Thursday, April 13, 2017

Tracking details in the Historical Novel, by Kathy Fischer-Brown

cover photo by Janice Lang
This topic has been on my mind ever since I saw it some months ago on the schedule for April’s blog. It got me thinking: Am I plotter or a pantzer? For all the many years I’ve been writing for publication, I have come to see myself as a pantzer, someone who basically sees the story unfold like a mind-movie but who relies on inspiration and on the characters to tell their story. Outlines, story boards, and the like just never caught on.

Over the years I’ve read a lot about how different authors construct their novels, and I’ve tried some of their methods. I’ve used index cards and index cards in multiple colors. I even downloaded a few computer programs that claim to be “everything you need in one application to plan, plot, write, edit, keep track of characters (complete with bios and photos), convert into any number of formats, write your synopsis, and on and on. (I don’t recall if they went so far as submitting for you, but I imagine that’s not a far-fetched concept.) But for some reason, I always want to approach my stories from inside the characters.

All well and good. Every author who’s ever written a book has his or her own method of constructing their stories. In many ways, all share as many similarities as they do variances. It all boils down to getting from point A to where you want to be by the time you type “The End.”

But what about writing historical novels, which present a unique and often frustrating set of conditions? You have characters who have made themselves known—often by keeping you awake night after night while they babble on and on about their lives, loves, and aspirations; distracted by their prattle while you drive to the supermarket; offering brilliant scenes and dialogue while your dog endlessly sniffs around posts and mailboxes for messages before taking that last whiz of the night; or those genius bits of dialogue while you’re in the shower. And, even if you retain half of that of that inspired magnificence, none of it ever translates onto the page.

So, there you have your characters…dressed and accoutered in authentic garb with tidbits of their surroundings and everyday details to flesh out their lives…while actual history is happening around them. You want them to cross paths with the army sweeping down from the north, or be in a particular locale where history happened, or interact at a dinner with some luminary from the past.

How do you do it?

When writing my very first ever historical novel, I stumbled
upon a method that has worked for me ever since. I use a calendar. Back then in the days before online research sites, I managed to create a calendar of the summer of 1777 using a macro feature in an early DOS version of WordPerfect. Today, there are plenty of sites (here’s one that I like: that give you the option of generating calendars from any year, from “the year one.” In the eons since, I have found lunar and solar calendars (here’s one of my favorites: that contribute to creating scenes where the moon was full (and what time it rose and set). Through diaries from the period, I found when the weather was fine or rainy or anything in between, and I dropped that information into the calendar for a particular date, along with the historical events. So, if I wanted a character to make a trek to visit an actual historical personage on a particular evening during a full moon, I had that information right there on the calendar.

Of course, sometimes, you need to “fudge” the actual facts to coincide with the events of the book, as well as for dramatic effect. For example, in The Partisan’s Wife, I had envisioned a scene with Anne (the heroine) and her husband Peter riding in a carriage north along Bowery Lane in New York as a full moon rose over the East River. The scene was amazing to write, since, due to the number of modern high rise apartments and other buildings on the East Side of New York, I doubt many on the ground on the Bowery today have seen a sun or moon rise over the East River in over a hundred years. And anyway, the moon rise on that particular date was at around 4:00 in the afternoon, when the daylight was still in full swing.


Kathy Fischer Brown is a BWL author of historical novels, Winter Fire, Lord Esterleigh’s Daughter, Courting the DevilThe Partisan’s Wife, and The Return of Tachlanad, her latest release, an epic fantasy adventure for young adult and adult readers. Check out her Books We Love Author page or visit her website. All of Kathy’s books are available in e-book and in paperback from Amazon, Kobo, and other online retailers.


  1. So cool. I'll have to download that link for my 17th century novels for weather and event purposes.

    Altho, I don't favor the word, I, too, must be a pantzer who burrows into the minds of my characters. Outlines and such fall by the wayside almost immediately. Must be the only way to go for the truly gifted, like you and me. :D

  2. I hope you have fun with the links, Katherine. I find them indispensable, especially when struggling to keep track of the actual events when intertwined with the fiction. And, like you, I'm not a fan of the term, "pantzer," but it sorta fits. Looking forward to your "Brides" book!