Tag Archives: writing historical fiction

Barbara Kyle on Writing a Series

I had the pleasure of meeting Barbara Kyle in person at the Historical Novel Society Conference in London, 2012.  And what a lovely person she is!

Barbara writes both historical and contemporary fiction,  leads workshops and speaks about writing.  She studied theater and acted professionally for twenty years, mostly in television.  No wonder she’s able to create such vibrant characters and deliver such action on the page!  Barbara’s contemporary thrillers include Entrapped and The Experiement.   In 2008  Kensington Books published  Kyle’s first historical novel; set in King Henry VIII’s court, The Queen’s Lady became the first in a series of six novels – and counting!  Barbara and her husband also enjoy sailing; she and I are connected through writing and water.

Here is Barbara Kyle sharing her experience and advice on writing a series…

How Fenella Became a Star: Thoughts on Writing a Series

by Barbara Kyle

BKPublishers love series. No wonder. The Harry Potter empire has sold more than 400 million

books. Nancy Drew? The 175 installments of the beloved mystery series have had sales of over

200 million. Of Twilight’s four books more than 100 million copies have been sold.

Publishers love series because readers love series. Just like TV, where viewers eagerly welcome

the same characters into their living rooms week after week—be it Downton Abbey, Breaking

Bad, Game of Thrones, or The Good Wife—readers of series by master storytellers like George

R. R. Martin, Diana Gabaldon, and Bernard Cornwell have the same addiction. They get to know

the continuing characters so well they can’t wait to find out what happens in the next book.

What happens in the next book can sometimes surprise the author. The surprise for me was

Fenella Doorn.

BK Queens ExileFenella is the heroine of my new historical thriller, The Queen’s Exiles. She’s a savvy Scottish-

born entrepreneur who salvages ships. This is the sixth book in my Thornleigh Saga which

follows a middle-class English family’s rise through three tumultuous Tudor reigns. In Book

4 Fenella played a small but crucial role in the plot, and then I forgot about her. She didn’t

appear in Book 5. But when I was planning Book 6, and focusing it on one of the series’ major

continuing characters, Fenella sneaked up me. A warm-hearted, determined, courageous woman,

she’s also rather cheeky and she insisted that I include her in the new story. She reminded me

that she’d had past connections with two exciting men in the series, Adam Thornleigh and Carlos

Valverde, which promised some dramatic sparks.

So, I did more than include her in the new book. I made her its star.

That can happen when you write a series —a secondary character can take over. I was glad

Fenella did. She offered me an opportunity to create a complex, admirable woman who doesn’t

fit the ingénue heroine so common in historical fiction. She’s not a young thing; she’s thirty.

She’s not a pampered lady; she rolls up her sleeves running her business of refitting ships.

She’s attractive but not a smooth-faced beauty; her cheek is scarred from a brute’s attack with a

bottle ten years ago. And she’s not a virgin; she was once the mistress of the commander of the

Edinburgh garrison (he of the bottle attack). In other words, Fenella is my kind of woman.

But making her the star of the new book in my series meant some serious recalibrating. How

could I fit her into the Thornleigh family? Writing a series opens up a vista of opportunities but

also a minefield of traps. I’ll share a few with you here.

1. Every Book is New

Don’t assume that readers have read the previous books in the series. My agent always reminds

me of this when I send him the outline for a new book in the Thornleigh Saga: “Many readers

won’t know what these characters have already been through.” So, each book has to give some

background about what’s happened to the main characters in the preceding books, enough to get

new readers up to speed. However, you can’t lay on so much backstory that you bore readers who

have followed all the books. Getting the balance right is tricky.

I like the way episodes in a TV series start with a helpful recap: “Previously on Downton

Abbey…” It’s perfect: it refreshes the memory of viewers who’ve seen the previous episodes, and

is just enough to tantalize those haven’t and bring them up to speed. I wish I could have a nice

announcer give a recap at the beginning of my Thornleigh books! The point is, each book in a

series must stand on its own. It has to be a complete and satisfying story for any reader.

