Writing Civil War Fiction

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OldReliable1862

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As someone who loves studying the Civil War, and likes Civil War fiction, and cautiously wishes to try his hand at writing Civil War fiction himself, I thought a thread likes this might be a good idea.

On a basic level, writing Civil War fiction is no different from writing any kind of narrative. Plotting, characters, and writing must be done well before any of the other details specific to historical fiction can be done. There are great resources that can help with these integral components, but the specific details are worth discussing here.

Some of these details include: how to portray characters who are sympathetic, but hold views that we consider repugnant, how to write good battle scenes if my character is a soldier, when have you researched enough (I can go ahead and answer this one: never) - among many others.
 
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privateflemming

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I'm also trying my hand at writing some historical fiction, though not actually about the Civil War although I might do that at some point.

I can definitely relate to what you say about feeling like you can never research enough. I have the basic outlines of a lot of stories I'd like to write but every time I start actually writing them like a novel I seem to get stuck on little details and question how something like that would actually have happened in real life, or if it did, etc. I think that's probably a good thing but it also takes discipline to actually go about researching the things you need to even if they're very obscure. On the other hand, there probably also comes a point where you need to just let yourself have creative license to freely make a work of fiction with some characterizations and plot elements that are there to serve the story you want to tell.

Another thing I've realized I need to do is read more historical fiction myself to see how other authors go about all of these conundrums I find myself in similar to what you're asking about. Unfortunately there is a lot of really bad historical fiction but obviously you can learn from that too. I actually just got two of Ralph Peters' historical fiction novels about the Civil War that I just found out about from reading this forum. I read one of the book previews on Amazon and immediately thought it was great.
 

GS

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I struggled with those same issues, and read boatloads of Civil War fictional accounts, including John Jakes many works. Most had no depth of character, seemed to follow an outline, and too much modernity to be authentic.

Just as an artist must see reality in order to paint realistically, I immersed myself in the mid-19th Century. I read nonfiction voraciously, spent eight years in archives, museums, searching out migration routes, walking the plantation, interviewing historians, attending history lectures, touring battlegrounds, reading soldier diaries, studying maps. My goal was to write nonfiction, but sell it as fiction. I accomplished this, because publishing as fiction gave me the liberty to a character here and there to prop up a plot. However, details of battles, troop movements, place and people names... even the weather and time of day are accurate.

I decided to take the reader into the heads of the characters, by writing in first-person present tense, and alternated chapters by two protagonists, and occasionally their son. The result is that the reader sees the perspective of war, reads the heart and soul, of man, woman and child. You might get some cues by reading the fictionalized account of my forefathers' Civil War experience by reading Trapped in the Crossfire, noted in my signature below.
 
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Patrick H

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This will be tangently related to the topic. Last October, @Boonslick and I were contacted by one of the local historical groups and asked to give a tour of Civil War sites in our immediate area to a novelist. The man was an experienced, published author and also a former newspaper owner. He had lived in our town in the early 1960s and was somewhat familiar with the many Civil War incidents here. His concept was to locate a fictional farm where his heroine could drive her carriage on actual historic roads to actual historic homes to visit actual families that once lived in those locations. He had researched one historic family who factored into his story. Unfortunately, their fine home had fallen into ruin in the decades after the war and was razed sometime in the 1930s--but we knew its location.

We took our author friend to the site where Lyon's troops ascended the bluffs and received their first skirmish fire from the Missouri State Guard in the first battle of Boonville, MO. We took him past homes that had witnessed the battle. We showed him a home site where Lyon's artillery bombarded a house into ruin. We continued along the length of the State Guard retreat toward Boonville. We took him to the site of the long-gone home in his story and we picked out a nice piece of land in the midst of all of this where he could locate his heroine's fictional home. Then we took him to numerous other sites of Civil War incidents around our town so he could soak in a real personal feel for the area and for what happened here.

It was a great afternoon, with new friendships made and, hopefully, lots of useful information exchanged. I don't know the title of the book, nor whether it is nearing completion yet. I have tagged @Boonslick. If he has heard from our author friend, he will chime in shortly.
 

