Friday, August 12, 2011

Welcome Guest Blogger Sandra Byrd

Writing Historicals Without Getting Into a Jam
by Sandra Byrd

I'm a history lover, an avid reader, and an experienced novelist, so writing books set back in time should be as easy as plucking ripe berries, right? Or so thought I, the inexperienced, fresh-faced new historical novelist, just a few years back. I recently spent some time in my garden pruning my fruiting, fragrant blackberry brambles and it occurred to me that effort was similar to the shaping of my books. Too few historical facts may allow for a clean, straight plot but will leave a book barren of the delights we hope to indulge in when reading stories set in the past. Too many historical facts can overtake the story itself, tangling us in their sweet details, but sometimes losing the plot altogether. Errors in fact or chronology can be herbicides, killing off interest in the work altogether for those readers already well-read in an era. In the interest of helping others cultivate, prune, and order the details, I offer four tips discovered along the path.

1. Read a variety of nonfiction sources before beginning your work. You'll naturally gravitate toward biographers who view your subject in the same light you do, but some of the best facts might be gleaned from those viewing your historical character from the opposite point of view. When writing my book, To Die For, I relied on Eric Ives as Anne Boleyn's principle biographer. He, like I, took an honest but sympathetic view of Anne. I also looked at historians who viewed her in a less lovely light. This helped me to get a well-rounded picture of her as well as understand the points of view of those readers who didn't hold Anne in affection. If I were to win them over with my fiction, I'd need to address their presuppositions and concerns head on.

I also relied on books long out of print but recently made available in formats pulled together by self publishers and academic articles, most often found on or I found a 1964 biography on Thomas Wyatt just this way. Local universities will often offer assistance to in securing academic articles through JSTOR if you explain to them what you're doing.

2. Highlight each principle book you read and then place all material on one chronological outline. I often take my research books to an office supply store, have them chop off the spines, and then coil bind the books for me. This makes turning pages to highlight much more comfortable. Afterward, you can type these notes onto a chronological outline, or have an assistant do it for you. When you go to write the book you will have all events that you deemed important (by your highlighting) on one chronological document. Not only will this help you keep your facts straight, the facts themselves will suggest plot and subplots nuances to you. Who doesn't need help with that?

3. Consider retaining the services of an historical research assistant. I did - and she was invaluable. The historian I engaged is pursuing a PhD in historical studies and has access to a large base of information, as well as an easy facility with the time period in which I am writing. A flat document or a biography can't tell you if a plot twist is appropriate for the era, nor help you make corrections in titles, styles, language, or clothing. She can help you field odd questions and has invariably read more in the period than you have. This helps you correct wrong assumptions or avoid duplicating angles already well covered. A research assistant can be found by contacting a local university, a careful examination of forums or Facebook common interest groups, or asking friends. Something you'd like to consider? Click here to email Lauren Mackay.

4. Visit virtually. A trip to your locale is wonderful, but if you can't make it there (and even if you do) don't forget some out of the way sources for photos to help you envision your characters' lives. One great source is, a compilation of photos by high-quality, amateur photographers. Another source I used was Pictures of England. I contacted some of the photographers afterward to ask permission for the Castles and Palaces page on my website, and they readily agreed. The photos are stunning, better than any commercial ones I've seen, and best of all, they were free!

Win! Please check out my website, then join me on Facebook and twitter (links on site). To win a signed copy of my new book, To Die For, (2 giveaways offered) please sign up to receive my e-postcards and then visit the Castles and Palaces section of my website and tell me which is your favorite photo!

About my new series: A rich alchemy of fact and fiction, the Ladies in Waiting series chronicles the glittering court lives of three Tudor Queens and the women chosen to be their closest friends and companions. Each book envelopes the reader in sweeping romance, heartwarming and heartbreaking circumstances, and heroines who choose lives worth risking all for.


  1. Line up. The coffee's ready.

    Some good advice here. Thank you so much.


  2. Sandra!!!

    I devoured To Die For and want to read it again, but slowly this time, to savor just those things you mention here.

    Thank you for writing it. Like many others, I had a flat view of the various "characters" but you breathed life into them and introduced me to a world I'd not fully realized. And though I knew somewhat how it would end, it was a pleasure to see how you got there.

    I continue to learn so much for you. Thank you for being my mentor and my friend. And May the K9 Spy, mascot of Seekerville, thanks you TOO!!!

    Don't enter me for the giveaway today. Thanks!!!

    (and for the coffee Helen!)

  3. Hello Sandra,

    This sounds like a wonderful book and I would like to read it.
    While all the Palaces and Castles are exquisite. I especially love the "exterior hallway" in the Hampton Court Palace.

    Please enter me in the draw:
    janet(underslash)kerr (at)msn (dot) com

    Thanks so much,

  4. Hi Sandra:

    I read and loved your YA, “Don’t Kiss Him Good-bye”. It was an absolute page-turner. It seemed to me that almost every page contained an anticipatory event, AE, (something that makes the reader want to read ahead to find the answer to as fast as possible). Sometimes the answer to these events were just a page or two away.

