Thursday, October 27, 2011

What? Who are you to write a historical novel?

It's a good thing I didn't ask myself this when I started to write The Sailor and The Carpenter.

So, why did I?

I've read historical novels for as long as I can remember. Egypt. Greece. Rome. Feudal times. The Renaissance. The United States. The Indian wars. My all-time favorites were the Horatio Hornblower novels by C.S  Forester. I think I read every single one of them before I reached my teens. I literally haunted the Los Angeles County public libraries.

But, does that make me qualified to write one? Well, I sure as heck don't have any impressive scholastic qualifications – my college education is comprised of some classes at community colleges during my latter years in the army.

I'd written and finished the non-fiction book about gambling in Las Vegas from my years as a professional slot machine player. I then put my hand to the one about terror on The Strip from my time driving a Yellow Cab. Then, just because the idea came to me, I wrote the science fiction/fantasy novel set some time between the Romans and the invasion of Britain, complete with a wizard, dragons and other monsters – something else I read a lot of in my youth. And then, I wrote the “epic” spy story based upon my years serving at the American embassy in Vienna. With those out of the way – what next?

Well, I grew up in California and remember visiting the missions there, along with hours spent hanging out in the county museum adjacent to USC. Then, when I entered the army, I was assigned to both Fort Ord and the Presidio of San Francisco. I somehow managed to visit every mission from San Diego to Solano in the Napa/Sonoma valleys. Soon after I married my wife, Alejandrina, we traveled from Mazatlan to La Paz on a car ferry and then drove north to Tijuana. I remember seeing a couple the beautiful churches along the way.

I don't know how or why I came up with the idea, but thought, “Why not write something about the founding of the missions?” I did some research, and other than the story Ramona, written in the late 1800's, there wasn't anything I could find other than dry, intellectual tomes. [I also learned that, while there was some basis in fact, there was a lot of “author's license in the story, Ramona.]

I also came up with a faint idea of writing it from the viewpoint of two boys from very different backgrounds and cultures. An Englishman and an Indian from western Mexico. Somewhere in my cache of writing material, was a character worksheet and another with about thirty things one should know when creating a character. [I think the last one came from Absolute Writer Water Cooler website.]

So, I decided to start writing. I first created Timothy, to include a biography. That brought up lot of questions. What were the times like? What kind of family would he come from? Where in England would he live? And so on. That's when I learned the most important part of writing historical fiction – search, search, and research.

The starting point of the story was already set -1767. That was when the Spanish king agreed with the French king that the Jesuits would be removed from the New World to be replaced by Franciscans and Dominicans. Why then? Because that's when Father Serra was first tasked with taking over the Jesuit missions in California.

That meant delving into the situation in England so I could put Timothy in the right state of affairs. That didn't mean I had to include it in the novel, just to have a clear idea of the times. Then, thank goodness for Google Maps. Huh? Well, if your going to write about historical times, it's a pretty good idea to locate where your character is and how he's gonna get where he's going. Then, when I got him to Plymouth and about to go aboard a ship, more questions came. What kind of ship? What would it properly be named. What did I know about 18th century ships? How were they built? What was all that nautical stuff? If he was going to be a cabin boy, what were the living and working spaces aboard the ship like. He would have to talk with the captain and crew so what would that be like? What were the names of all the stuff on the ship and what nautical language would he have to learn?

Search, search and research.

And, how would they sail from England to the shores of the far away west coast of North America? And why? Where would they land to replenish stores? What are the winds and currents like?

Search, search and research.

Now, how about my second character? The Indian boy? Who would he be. Where would he come from? What tribe or race? And a thousand questions more. [I'll deal with him in my next post.]

Well, enough of this for now. Time to start surfing the web to try to sell what I've got up on Kindle and PubIt! And to get back to work on Part II of the trilogy. More search, search and research.

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