OldReliable1862

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This is a personal gripe of mine, and I know it will be controversial: I'm getting tired of the "conflicted Confederate" trope. It might be very uncomfortable to write, and read about, characters who hold views we starkly disagree with, but I think it's important to show that normal, likeable people held these views, and were willing to die for them. A character holding nearly-21st century views on race and slavery mostly because the author doesn't want them to have those views runs totally counter to making readers aware of the opinions of average people at the time.
 
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Boonslick

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This will be tangently related to the topic. Last October, @Boonslick and I were contacted by one of the local historical groups and asked to give a tour of Civil War sites in our immediate area to a novelist. The man was an experienced, published author and also a former newspaper owner. He had lived in our town in the early 1960s and was somewhat familiar with the many Civil War incidents here. His concept was to locate a fictional farm where his heroine could drive her carriage on actual historic roads to actual historic homes to visit actual families that once lived in those locations. He had researched one historic family who factored into his story. Unfortunately, their fine home had fallen into ruin in the decades after the war and was razed sometime in the 1930s--but we knew its location.

We took our author friend to the site where Lyon's troops ascended the bluffs and received their first skirmish fire from the Missouri State Guard in the first battle of Boonville, MO. We took him past homes that had witnessed the battle. We showed him a home site where Lyon's artillery bombarded a house into ruin. We continued along the length of the State Guard retreat toward Boonville. We took him to the site of the long-gone home in his story and we picked out a nice piece of land in the midst of all of this where he could locate his heroine's fictional home. Then we took him to numerous other sites of Civil War incidents around our town so he could soak in a real personal feel for the area and for what happened here.

It was a great afternoon, with new friendships made and, hopefully, lots of useful information exchanged. I don't know the title of the book, nor whether it is nearing completion yet. I have tagged @Boonslick. If he has heard from our author friend, he will chime in shortly.
The last I heard from the author, a few months back, the book was still in production.
 
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This is NOT specific to Civil War fiction, but I really enjoyed reading the following book about the craft of writing historical fiction:

"The Art and Craft of Writing Historical Fiction" by James Alexander Thom

Also, this is obviously NOT specific to historical fiction, but I highly recommend the book "On Writing" by Stephen King.

Finally, I read an article once that recommended that I should read the most highly regarded books written by the most highly regarded historical fiction writers. This article recommended me to read the novel "Katherine" by Anya Seton. This is a historical romance about Katherine Swynford, the mistress and eventual third wife of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster. (John of Gaunt's son Henry became Henry IV of England.) Historical romances don't have a great reputation. However, Katherine, and most of Anya Seton's other historical fiction, is meticulously researched.


Does anyone have any other writing craft books to recommend?
 

Zella

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This is NOT specific to Civil War fiction, but I really enjoyed reading the following book about the craft of writing historical fiction:

"The Art and Craft of Writing Historical Fiction" by James Alexander Thom

Also, this is obviously NOT specific to historical fiction, but I highly recommend the book "On Writing" by Stephen King.

Finally, I read an article once that recommended that I should read the most highly regarded books written by the most highly regarded historical fiction writers. This article recommended me to read the novel "Katherine" by Anya Seton. This is a historical romance about Katherine Swynford, the mistress and eventual third wife of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster. (John of Gaunt's son Henry became Henry IV of England.) Historical romances don't have a great reputation. However, Katherine, and most of Anya Seton's other historical fiction, is meticulously researched.


Does anyone have any other writing craft books to recommend?
Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace by Joseph M. Williams. I'm an editor and keep a copy on my desk. Have a friend/former classmate who works as a tech writer and keeps her copy on her desk, too. :smile:
 
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wbull1

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Barbara Hambly's A Free Man of Color is one of my favorites. Josephine Tay's The Daughter of Time is amazing. With Civil War era fiction part of the struggle for me is to incorporate some of the vocabulary and sentence structure of the time without making the reader work too hard to understand what is happening. It is a challenge.
 
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OldReliable1862

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This is NOT specific to Civil War fiction, but I really enjoyed reading the following book about the craft of writing historical fiction:

"The Art and Craft of Writing Historical Fiction" by James Alexander Thom

Also, this is obviously NOT specific to historical fiction, but I highly recommend the book "On Writing" by Stephen King.

