Research for historical romances

This week Scribe Brian O’Conor let us know that he’d have to leave us. I’m bummed because I’ll miss his posts, and wish him the very best in the future! This post first appeared Monday on Dale Cameron Lowry’s blog…though I might have tweaked a word or two, since I’m never ever done editing….

This last couple weeks, I’ve been busy celebrating the release of my 1950s m/m romance Aqua Follies. Since the past is on my mind, I wanted to share some of what I’ve learned about research for a historical romance.

giphy

There are probably as many ways to do handle research as there are writers out there doing it. My two most recent releases were set in the middle of the 20th century, long enough ago to qualify as ‘historical’, but not so distant from contemporary times. With both these projects, I approached the research as a series of layers, and I did my best to balance information and story.

First, I tried to place my stories as specifically as possible in time, to figure out where they fit in the big picture. For example, Aqua Follies takes place in late July until October of 1955. With those dates in mind, I framed the story with current events. WWII had ended ten years before, but the Korean War ended in July ‘53 so it made sense for the characters’ life experiences to be influenced by those conflicts.

In the mid-50’s Senator McCarthy was in power, and there were several incidents of gay men being rounded up and arrested or sent to asylums. At the same time the Mattachine Society – an early gay rights group – was spreading, and same-sex establishments were in operation in Seattle, their patrons’ safety reliant on a system of police corruption. Those were the kinds of real events that became the framework I crafted the story around.

Once I get the dates plotted out – the top layer – I look for information about what life was like in the time-period. Google is a gold mine for this kind of research. Pretty much the only limit for what you can find is your tolerance for digging. For Aqua Follies, I was able to find everything from essays on cultural attitudes towards homosexuals to the daily weather report, all of which helped me create the world where the story takes place.

It’s the details that will make the world ring true. My final layer of research is seeking out first person accounts that describe aspects of the story. One of the huge benefits of writing a story set in the ‘50s is that I could talk to people who been alive then.

My friend’s father-in-law, Overton Berry, played jazz in Seattle from the early ‘50s, and he was a huge help in filling in the good bits. Overton talked about how professional musicians operated, what the standard repertoire might include, and he also gave me a feel for what society’s attitude toward musicians might be. If I was working on an earlier piece, I’d look for diaries, old catalogues, and magazines to help with the fine detail. I will never truly know what it was like to live in 1950s Seattle, but I learned as much as I could to make readers believe I was there.

And what happens with all this research? Like ol’ Ben Franklin says, “Do everything in moderation, including moderation.”

giphy (1)

A good story will incorporate historically accurate facts without beating the reader over the head with them. This example might be kind of a cliché, but you don’t need a paragraph on how the Colt 45 was manufactured in the middle of a fight scene, and you don’t want a dissertation on a Victorian woman’s undergarments in the middle of sexytimes. Research should inform the story, not become the story.

In my work, I find the process has a real give and take; I write until I hit a detail I need to research, then dig around enough to feel comfortable writing more. In addition, research has helped me solve story problems. For Aqua Follies, I needed something dramatic that would keep my two heroes from coming together. A small story in the Seattle Times digital archives described how one of the real Aqua Follies synchronized swimmers mistimed a dive and nearly drowned. That two-paragraph article became a key event in the novel, and was definitely not something I would have come up with on my own.

Even with the best intentions, though, it’s possible to throw in an anachronistic detail. Despite something like eight beta readers and two content editors, it was the proofreader who recognized that Buddy Holly was still in high school in 1955, so couldn’t have had a song on Skip’s car radio. If there are other little slip-ups and a reader calls me on them, my best bet is to smile, apologize, and add them to my notes so I won’t screw up the sequel.

giphy (2)

I recently read a historical romance that I described as “the Glee version of a Regency”. The author had most of the details down, but there were enough little bumps either in characters’ attitudes or the language they used that I didn’t quite believe that version of the time period. The book sold very well, so clearly not every reader is going to throw their Kindle at the wall if a subordinate forgets to address a duke as Your Grace. Good storytelling is worth the effort, though, and I love the process of excavating the layers of history and finding a balanced way of bringing them to life.

If you’d like more information on writing historical romance, check out these articles by Elizabeth Crook, Chuck Sambuchino for Writer’s Digest, Anne M. Marble for Writing World, and KJ Charles. Thanks very much!

AquaFollies_Digital_Web

AF_blogtags_blurb

The 1950s. Postwar exuberance. Conformity. Rock and roll.

Homophobia.

Russell tells himself he’ll marry Susie because it’s the right thing to do. His summer job coaching her water ballet team will give him plenty of opportunity to give her a ring. But on the team’s trip to the annual Aqua Follies, the joyful glide of a trumpet player’s solo hits Russell like a torpedo, blowing apart his carefully constructed plans.

