Thursday, September 11, 2014

Linsey-Woolsey Writing: Weaving Fact with Fiction

Linsey-woolsey is a fabric woven from linen and wool. Linen is used as the warp, wool as the weft. It was commonly worn in the 18th century and is, in fact, an ancient form of cloth.

Writing historical novels is, for me, something like that linsey-woolsey weaving. Story is the warp. History is the weft. I do my best to weave the two together, leaving as few unsightly gaps as possible.

It can be tedious. It takes months of preparation and planning. But the end result is always worth it to me personally.

How I Do It, in 6 Easy (!) Steps

1. Create a document and call it something like Historical Time Line for (title of story).

2. Read everything I can on the historical event/s that will form the spine (or background) of my story. If it's the spine of the story and not just a historical backdrop, this process takes much longer. "Everything" includes books, websites, historical treaties, correspondence, newspapers, etc.

3. (concurrent with #2) Fill the Time Line document with everything that strikes me as important or interesting as I glean from all those research sources, combining it all in chronological order by month, day, hour of the day, whatever is needed for this particular historical event/period. Note: the Time Line document for the sequel to The Wood's Edge (my next release) is 30 pages single-spaced.

4. Plot my story, at least the broad strokes, using all that research and the handy Time Line I spent weeks or months creating. This step will inevitably begin somewhere in the midst of #3.

5. (often concurrent with #4) Open that Time Line document and see where my fictional story can intersect, what events or situations my characters can take part in, or be influenced by, along the way.  Slot notes to myself about these possibilities into the relevant spots in the Time Line, or just integrate notes about that bit of history into the plot that I'm still fleshing out.

6. Write the book, referring back to that Time Line however often is needed (depending on the book, this can be daily). This process will take anywhere from 8 months to a year.

And that's how I do it.

I've written this post less for instruction than for entertainment--in case you ever wondered how a historical fiction writer might go about the process of weaving a story through the historical record. Other writers may have vastly different methods that work for them. I hope they do. Mine, as I said, is tedious. But it works for me because my memory for historical detail is not to be relied upon months after I've done the research. My Time Lines serve as my brain's back up.

Q 4 Readers: anything you'd like to know about this process that I didn't cover in that sketchy overview? Ask away!

Loom photo by David Amsler Flickr Creative Commons

21 comments:

  1. Now I know why your books are so fantastic! Thanks for sharing this glimpse into your process for writing.

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    1. Happy to! Thanks for stopping by, Grace.

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  3. This is fascinating, Lori. I like the warp and weft analogy. I would ask, which is more important, or inspiring, to you, as far as how your story takes shape - the weft or the warp? What do you feel gives it its heartbeat? Its art? Seeing you say the weft is the spine and, using your research, you paint your plot, would you say it's the weft? Or might it be the warp, too (i.e. your character's voices, struggles, dreams... the landscapes in your mind... those bits of dialogue that awake you in the night, etc.) that shape your story? It just dawned on me... maybe it's like the garden of Eden? There's the dust of the earth (which gives man structure) and the breath of God (which gives man life). Perhaps your weft and warp are like that, too? What is unique about historical events being the "spine" of a story, as opposed to them serving as just a backdrop? It's not the same thing?

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    1. Great questions!

      "which is more important, or inspiring, to you, as far as how your story takes shape - the weft or the warp?"

      A character in a situation, or an inciting incident, always comes first for me. But I might have already had in mind a historical setting I wanted to write about, so I was probably waiting, with an open mind, for a character with a situation (problem, issue, circumstance, goal, hope, whatever) to come along and fit into that historical setting. But if the character and his or her situation isn't compelling enough on their own, doesn't speak to our universal human needs and desires strongly enough, no amount of interesting history is going to inspire me to put in the amount of work it's going to take to do that weaving. So character first. Always.

      After that point the process is far too organic to break it down any better than I did in the steps outlined above (which you notice are often concurrent, they feed off each other).

      "What is unique about historical events being the "spine" of a story, as opposed to them serving as just a backdrop?"

      When I say history forms the "spine" of a story, that means without the history the story would look very different, or might not have worked at all. The characters take part in actual events or battles that happened, that can be found in history books. They are an integral part of the story.

      A story with history as the backdrop isn't as dependent on the actual events of history (like a battle or a riot or any other documented event, natural disaster, war, invention, or social movement) but the story and characters are still affected by the setting. The overarching issues of their day, the social moors, the prevailing world view, and a strong sense of time and place.

      I'd say of my two books published so far, The Pursuit of Tamsen Littlejohn has more of a historical spine than Burning Sky. But neither of those has the historical spine that The Wood's Edge and its sequel have. Especially its sequel!