    For example, the heroine wouldn’t simply meet a new girl. No. She would first hear that a new girl was coming to work at the newspaper. Then she would worry if that new girl would get her job at the paper. Then she would worry if the new girl would be a friend or enemy. She worried if her mother would be invited to a party or be snubbed; her sister seemed to have a secret, the one boy she was attracted to might be a bad guy; she just didn’t have a column at the school paper, it had to be kept secret; but someone knew the secret and threatened to reveal it; would she be exposed? It just seemed like everything that happened created more things you just had to read ahead to find the answer to!

    I just had to read the book in one sitting.

    Do you have any comments on this observation and do you use AE's in your historical books?


    P.S. I won the last time you were here.

  5. What a beautiful photo to go with your beautiful book cover! This isn't an area I would ever choose off the shelf, but the way you described it sounds fun. Especially with the shitorical facts well researched. I think the research assistant is GREAT! I want one for Christmas!!

  6. I love Allington's castle, but the grounds of Hever's. Oh my I love castles, one day, I'm going on a castle tour! So so want to so so badly! :)

    Your book sounds wonderful, I hope I win, plus I signed up for the kindle! My grandma is blind and last weekend I was showing her how mine read books that she can't get from the library of the blind. She's planning to save for one, but it would be more fun to win it for her. I didn't see when you draw for that.

  7. This comment has been removed by the author.

  8. *ahem* Excuse me as I try out my new profile, per yesterday's post! I bring homemade oatmeal cranberry cookies as consolation for posting twice. :D

  9. Great post. I love love the cover Sandra.
    I think I'll be re reading this when I'm home.

    Are any of my fellow Seeker groupies at the GPCWC?

    greetings from Philly. So what's this about May being the mascot?

  10. Deb, you're in Philly??? Without me??? I love me some Philadelphia Freedom, girlfriend! Two of my boys went to college there and I think I know the streets of Philly better than Rochester.

    Sandra, thank you for being in Seekerville today. Lovely, lovely cover. And I bet your assistant totally rocked the idea of having a paying gig. College students need that glimmer of hope!

    And I'm gobbling those cranberry oatmeal bits of deliciousness. Oh my stars, they're awesome!!!!

    Helen, coffee is To Die For (little joke there) as usual. Thank you my friend!

  11. Welcome to Seekerville, Sandra.

    Wow you make writing historicals sound doable for even a contemp gal like me.

  12. Debra, Philly in the summer. Hot, hot, hot. Pat Jeanne is from Philly.

  13. Sandra,

    I have to add my name to the list of those loving the cover of TO DIE FOR. And I love the era and place in history your chose. It's always been a favorite. Seems like a little bit of anything and everything was going on behind castle walls and in royal courts.

    The idea of finding a historical assistant is fantastic! I know I would have jumped at the chance in college. It benefits you with your writing and gives them practical research experience.

    Thank you for the great advice! Please enter me for a chance to win TO DIE FOR.


  14. Welcome to Seekerville, Sandra! I write inspirational historical romances but have never written the story of an historical figure. Thanks for tips on getting the details right. To Die For sounds fabulous! Love the cover!

    Thanks for the coffee, Helen.


  15. Loves 2 Read Romance - LauraAugust 12, 2011 at 9:06 AM

    What great advice Sandra. I love historical novels and appreciate all the hard work authors put into the stories to make them historically accurate. Your series sounds great I am going to have to look into getting it.

  16. Welcome Sandra!
    I look at earlier drafts of my first chapter and cringe. A rookie mistake of wanting to include everything I'd learned about the time period, but craft study and writer's blogs taught me my novel is not the place to show off ALL that research. =)
    Balance is a beautiful thing.
    So is your cover, by the way.
    I've noticed many covers the last few years, especially historical romance are 'half-cuts' of faces.
    As in, the faces bleed off the cover or are at angles that show one side, often thinly.
    Has anyone else noticed this? Or speculate on why that's done?

  17. Hi Sandra,

    Thanks for all the great information! I love history, but I get lost in the details - either I want to tell too many of them to my readers, or I assume they know too much already. You gave some great suggestions to help keep me in line as I write.

    Enjoyed your website and your blog, too - I'll have to go back and visit some more.

    I'd love to win your book - and I'll have to find the others to read, too!


  18. Sandra, welcome! And thanks for this great info. I'm not a historical writer, but I sure love reading it. So who knows? Maybe someday I'll try my hand at it! :)

    I love your new cover!!

  19. Way to go, Virginia! So glad to see the new profile. :)

  20. Welcome to Seekerville Sandra,

    Love your name. smile

    You have a research assistant? I want one. I want one. l
    What a terrific idea. I know that there are many people out there who love to talk about their field of interest and end up being a great help.

    And your book sounds really interesting. The cover is wonderful. Thanks for sharing your research hints. I'm copying them down as I'm currently working on my first historical.

    Virginia, the oatmeal cookies were yummy with my coffee.

