Writing a Historical Novel

Three and a half years ago, in January 2016, I retired from other pursuits so I could try to write fictional stories that other people would like to read. 

Coastal village in Norway. “Enligt AB Flygtrafik Bengtsfors: ‘Havstenssund’.” by G. AB Flygtrafik Bengtsfors / Bohusläns museum is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 

After a few small success with short stories, I got the idea to write a historical novel based on my ancestors Anders Gunstensen and Maria Nybro, who came to Illinois from Norway in the 1850s. We had scant information about their lives—a few dates,  places, and milestones—not much more. Not enough real knowledge to support a detailed, book-length factual account of their lives—even if I had wanted to write one. But what I actually wanted was to use the bare facts as a framework on which to hang a made-up story, through which we might discover the world in which they lived.

I spent more than six months on the trail of Anders and Maria. I struggled to imagine a plot around the known and unearthed events of their lives that would make a good fictional story, yet would not much distort the known facts. At last, early in 2017, I began to write text. 

Me writing.

The first draft of this novel, Freedom’s Purchase, took more than a year to write, at a steady rate of 1,500 to 2,000 words per week.This time also included research “on the fly” to support the detailed demands of particular scenes in the story.

My writing process is iterative. Contrary to what many great writers recommend, I invest a lot of time and effort, while laying down the first draft, in simultaneously revising passages already written. So by June 2018, when I finished the “first draft” of the novel, it was really anywhere between a fifth and a fifteenth draft, depending which part of the book you’re looking at. 

I loved my book so much that I started to query agents, seeking a traditional publication contract. After nine months, I felt a bit stymied. At the UW-Madison Writers’ Institute in April 2019, I asked Laurie Scheer about this. She said, “How many agents have you queried so far?” I said, “Thirty or forty.” She guffawed. “Try three hundred!” she said. 

Discouraged? On the contrary, I found myself reassured. The problem was not necessarily with my book; only that the literary market is tough to crack. However, that very reassurance gave me the freedom to consider the niggling little thought that if the manuscript itself were a bit better, that would make it easier for agents to see its merit. Perhaps a hundred fifty queries would be enough to do the trick!

My other friend in the UW Writers’ program, Christine DeSmet, read my first ten pages—the most important part of any book for making a first impression—and gave me very useful feedback. Her comments showed me how I could make the first chapter not a little better—rather, a whole lot better. So I did. But Christine also recommended dissecting the whole book scene by scene, then improving each scene as needed. I blanched at the thought. I decided to do it anyway.

Toward a Smashing Second Draft

I spent the whole next month just reading my book. I analyzed 159 separate scenes; I wrote down the overall purpose of each scene, its setting, its characters, their goals, their conflicts, the resolution of those conflicts, and the particular moments of dramatic change. This yielded an analytical document 54 pages long.

So now, I revisit each scene to fix the problems that have shown themselves through this process of analysis. A huge task. Yet, not enough.

After I work my way through a chapter of scenes, I do the next step, suggested by another friend, Tracey Gemmell, author of More or Less Annie, and other members of my Tuesday evening writers’ group. In Microsoft Word, I search for every “ly” in the chapter (many of these turn out to be adverbs); for every “ing” (present progressives, present participles, gerunds); for every “and,” “or,” and “but” (conjunctions); for every “is,” “are,”  “was,” and “were” (verbs of being); for every “saw,” “heard,” “knew,” “felt,” “smelled,” and “tasted” (“filter” words). Then, I re-read the chapter in search of introductory time phrases or other introductory adverbial constructions. 

That step is a lot of work, too.

Not that there is anything wrong with adverbs, a progressive verbs, passive constructions, conjunctions, or introductory adverbial expressions. All those things have their places in effective prose. But they can become crutches that allow us to write gimpy narrative, when overused. By considering each occurrence in isolation, one often finds a more vivid and robust way—a less distanced, less stand-offish way—to say what one meant to say. If you change even a quarter of those expressions to more powerful constructions, it’s worth the effort. 

By the end of this process, I’ll have a book more worthy of readers’ time and attention. And, perhaps, a traditional publishing contract.

Stay tuned, dear readers.  