2. Create a Series Bible

Before writing full time I enjoyed a twenty-year acting career, and one of the TV series I did was

a daytime drama (soap opera) called High Hopes. The writers on that series kept a story Bible: a

record of the myriad details that had to be consistent from show to show concerning the dozens

of characters. It’s a wise practice for the writer of a series of novels, too.

My Thornleigh Saga books follow a family for three generations (and counting), so it’s easy

to forget facts about a character that were covered three or four books ago. That’s why I keep

a Bible that keeps track of the characters’ ages, occupations, marriages, love affairs, children,

ages of their children, homes, character traits, and physical details like color of hair and eyes . . .

and missing body parts! Richard Thornleigh loses an eye in The Queen’s Lady, Book 1 of the

Thornleigh Saga, yet in later books I would often start to write things like, “His eyes were drawn

to …” So I keep that Bible near.

3. Consistency Can Yield Rewards

When I had a brute cut Fenella Doorn’s cheek in Book 4, The Queen’s Gamble, I never expected

Fenella to reappear in a future story. Two books later, when I brought her back to star in The

Queen’s Exiles, I could not ignore the fact that she would have a sizable scar on her cheek. So I

used that scar to enrich her character. She’d been a beauty at eighteen, relying on men to support

her, but when her cut face marred her beauty she realized that it was now up to her to put bread

on the table and clothes on her back. I made her ironically aware that the scar freed her from the

bonds of beauty; it made her independent. And she became a successful entrepreneur.

4. Let Characters Age

It’s hard for readers to believe that a detective can fight off bad guys like a young stud when

the decades-long timeline of the books he appears in make him, in fact, a senior citizen. J. K

Rowling was smart. She let Harry Potter and his friends grow up. I’ve enjoyed doing this with

my characters. Through six books I’ve taken Honor Larke from precocious seven-year-old to

wise grande dame as Lady Thornleigh. Her step-son Adam Thornleigh’s first big role was in

The Queen’s Captive where he was an impetuous seafaring adventurer, but by the time of The

Queen’s Exiles Adam has become a mature man, a loyal champion of his friend Queen Elizabeth.

He has been through a loveless marriage, adores his two children, and falls hard for Fenella.

5. Embrace Cliff-hanger Endings

Each book in a series must be a stand-alone story, with an inciting incident, escalating conflict

developments, and a satisfying climax. But if you can end each book by opening up a new

question for the characters that will be tackled in the next book, readers will love it and will look

forward to getting the next in the series.


Barbara Kyle is the author of the acclaimed Tudor-era Thornleigh Saga novels. Over 425,000

copies of her books have been sold in seven countries. Her latest, The Queen’s Exiles, will

be released in June 2014. Barbara has taught writers at the University of Toronto School of

Continuing Studies and is known for her dynamic workshops for many writers organizations and

writers conferences. Before becoming an author Barbara enjoyed a twenty-year acting career in

television, film, and stage productions in Canada and the U.S. Visit www.barbarakyle.com where

you can watch an excerpt from her popular series of online video workshops “Writing Fiction

That Sells.” The first workshop is free!

BKs books

Follow Barbara on her website  Facebook author page and on Twitter

Tom Rizzo wrangles research and storytelling

A good story of any genre brings the reader in, makes us feel a part of the setting and identify with the characters.  Writing historical fiction is particularly challenging; the past must be brought to life in a way that is believable, yet doesn’t detract from the story.  How do we maintain credibility without becoming historically pedantic?  How do we walk the fine line between reporting the past and telling a story set in the past?

TJR HeadshotMy guest today is Tom Rizzo, author of Last Stand at Bitter Creek; an action adventure historical novel, set in the United States, largely in the West, shortly after the Civil War.   A finalist for the Western Fictioneers‘ Peacemaker awards, Tom also writes short stories; his latest is a western titled A Fire in Brimstone.   I asked Tom if he’d share something about his writing process, particularly how he brings the past alive in his fiction.