      I may go back to a writing story with more of a historical backdrop after these two, just to catch my breath. :)

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  4. That's really interesting Lori! Thanks for sharing. I always seem to end up down rabbit holes when researching on the net, how do you avoid the wrong sites? Do you have some favorite sources? Some are paid services but I'm always wondering which are worth it.

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    1. I think rabbit holes are inevitable, and sometimes lead to great discoveries. I just Google whatever subject I need to look up (often I'm looking for visuals) and hope for the best. Now and then I find a gem. And I waste a lot of time, too. But I rely much more heavily on books for my research, and only supplement them with websites. Google Books are a good source for old books that cost a fortune if you want to buy a copy.

      For instance, with the present series I've needed to know about certain British regiments during the French & Indian War, and the Revolutionary War, so I've looked up sites for reenactors to get good visuals for uniforms and the like. I'm always looking for good language/dictionary sites too, because I inevitably create characters who speak languages other than English. Youtube videos are great for things like loading and firing a flintlock rifle, or for settings that I can't visit in person. It's time consuming, for sure.

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    2. Well that makes me feel a bit better - I'm not alone down the Rabbit hole! ��
      Thanks for the tips, too

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  5. Wow, those steps are just SO easy!
    Umm, NOT.
    Wow, you're impressive!!!!

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    1. Impressively obsessive, you meant, no doubt. :)

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  6. Thank you SO much for this post, Lori! The novel I'm beginning right now will I think parallel the historical events in an actual year at an actual place more closely than anything I've written before, so this is so helpful! I think I'm going to paste the link to this post into one of my preliminary outline documents so I can refer back to it. :) Thank you!

    Love your title too. :)

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    1. Glad it could help, Kiersti. I think it saved me a lot of re-looking up stuff along the way this year. As I wrote, I just kept flipping the page of the Time Line, and it was always open there in front of me. This 30 page Time Line is by far THE most extensive one I've ever done, but again, there's far more history in this story than I've ever tried to work with before. Mostly it's broken down by month, exact day when it was known, but for one period there are pages and pages of stuff that happened on one day, broken down by hour. I'll admit this, writing battles when you have characters on both sides is not easy, and I have earned a new and profound respect for those historical writers I've been a fan of for years who make it LOOK as thought it was easy.

      One tip I'll add that I didn't mention in the post: with every entry in this Time Line, I recorded the source and page number it came from, because sometimes I didn't transcribe everything out of the book, just the key points, and so from time to time I went back to the actual books to get more detail.

      So an entry might look like the following:

      August 6 -- battle aftermath p. 168 FA. Two Kettles Together jumps on a horse and rides full tilt to notify local Indians and rebels of the battle's outcome. Patriot survivors haul some of their wounded and dying to Oriska for the night. WMAT p. 158-160

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    2. Whoa.
      Oh wait, poor choice of words...

      I MEANT, that detail is exactly what makes your work stand head and shoulders above the crowd.

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  7. I love your analogy of linsey-woolsey weaving!

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    1. Thanks for stopping by, Carla!

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  8. Everyone's process is different and I love seeing what works for you. Lovely post, Lori!

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    1. Thanks, Zan Marie. I do hope others have found an easier method.

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  9. Lori, I think of writing in much the same way, and I also do a pile of research before, during, and after writing a project. I think you're a little more organized than I am, though. lol! My desk and floor are constantly littered with research materials, notes to myself, and snippets of dialog, description, and action scribbled on scraps of paper. Remembering where everything is can be a challenge!

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    1. I have those paper scraps everywhere too! They accumulate over the course of writing the novel. In fact I tend to let them pile up now instead of going back into the manuscript and making all the changes that occur to me along the way. Used to be there was time to stop the forward momentum to do that, but now, with deadlines, I feel the pressure to keep pushing forward, and save all those notes for changes until I'm read to start the first edit.

      And some of those notes are for scenes yet to be written too. I have certain piles for certain types of notes, and that's about as organized as that part of my writing life gets. :)

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  10. Lori, I admire you immensely. I've only written one middle grade and the first chapter to a YA. Not historical. I have a hard enough time with today. I can't imagine the research of yesterday. And the pressure of trying to get it all accurate, as best as possible. You bless me. Thank you for sharing insights to your creations.

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    1. I really believe you have to love digging around in the past, else it would be overwhelming. I spent quite a while today quadruple (at least) checking my sources about how the Oneidas marked time (13 moons instead of 12 months, but my editor wants to know how those moons/months correspond and getting that sorted is surprisingly NOT simple when sources vary). But still. I love it. I want to get it done already. But I love it. :)

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