  21. Virginia, LOVE THE PIC!!!!

    Stylin'. Contemp. Rockin'.


    And that's an interesting point about historical covers, Nancy... As if less is more. Using and applying the imagination, caught in mid-step.

    Nice observation. Um, with that observation did you think to bring FOOD????

    Because I'm hungry.

  22. Very interesting post! Thanks for sharing your tips on writing historical novels. How long did it take you from starting your research to finishing the book?

  23. Hi all! Thanks so much for inviting me back to your living room. Or, since the weather is so nice, to your back patio! I'm thrilled to read each and every comment.

    Good to see you again, Vince. Yes, I do use AE pretty often, though more with tweens and teens than adults. I am, however, a tension addict, so I try to make sure that each page and chapter has plot tension. Thanks for asking!

    Melissa, the drawing will be held, likely, by early December. A kindle would be great for your grandma!

    I wouldn't mind one of those cookies, Virginia! :)

    Nancy, it's my understanding that the half faces or turned away faces are used to represent people whose portraits are well known so as not to contradict with their "actual" visage.

    I would encourage you all to click through to my research assistant's site,
    She works in many time periods, has found me documents I couldn't get a hold of, and as a post graduate student is just highly facile in many time periods. She even helps brainstorm time appropriate plot elements, and edits language for the period when I need it. And she's not expensive. Wonderful!

    Okay, off to get my coffee. Will check back soon!

  24. Your new series sounds intriguing! Going on my list :D.

    I'm researching [for my contemp no less ;)] by going to a Civil War reenactment later today [if the weather holds :D]. Windows were rattling last night from the cannon fire.

    Off to the website...

    I like Hampton Court Palace best. All of them.

    I want my own castle. Or at least that tour like Melissa :D.

    Hit Facebook and Twitter and signed up for postcards.

    Would love to win :D.

    carolmoncado at gmail dot com

  25. I sure didn't Ruthie... how rude of me, and on a day we have a guest blogger.

    How about some of my leftover birthday cake from yesterday? ;-)
    Strawberry with strawberry icing homemade by my dad, whose sixty two years young! Well... Dad and Betty Crocker haha.

    Sandra, that makes a lot of sense.
    Ruthie, I see your point and agree, I think it enhances the mystery. If nothing else I think it automatically catches my eye because how often do you see half a face or a head? It for sure contributes to the "pick up or click on" factor I think. At least until it's been exhausted, like the bare chested male models. I'm so used to that on covers I almost don't even register it anymore.

  26. Sandra,
    I've wanted to get my hands on this book ever since I heard about it.

    AFter reading In the Shadow of Lions by Ginger Garrett - and now reading Anne Boleyn by Joanna Denny, I've felt gravitated toward this woman's story (and the perilous world around her)

    Oh what a delight to learn the creativity behind the creation. Thanks for sharing thses tips.

    Off to FB and Twitter :-)

  27. Great advice, Sandra - - thank you so much for sharing with us today. And I always enjoy seeing your e-postcards in my inbox and reading your latest news! ~ Historical fiction is my FAVORITE (to read AND write) so I really appreciated these tips.
    Blessings from Georgia,
    Patti Jo :)

  28. Your book cover is deliciously inviting, Sandra! I need to read it!!!

    I agree that reading nonfiction works about your time period can really help make your story better. I always get plot ideas from my research materials, and some really juicy plot twists. That's one of the things that make historicals so much fun!

  29. Sandra, I found a guy who has a master's degree in frontier history. Did you even know there was such a thing?
    He was so interesting to talk to.
    I'm keeping him on file. :)

  30. Hello Sandra. Your post on writing historicals and the five points to help us historical writers is one I'll keep. It's full of useful info. It was exciting to visit so many of the sites in England that are part of the setting for my WWII story. Your book To Die For sounds fantastic. I love the cover. I did visit the Tower of London and stood on the very spot where Anne Boleyn was executed. It makes me shudder to think of this. History did come alive for me then, too.
    Hi, Debra. So your at the GPCWC in Langhorne outside of Philly. Been praying for Marlene Bagnull, the director, and the rest of you there today. It's a great conference and the ground of Biblical Univ. are beautiful. Well, maybe next year.
    Pat in Philly

  31. Just signed up for your e-card :o)

    Allington Castle is my favorite. Have you been to all of these? I would LOVE to go to a castle one of these days.

    Good advice on writing historical fiction. Thank you for sharing! :o)

  32. Oh. Looks like a super good book :) Going to have to look up those giveaways :)

  33. Sandra,

    I know it's been said all ready but I love your cover! Just beautiful.

    Thanks for the good advice.

  34. Sandra,

    So good to have you with us on Seekerville. Loved the info about hiring an historical assistant.

    Great cover!

  35. Wonderful tips! My biggest fear is messing up historical details. Thank you!

  36. Thank you, all, for inviting me and then stopping by, and for taking time to browse through my website. I have been to many of the castles listed, though not inside Allington.

    I hope you'll consider reading To Die For. Many books, beckon, I know! Have a terrific weekend ...


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