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Writing Workshop Blog: Details Up Close and Historical

Examining the details writing believable historical fiction.

SEPTEMBER 25, 2012: After announcing the winner of last week’s “Another Thing” challenge (best-selling diet book for dogs—Lose the Pounds) and sharing this week’s question (name the first prehistoric toothpaste), I introduced a new tool to the writing workshop: the Private Eye loupe. (www.the-private-eye.com)

I gave each participant one jeweler’s loupe and asked them to choose an item from my collection of seed pods, rocks, shells, and other natural treasures. They needed to examine their object through the loupe and generate five to ten answers to the questions, “What else does it remind you of?” and “What else does it look like?”

A piece of driftwood looked like a totem pole, a knot, and a fingerprint. A butterfly wing reminded another person of paint on a thin canvas. Another, looking at a piece of sand dollar, saw the holes made by nuts falling in the snow. Everyone was intrigued by what they could see, and their notes can be used later for poems or images in a story.

From there we moved to a discussion of the details writers must know about a historical period when writing a piece of historical fiction. I shared excerpts from The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate, The Witch of Blackbird Pond, and The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place: the Unseen Guest and asked everyone to think as they listened to the kinds of information the writers would have needed to learn in order to create those scenes. The group isolated details about geography, fashion, architecture, sailing, class, weather, and work.

I gave everyone a character questionnaire to begin fashioning a main character for a short story. Each writer settled quickly into a time and place of interest and began asking questions about the unknown details: at what age would the daughter of a lord get married in medieval England? Where would a family moving west settle at the beginning of the period of Western expansion? What was happening in Philadelphia in 1875?

Several people began thinking of books they could bring for reference. We will work on these stories for the next three or four weeks. Homework is to return next week with completed questionnaires and any reference materials that could be useful to the group. The periods and settings for the stories started include: Elizabethan and medieval England, 1875 Philadelphia, 1903 New York, settlers moving west in the mid-1800s, and Irish immigration as a result of the Potato Famine.

-- Paige

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