Guest Post – Sheldon Russell

The Writer in a Time Machine

As a writer of historical fiction, I’ve been caught in more lies than a presidential candidate. And I’m a pretty good liar. But writing historical fiction is a lot tougher than you might think. Traps abound when writing about a different time, and there’s always someone waiting and willing to let you know.
On top of that, my time machine doesn’t work any better than my truck, and being dead-set against walking anywhere for any reason, I’m stuck with research to get where I’m going. You know research: books, articles, old pictures, the ever-omniscient Internet.

Lord knows there’s no shortage of facts out there. I carry them home by the box. I’ve index cards by the thousands. Manila folders stacked to my chin, each with a title scribbled in pencil; I like to reuse the folders. I’ve enough facts at any given point to give a history professor cramps.

But here’s the dilemma: While I can’t write historical fiction without facts, there’s nothing a reader of fiction despises more. The reader doesn’t want to be told how it was. He wants to experience it. She wants to feel it, taste it, and smell it. He doesn’t want facts intruding into his world and screwing up everything. If she wanted a history lesson, she wouldn’t be reading fiction, would she?

So, if you want to write history, go ahead. Have a facts banquet. I’m always in need of more facts. They keep me from making really stupid mistakes, most of the time. But if you want to write fiction, keep them well out of sight. Let the facts tell your characters what to do, what to say, what not to say, but never let them speak themselves.

When a reader of fiction spots a naked fact, his personal dream is interrupted. Cold water has just been dashed in her face. Now, he’s wide awake and angry. Her dream was a hell of a lot more interesting than your fact, and you’ve ruined it. It was her dream, after all. And as everyone knows, it’s almost impossible to restart a really good dream.

I liken the process to antique hunting. Some antique shops take great pride in organizing, labeling, and establishing the provenance of their products. But as every true antique hunter knows, it’s entirely more exciting to discover something of value on your own in a junk shop. It’s the hunt, isn’t it, the digging through stuff and making the discovery yourself that keeps it fun?

Same deal here. Let the reader get to know your people and how they behave in their time. Let him discover history through them. Remember, writing historical fiction is not about history. It’s about creating characters who are true to their history. It is the characters who must bring the history to life, not the other way around.

About the author ~ 

A former Oklahoma public school English teacher, Sheldon Russell retired as a professor emeritus from the University of Central Oklahoma in 2000. Russell published his first novel, Empire, in 1993 with Evans Publications, Inc. He followed that suspense novel with two historic frontier titles—The Savage Trail (Pinnacle Books, 1993) and Requiem at Dawn (Pinnacle Books, 2000). Requiem at Dawn was a finalist for Best Original Paperback in the 2001 Western Writers of America, Inc., Spur Awards competition.

In 2006, the University of Oklahoma Press released Dreams to Dust: A Tale of the Oklahoma Land Rush, which won the Oklahoma Book Award in Fiction and was selected as an Official Oklahoma Centennial Project. With The Yard Dog: A Mystery (Minotaur Books, September 2009), Russell introduces the Hook Runyon series. The first book finds Hook investigating a murder at an Oklahoma railroad yard near a German POW camp during WWII.

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 THE BOOK ~

The Insane Train (Hook Runyon Mysteries)
The Baldwin Insane Asylum in Barstow, California, has recently burned to the gound in an inferno that cost many inmates their lives and injured scores. Now, Hook Runyon has been put in charge of security for a train that is to transport the survivors, alongside the head of the asylum, Dr. Baldwin, the attending doctor, taciturn Dr. Helms, and a self-sacrificing nurse named Andrea, to a new location in Oklahoma.

Hook hires a motley crew of WW II veterans to help, and they set out for the new destination. But things go awry on the Insane Train, as several inmates and attendants are found dead, and Dr.Baldwin seems increasingly disoriented and incapable of running operations.

With Andrea’s help, Hook begins investigating the suspicious deaths, and uncovers a trail of revenge that has been a long time in the planning … by a person as mentally disturbed as her charges.

Click HERE to enter to win an autographed copy of The Insane Train (pin # 2652)
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