a historical world that is absolutely authentic. If the overall pace is fast enough, and the reader loves your characters and is able to empathize with them and believe what they believe or is at least able to understand them in a deep way, she will love your book even though immersed in a world of historical jargon.

It all lies in the pacing and freshly bringing out the real historical characters and the most important events in their lives —without tampering with the truth. Thus, pacing and historical truth must go hand in hand. As WWII suspense writer Alan Furst says, “You must not bore the reader, whatever else you do.” I would add a caveat: “But in doing so, you must tell the truth.

Writing Great Historical Fiction Guest post by Samuel Marquis
The ninth great-grandson of legendary privateer Captain William Kidd, Samuel Marquis is the bestselling, award-winning author of historical pirate fiction, a World War Two Series, and the Nick Lassiter-Skyler International Espionage Series. His novels have been #1 Denver Post bestsellers, received multiple national book awards (Foreword Reviews Book of the Year, American Book Fest Best Book, USA Best Book, Beverly Hills, Next Generation Indie, Colorado Book Awards), and garnered glowing reviews from #1 bestseller James Patterson, Kirkus, and Foreword Reviews (5 Stars). Book reviewers have compared Marquis’s WWII thrillers Bodyguard of Deception and Altar of Resistance to the epic historical novels of Tom Clancy, John le CarrĂ©, Ken Follett, Herman Wouk, Daniel Silva, and Alan Furst. Mr. Marquis’s newest historical fiction novel, Blackbeard: The Birth of America, commemorates the 300th anniversary of Blackbeard’s death. His website is www.samuelmarquisbooks.com and for publicity inquiries, please contact JKS Communications at info@jkscommunications.com.

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