Finally, I read an article once that recommended that I should read the most highly regarded books written by the most highly regarded historical fiction writers. This article recommended me to read the novel "Katherine" by Anya Seton. This is a historical romance about Katherine Swynford, the mistress and eventual third wife of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster. (John of Gaunt's son Henry became Henry IV of England.) Historical romances don't have a great reputation. However, Katherine, and most of Anya Seton's other historical fiction, is meticulously researched.


Does anyone have any other writing craft books to recommend?
These aren't books, but Brandon Sanderson's class at BYU is on YouTube, it's great stuff.
 

OldReliable1862

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I've wanted to do some kind of story with a viewpoint in each of the three main theaters: the East, the West, and the Trans-Miss. I haven't decided yet if the three POV characters should be related or not. I had wanted the character in Virginia to be in Hood's Texas Brigade and the one in the Trans-Miss to be in the Sibley Brigade, so at lease those two could be related. Advice welcome!
 

wbull1

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In terms of structure, you could do a one-at-time story or "kneaded" story, i.e. switch back and forth between characters Leaving each time with a cliffhanger stopping point. Are you thinking of having men on both sides of the conflict? The regular army and guerilla forces? All from the same town, suitors for the same girl? I think it would be good to have some common connection. Cousins? Classmates, who write to the same admired teacher? Being in separate areas they are not likely to run into each other during the war but something to tie them together would probably be a good idea. Good luck.
 
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privateflemming

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I've wanted to do some kind of story with a viewpoint in each of the three main theaters: the East, the West, and the Trans-Miss. I haven't decided yet if the three POV characters should be related or not. I had wanted the character in Virginia to be in Hood's Texas Brigade and the one in the Trans-Miss to be in the Sibley Brigade, so at lease those two could be related. Advice welcome!
For my two cents, I agree with wbull1 that the men should have some connection or the story could quickly get too sprawling and disjointed. When plotting stories I know I've run into this problem, where I want to cover every character and viewpoint in a war or event (because it's all just so exciting) but the story ends up becoming a giant mess. I think it's usually better to focus on one compelling individual story in greater detail than multiple, and if you must have multiple then they should at least be connected in some meaningful way. Ideas for stories in other far-flung theaters can become different novels instead.
 

Cavalry Charger

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how to portray characters who are sympathetic, but hold views that we consider repugnant
If you're talking about POV (point of view) you're going to have to get inside the character's skin. If you're not comfortable with that character, I'd say you will find it difficult to write from their POV. It's an exercise in imagination. Never mind what others think.
 
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OldReliable1862

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For my two cents, I agree with wbull1 that the men should have some connection or the story could quickly get too sprawling and disjointed. When plotting stories I know I've run into this problem, where I want to cover every character and viewpoint in a war or event (because it's all just so exciting) but the story ends up becoming a giant mess. I think it's usually better to focus on one compelling individual story in greater detail than multiple, and if you must have multiple then they should at least be connected in some meaningful way. Ideas for stories in other far-flung theaters can become different novels instead.
I had wanted this to be a way to tell the story of the war as a narrative, and putting characters at most of the major battles seemed a good way to do it. It will definitely take some work to keep it from becoming a mess, as you say. Separate books for each theater vs cutting between the theaters is something I've been mulling over a fair bit.
 

wbull1

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Were you thinking about something like the Ken Burns series as a structure? It seems to me that would be a massive project. Who or what is your main "character?" I wonder if some particular aspect of the war might be a focus such as the N vs S cavalry or artillery or how tactics evolved. I guess I'm not sure what you want to do.
 
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Even protagonists who are “good people” need to have character faults and / or make mistakes. Nobody is perfect.

I don’t like books in which the protagonist from the 1800’s adopts all of the societally-correct views from 2019, never hurts anyone else, never has his or her beliefs challenged, etc

Also, I don’t like fiction in which the author uses the thoughts of a narrator or protagonist in order to lecture about morals to the reader.
 
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