From the orchestra pit, Skip watches Poseidon’s younger brother stalk along the pool deck. It never hurts to smile at a man, because sometimes good things can come of it. Once the last note has been played, Skip gives it a shot.

The tenuous connection forged by a simple smile leads to events that dismantle both their lives. Has the damage been done, or can they pick up the pieces together?

 

AF_blogtags_buylinks

Amazon | B&N | iBooks | Kobo | More Stores

Advertisements

10 Things I’ve Learned in My First Year as a Published Indie Author

Image purchased from Adobe Stock
Image purchased from Adobe Stock

When I originally picked this date for my post, I thought I would be writing something about making history with our first female president and a tie-in to my book Madame Presidentess, which is about Victoria Woodhull, the first woman to ever run for president in the US in 1872. 

Yeah, not so much.

The last thing we all need right now is another political diatribe (believe me, I’ve written many in my head in the last 24 hours). So, as they say on Monty Python “and now for something completely different…”

My one-year anniversary of being a published author is coming up on January 1. As with all other things, you learn as you go. Here are 10 things I’ve learned from experience this year.

  1. Set a realistic publication schedule. Don’t try to publish four books in seven months like I did. I am living proof that is possible, but you will wear yourself to your breaking point. I set that schedule because I didn’t know what I didn’t know – namely, that even if you indie publish like I did, all the rounds of editing and cover design and layout take a lot longer than you think they will – especially when you’re juggling them with a full-time job. My suggestion is one book every six months at the most. That way you’ll have time to take things slowly and carefully, as you should. That being said, releasing several books in a short time frame is great for marketing and sales because it gives people more things to read once they find one book they like.
  2. Have some kind of a marketing and production budget. I did not because I didn’t save before I decided to publish. I also had no idea how much things cost. You can do some/all of these things yourself, but I know my skills and what I have time for. There are also ways to save money on some of these (don’t sacrifice the editing or cover!), so your mileage may vary. Here’s a run down of approximate cost ranges:
    1. Editing = Can run you $1,000-$3,000+ depending on who you hire and how many rounds you do
    2. Cover design = $250-$500
    3. Layout = $1,000
    4. Audio books = varies by length of book and cost of talent but mine were $2,000-$3,00o each
    5. Printing/distribution = There will be a setup fee in IngramSpark (Createspace is free, but bookstores won’t order from them) and you have to pay for your own copies that you hand sell. You’re looking at around $50 for setup and $4-$6 per book you order depending on length.
    6. Marketing = This is totally up to you. I went overboard, but I’m glad I’ve tried just about everything. That just means it will take a while to earn that money back and pay off my credit cards. 🙂
  3. Audio books are worth the cost. Yes, they are expensive and time consuming, but they are also great passive income once they are done. I’ve sold more audio books than print and ebook combined. They are also a ton of fun to be involved in, and many sources say audio is the next big thing in books. As soon as I can afford to get Madame Presidentess made into audio, I’m going to, and it will be part of my publishing budget for every book I write.
  4. Your book will find it’s audience. No matter what you write, there are people out there who want to read it. You can help them find you by blogging even before you publish and by attending events related to what you write. And of course, through targeted marketing. Most writers are niche writers, so don’t be disappointed if you start out small. Indie publishing is not about the overnight success; it’s about the long tail career. You never know what may happen that will expose you to a wider audience over time.
  5. Marketing is hard. I say this as someone with 15 years of professional marketing experience and a master’s degree in public relations. Marketing a book is unlike any other kind of sales/PR/marketing you will ever do. And it is harder than ever to break through the noise, regardless of whether you are traditionally or indie published. But you have to try. I learned a lot through what didn’t work.
  6. Don’t drive yourself crazy over sales. There is more to life than your sales numbers. Yes, we all want to make the big bucks, but if you focus solely on that, especially as an indie, you will drive yourself mad. Some authors take the perspective of “if it doesn’t translate directly into sales, it isn’t worth doing.” I respect that mindset, but it isn’t mine. I started out writing because I have to, not for the money. So I look at how creatively fulfilled I am and how things are working from an exposure/branding/PR perspective in addition to sales.
  7. The writing community is incredibly supportive. I knew that already, but man will indies join together. This year I have experienced so much love from the community and little to no competitive ire. I even got the best support from a man who wrote about the same subject I did. I think a lot of the reason for this mindset is because we know what it’s like to go it on our own and we don’t have to worry about being dropped by a publisher/agent.
  8. You get better at everything as you go along. Whether it’s writing or marketing, you hone your skills with practice. Just keep going.
  9. Keep writing. The best type of marketing is another book. It gets your name back out there and draws attention to what you’ve already written. This is why it’s so important not to get caught up in too much marketing. We have to remember that our #1 job is to be writers.
  10. Take breaks when you need them. Says the girl who hasn’t taken one in four years. But this is how I know how important they are. If you don’t refill your creative well, you won’t have anything left to give. I’m taking at least the rest of this year off to do just that.