 Striking a Balance Between Storytelling and Research

By Tom Rizzo

In its purest form, writing historical fiction is nothing more than telling a story set in the past. But, the process involves the double-edged sword of storytelling and research.

Like any story, historical fiction must include conflict, with a beginning, middle, and end, along with a blend of truths, half-truths, and untruths.

Research, while important, often stands as both a blessing, and a curse. It’s exciting to dig into other times and cultures, and learn how people lived, worked, and interacted, as well as the kinds of problems they faced and how they dealt with them.

The danger in conducting historical research is overdoing it to the point where it becomes overwhelming and, ultimately, paralyzing.

Collecting enough research to create a story is all about balance. It’s important to keep the focus on story, not research.

When I decided to write Last Stand at Bitter Creek, a historical action-adventure novel, I underestimated the time and the amount of work involved. I found myself bogged down in research—so much so, that—yep you guessed it—I almost lost sight of the storytelling process.

Unlike other genres, writers of historical fiction straddle the fence between historian and storyteller. But, you must have a feel for when you’ve reached the saturation point of research, and get to the business at hand—writing the story.

The appeal of the Old West, for example, is anchored in both a poetry and mythology of pioneering Americans. People were drawn to the West because of the challenge of overcoming the unknown. It’s important not to lose sight of this spirit during the storytelling process, rather than clog it up with unnecessary detail.

The poetry of the West, if you will, marries imagination and reality, an era of danger, opportunity, and freedom—three characteristics that make up the fabric of a good story.

While most tales of the West feature relatively simple plots and sometimes larger-than-life characters, the better stories are unique in the way they blend fact and fiction. But, in truth, stories of the American West are often all about actual larger-than-life individuals—courageous achievers who often surmounted incredible odds, even though they sometimes failed.

According to British historian David Murdock, “No other nation has taken a time and a place from its past and produced a construct of the imagination equal to America’s creation of the West.”

It’s all about good against evil, law against outlaw.

Research, of course, is important because historical novels should reflect actual history. It’s up to the writer to educate readers about the importance of a particular era by showing, in a fictional presentation, the impact of certain events and characters.

The research process is relatively painless, thanks to Internet access, local libraries and museums, the telephone and email, to track down, and interview various experts. Some authors make it a point to travel to a particular location to gather up-close-and-personal inspiration, and color.

The research that included should benefit both writer and reader, but in different ways.  For example, my novel is set in the mid-19th century, just after the Civil War, and beyond.

Since I had no common knowledge, or reference point, for what life was like in the mid- to late-1800, I had to conduct enough research to learn how characters dressed, how they traveled, and how they communicated with each other. Sometimes, little things count. For example, how many miles could horse-and-rider travel in a day? How long did it take to get from point A to point B?

It all comes down to conveying realism. I had to find answers involving issues such as hotel accommodations, the price of a cup of coffee in a saloon, and what people of that particular era ate, and drank, and how they socialized.

My research also included learning about different professions—Army spy, burglar, doctor, farmer, cattle rancher, banker, and lawman. How did these individuals think? What motivated them? How did they deal with adversity?

Research, to me, involves learning enough that will help me understand—as much as possible—the behavior of the characters I’m writing about and, at the same time, get a sense of time and place.

Credibility earns the trust of readers. Writers of historical fiction need to know enough to create a believable fictional world for their stories.

Readers, however, want to experience a seamless transition into this fictional setting. They want to read a story, not a history lesson. They’re looking for entertainment.

On the other hand, James Alexander Thom, in his book, The Art and Craft of Writing Historical Fiction, writes:

Some readers are learning the history of their country through the story in my novel. They didn’t learn the history very well in school because it was taught in ways that were dry or boring. The historical novelist has a responsibility to keep the history as accurate as research can make it.”

Whatever the purpose, the highest compliment writers of historical fiction can earn is to hear a reader say, “I felt like I was there.”


Join me in following Tom on Facebook, Twitter, and on his excellent website.

TomRizzoLast Stand Cover copy