Respecting the boundaries of your chosen genre –

2 Feb

Okay. I’ve been told I make it sound all too easy – just sit yourself in front of your computer and start typing. Whiz! Bang! Three months later you have a book.

Well, no, that isn’t exactly the way it works – especially if you’ve never written anything or don’t exactly know what it is you want to write.

Generally speaking, a person who truly wants to write a book will have been thinking of it for some time—months, even years. It’s the act of putting yourself in close contact with an instrument capable of changing your words and thoughts into the written word that establishes you as a writer. Maybe not a published author just yet, but you can’t be published until you’ve actually written something. And it has to be reasonably good, when measured by several standards.

We’ll begin by presuming you have a basic working knowledge of the language of your choice. In the US, it should be English. This doesn’t mean you couldn’t start in your native language (if not English) but at some point, you will have to convert it to English. If you’re more comfortable in another language, then you may certainly start with that one. Translation can come later.

If your book of choice is a historical novel of any variety whatever (and I’m including the various genres in that word ‘novel’ at least for now) you really, truly, need to know something about the time frame in which your story is set, as well as the geography that houses the action. It’s lovely when you can visit the actual place, even if your story may be set decades, even centuries earlier – or later, who knows? But, thanks to libraries, it’s very possible to have a workable mental image of the scene, while wandering no more than a few miles from your home.

My biggest (and continual) gripe about historical novels is that too many authors (and a good many who should know better) decide on a given time and place, because it’s a ‘popular’ choice. That doesn’t necessarily make it the best choice. Especially when said author then proceeds to use modern-day customs, speech, manners, etc., while trotting the characters around in a historic setting. It just doesn’t work.

Regency England (1811-1820) is the most popular setting for historical romance novels at the moment – followed by Medieval-Renaissance Scotland! Who knew?  Many writers cite Jane Austen as a major influence. But guess what? Jane Austen wrote contemporary fiction with a touch of satire. Yes, indeed she did! Although she lived until 1817 (within the Regency period),  she was simply writing what she observed as she looked around her.  She wrote about everyday life with a devastating wit, and the  capability of seeing beyond the outer trappings of wealth and society to find the person within.

If you really want to set your book during that time and place, then read up on it. Will and Ariel Durant’s book ‘The Age of Beethoven” is a great place to start. Investigate costume books: there are lots of wonderful ones out there – for instance John Peacock’s ‘The Chronicle of Western Costume’ will take you from ancient Egypt to about 20 years ago. In color! I never get tired of looking through that book.

There is an entire series of ‘Everyday Life in _____’  (fill in the appropriate blank for your chosen period) part of the Writer’s Guide to Everyday Life Series.

The absolute key to a successful historical novel of whatever kind is this. No matter how much you think you know about a given topic, somewhere out there in the great, wide world, will be someone (or many someones) more knowledgeable about your given topic than you are. You can absolutely take that statement to the bank. And chances are excellent, they’ll be very vociferous (and possibly vitriolic) in condemning your baby because . . .  Once such condemnation is splattered all over the web, you’ll never get it back again. You’ll probably not be able to make it go away, either. Sloppiness in this regard is the unforgivable sin.

If you want to write a mystery – there has to be a crime somewhere in there. At least it doesn’t have to happen in the first five pages. Set-up is important, but there still must be a punishable crime. Before the book is finished (even on the very last page) the perpetrator of said crime must be identified and made to see the error of his or her deed.  Certainly, you can include elements of romance or fantasy or history in your mystery novel, but don’t lose sight of the main story line. And if it’s a historical mystery – you must really do your research. For instance, don’t use fingerprints before they meant anything other than a smudge on the glass.

Romance, of course, requires a romance between two people of whatever variety. It can also have elements of mystery or fantasy or horror, but over and above all other considerations, the romance IS the plot. And don’t you forget it! Generally, once the two main protagonists meet (even if they don’t sense the attraction immediately) they may not consort with anyone else. That’s a big no-no. They may indeed have a past, and even talk about it in a non-confessional manner, but that’s in the past and that’s where it stays.

Conventions of each genre are readily available at the web-site for each of them. Last time I looked, there were roughly a dozen varieties each of romance, mystery, fantasy, western and horror tales. Do your research before writing. It’s also helpful to read. Read everything! Don’t just concentrate on your chosen field, but vary your reading enough to see what else is out there, and what authors you might like to emulate – plus those you want to avoid at all costs. There are plenty of each out there!

As always, if you have questions or comments, you may send them to me at:

Until then, happy writing!


One Response to “Respecting the boundaries of your chosen genre –”

  1. Kay Blevins February 14, 2011 at 3:13 pm #

    What a goodie! I know of no one that is immune to the bumps in the road we find on the way to something good – we just have to keep on truckin’. But such joy awaits us when we get moving again!

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