I feel like given other subjects I could have covered today, this is a pretty generic post. But it’s honest. And this is all I have in me at the moment.

How Amazon’s New Review Policies Hurt Authors and Book Bloggers

book-review

I’m popping in for an unscheduled post because I have something I have to get off my chest. Ahem.

In my 10 months as an indie author, I’ve learned many lessons, the biggest of which is probably that the industry changes really fast. But I have a big problem with one of the latest changes, which affects not only indie authors, but ALL authors.

Amazon has decided that reviews that are part of a paid blog tour can’t be placed on their site. Now, I understand that they consider this part of their “you can’t pay for book reviews” rule which is a valid rule. But I don’t think they understand how blog tours work. Here’s the deal. On a blog tour, you are paying for space on the blogger’s site – whether that is purely promotional with cover, blurb and buy links, or a review, if the blogger chooses to leave one – and for them to receive a copy the book, not for the review, which is optional. I’ve been with a few companies that say if the blogger doesn’t like the book, they shouldn’t post anything, a rule I like because I’d rather see nothing than see them publicly skewer my work. (Granted, in that case I get no publicity either, but the person did read the book, so I didn’t pay for nothing.)

Not allowing these reviews to be posted (or later removing them, which is worse) puts authors in a bind and lessens the value of blog tours. Reviews are SOOOOOO hard to come by, especially for indie authors who don’t have the same level of exposure as some traditionally published authors. I don’t understand why, but a lot of people are hesitant to leave reviews. Of course, I know some people won’t like the book and some just forget, but others worry that they have to write something worthy of the New York Times. I keep telling everyone that even if they just give it a star rating and say “I liked this book,” that is enough. But yet I have people who I know loved a book because they told me by email or on social media but they have never left a review.

And that’s not even counting Amazon’s policy that reviews left by anyone they deem may know you can be removed. That’s a whole other level of trouble for authors. I know they are aiming to remove bias, but when you are just starting out, friends and family are a large chunk of your audience. Plus, nowadays a lot of our readers connect with us online, which is a totally different nature than an in-person actual friendship and shouldn’t fall under this rule.

At the same time, we live and die by reviews. Amazon uses the number of reviews we have to trigger their marketing and promotions efforts, including the “customers also bought” and “you might like lists.” These may not sound like much, but they are crucial for exposure. Perhaps the biggest way Amazon reviews affect us is that in order to even be considered for the Holy Grail of promotions – the BookBub feature – your book must have at least 50 4- or -5-star reviews on Amazon. (I’ve tried getting a feature on a book that doesn’t meet that requirement; don’t bother because they will reject you right away.) Not to mention that when people are trying to decide whether or not to purchase a book, they look at the reviews. Correctly or not, the more reviews a book has (assuming they are positive), the more attractive a book is.

But getting back to my original point, blog tours used to help us reach those goals. On average, a blog tour will net you between 10-20 reviews, depending on how long your tour is and how many people liked the book. Now, those reviews don’t help toward our marketing goals. Yes, you still get the eyes of the blog subscribers and maybe Goodreads users (if they post there) on the review, but that’s not nearly as many people as would see it on Amazon. And you can excerpt the reviews in the Editorial Reviews section, but those don’t add to your ratings score and most people ignore them. Reviews used to be a value ad for doing a tour. Now that that is gone, I don’t know if tours are worth the money. Where does that leave us and where does that leave book bloggers? Only time will tell.

Amazon pretty much built the self-publishing industry with the Kindle. Now they are restricting the possibility of success for the very people they need in order for their sales to continue to be strong. That makes no sense to me. Before you say, “if you’re not happy, don’t use them,” I will note that I have my books on many platforms and 95% of my sales (not including hand-selling) come from Amazon, so I’m dependent on them. Right now, I’m just grateful they exempted authors from their rule that you can’t give away free goods in exchange for a review; if they hadn’t we’d be totally screwed and ARCs would be a thing of the past.

As a customer, I love Amazon. As an author, I find their business services easy to use and I love the exposure I get to their audience, but their review rules are bewildering. Why outlaw something that will help them make money? Aren’t sales what they are after? Now they are basically asking us to find a bunch of total strangers and magically convince them to buy a book from an author they’ve likely never heard of and leave a review. Easy-peasy, right? Maybe if you already have a following, but if you don’t?

I fear that these rules, especially if they continue to get tighter – which I imagine they will – may well discourage people from self-publishing or make authors think twice before continuing to do so and hurt the industry Amazon helped build. Will it kill the industry? Probably not, but by restricting reviews to this extent, Amazon is certainly shooting itself in the foot and dissatisfying one of their biggest customer groups.

What do you think? How do we thrive despite increasing restrictions? If you’re an author, will the changes affect the way you market your books? How? Am I thinking about this wrong? If so, how do you see the changes? I hate to be wrong, but it’s always possible.