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Author

Birth of “Beneath the Flames”

This is a guest post by Gregory Lee Renz, author of  Beneath the Flames

Greg Renz

Storytelling is ingrained in the culture of the fire service. I was a firefighter for twenty-eight years, retiring as a fire captain. Invariably, after one of our more dramatic responses someone would say that someday they should write a book about all of this. Of course, very few ever did. So when I retired I decided I would. After all, over my twenty-eight years on the department, I had gained a deep well of experiences and colorful characters to write about, and I was an avid reader. So how hard could it be to write a book? I would soon learn. 

How to Become a Writer in Hundreds of Hard Lessons

At least I had the sense to enroll in a creative writing course with the University of Wisconsin Continuing Studies program. That’s when I realized I knew nothing of creative writing. I sucked. Thankfully, the patient instructors were able to inspire me to keep working at this extremely challenging craft. I had compelling stories to tell but did not have the tools to tell them. I kept working, and my writing improved to the point where I began to receive awards in contests. At the UW Writers’ Institute several years ago I was awarded first place in both fiction and nonfiction in their writing contest. This was the validation I needed to continue working on my novel BENEATH THE FLAMES

I realized I was a writer when I could not give up and walk away from the story. The vast majority of people who begin writing a novel will never finish it. It’s damn hard work. Some days are incredibly frustrating. But then some days fill me with such elation that I know I can never give up writing. There’s nothing like entering my fictional world and letting the story and characters come to me. The power of the creative mind is endless. I just have to give in to it.

Book Launch Coming Up

After ten years of creative writing courses, workshops, conferences, and writing group critiques, the dream is finally coming true. May 31 I will be launching my novel at Boswell Book Company in Milwaukee at 7:00 p.m. It’s been a long road: endless revisions, rejections from literary agents, and self-doubt. Without the guidance of the patient instructors of The Continuing Studies Program and the energizing conferences and workshops, this would still be a dream. The best advice I can give other writers is to attend as many conferences and workshops as possible. I have made so many friends and contacts over the years who have inspired me to keep writing and are now supporting the publication of my novel. It is this network of writing friends who will keep you going through the tough times when you doubt yourself and your story. 

All in a Day’s Work

Now begins the other side of writing a book—the process of promotion and marketing. What an eye-opener this has been. Firefighters often say that we were just doing our job when we make a rescue or save a home. And we’re serious. If we happen to be in the right place at the right time, we do what we have to do. Sometimes that can be challenging and incredibly dangerous. But that isour job.

Now, as a writer, I’m supposed to go out and promote myself. I can’t say I was just doing my job as an author. Not too many people would be drawn to my novel if that’s how I pitched it. Now there are interviews, television appearances, newspaper interviews, and book signings. I have to admit this is quite fun and exciting, but what comes with this is the stress of coming off well and being entertaining with the talks.

So it’s been quite a journey and if you can’t walk away from your writing desk, chances are in your favor to succeed. Persistence, persistence, persistence.

If you want to know more about me and my novel please visit my website at https://glrenz.com. You can also preorder my novel there with free shipping until June 1.

Here’s a sample of the many advance reviews the book has received so far:

“Renz draws on his years of experience as a firefighter to bring a hardscrabble authenticity to his novel. He packs the tale with plenty of action and a lot of heart. His firefighting sequences are detailed and thrilling, placing readers right in front of the flames. His prose is clean and, at times, poetic.”—Kirkus Reviews
“Gregory Renz’s new novel is a triumph of poignancy, compassion, and restraint. In it, a man’s regret is transformed to triumph.”—Jacquelyn Mitchard, author of the bestselling novel, The Deep End of the Ocean
BENEATH THE FLAMESis an action-packed debut novel with something for every reader: suspense, romance, friendship, forgiveness, family, and more.  A novel that like its protagonist, relentlessly presses on into fiery and controversial terrain where many other writers fear to tread.”—Nickolas Butler, author of The Hearts of Menand Little Faith

Gregory Lee Renz, retired fire captain and author, was inducted into the Fire and Police Hall of Fame in 2006. In 2008 Gregory traded his turnout gear for a writing desk to pursue his passion. Storytelling. He now lives in Lake Mills, Wisconsin with this wife Paula.