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Meet the Teaching Artist: How to Write Commercially Viable Historical Fiction with L.M. Elliott

by Writing Workshops Staff

3 months ago

Meet the Teaching Artist: How to Write Commercially Viable Historical Fiction with L.M. Elliott

by Writing Workshops Staff

3 months ago

Embark on a journey through time with award-winning author L. M. Elliott as she unveils the secrets to crafting mesmerizing historical fiction. With a distinguished career spanning fourteen novels, including best-sellers like Bea and the New Deal Horse (Winner of the 2024 Scott O'Dell Award for Historical Fiction), Louisa June and the Nazis in the Waves, and Hamilton and Peggy!: A Revolutionary Friendship, Elliott is an expert in writing historical fiction.

In her upcoming Zoom seminar, How to Write Exciting, Evocative, & Commercially Viable Historical Fiction, participants will delve deep into the intricacies of research, character development, and immersive world-building under Elliott's seasoned guidance.

In this one-day crash course, Elliott will illuminate the path to creating authentic and commercially successful historical narratives. From uncovering unique topics and characters to mastering era-specific dialogue and societal challenges, participants will gain invaluable insights into every facet of the writing process. Through interactive workshops and expert advice from developmental editor Peter Malone Elliott on publishing and query strategies, aspiring authors will emerge equipped with the tools to breathe life into the past and captivate readers with their own historical tales. Don't miss this opportunity to learn from a master storyteller and elevate your historical fiction to new heights of excellence.

Hi, L.M. Please introduce yourself to our audience.

I’m a New York Times best-selling author of historical and biographical fiction, with 14 historical/biographical novels for teens, “new adults”, and adults who don’t worry about labels! A magazine journalist for 20 years before deciding to adapt and grow one of my articles into a novel, I love nothing better than finding story and characters in research. I “report” my novels, just as I did my articles. I truly believe that writing compelling, authentic fiction requires that treasure hunt.

My work has won the Scott O’Dell, the VLA's Cardinal Cup, and the Grateful American Book Prize for historical fiction; and been named NCSS/CBC Notables (National Council of Social Studies/Children’s Book Council), Bank Street College of Education Best Books, Kirkus Bests, Junior Library Guild Gold Selections, and received many starred reviews. I'm a lifelong Virginian and history-lover.

What made you want to teach this specific class? Is it something you are focusing on in your own writing practice? Have you noticed a need to focus on this element of craft?

I decided to teach this class because I’m constantly asked where I find my ideas and the “hidden history” that becomes the spine of my novels; how I tuck in facts and historically accurate details without disrupting the narrative to create an immersive and compelling read. Plus partnering with Peter will give participants answers about packaging and submitting their manuscripts that I don’t know! (I’ve been blessed with a rare long-standing partnership with the same two editors for twenty years, so I have been spared the more typical and grueling submission process.) I spend many happy days in schools talking with teenagers about the history contained in my novels or leading writing workshops. Feels like adult writers are hungry for the same kind of info and encouragement.

Give us a breakdown of how the course is going to go. What can the students expect? What is your favorite part about this class you've dreamed up?

My favorite part? Sharing some of the heart-stopping, laugh-inducing, gasp-worthy, idea-jumpstarting tidbits I’ve found in primary documents that created entire characters, plot twists and surprises, or handed me wonderful personality-revealing details. Real life moments are so much more baffling, inspiring, and moving than anything most of us could just make-up out of thin air.

Like Alexander Hamilton goosing Eliza to write more affectionate love letters by dropping bits of gossip about her little sister, Peggy, the star of my biographical novel, Hamilton and Peggy! A Revolutionary Friendship. Example: In one of his notes, Alex teased Eliza that if she weren’t careful Peggy might beat her to marriage: “When your sister (Peggy) returns home, I shall try to get her in my interest and make her tell me of all your flirtations. Have you heard any thing more of what I hinted to you about Fleury? When she returns, give my love to her and tell her, I expected, she would have outstripped you in the Hymenial line.”

There’s so much in that letter to unpack, including that final double-entendre, but my immediate thought was: who the heck is Fleury? Turns out the French Marquis de Fleury was one of only eight people awarded a Congressional Medal of Honor during the Revolution. He was smart, brave, and erudite and quite interested in Peggy, according to my tracking down other hints about them in other letters. I’ll tell you more when we meet!

You can see the course description (and sign up!) for exactly how this course on writing and marketing historical fiction will go, and what students can expect to glean.

What was your first literary crush?

Frankly, I was a bit of a "tomboy" and spent most of my childhood romping through wildflower fields behind our home, climbing trees, and playing with our pets.

I was lucky to live in one of the lusher parts of Virginia, where the hills roll green—so I was an outdoor child. But when I went indoors, a phenomenal library awaited me. I grew up in what had been my grandfather’s dairy farm. He was also a commonwealth’s attorney, prone to quoting Shakespeare in his closing arguments and an avid reader. I wish I’d known him. But I felt a kinship with him through his vast collection of books.

His study was filled with stories of adventure, chivalry, and quests. I grew up on retellings of Robin Hood; Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book; J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan; Robert Louis Stevenson poems and novels like Treasure Island; the real Winnie the Pooh by A.A. Milne with that wry humor and delight in childhood; C.S. Lewis’ Narnia series, E.B. White’s Stuart Little and Trumpet of the Swan, T. H. White The Sword in the Stone, Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, and O’Henry’s short stories.

These are often classified as “boy books” – thank goodness no one told me that! I think that’s partially why I can write stories like Under a War-torn Sky that feature male protagonists coming of age and following ideals of hope and courage, even amid the destruction and hatred of war. Or Suspect Red, exploring the impact of national politics and rhetoric on two teenage boys during McCarthyism, and Walls, following two male cousins divided by the Cold War’s propaganda and dangers.

In that childhood library, I also found books my grandmother and mother loved: Little Women, Jane Austen’s parlor dramas, and the Little House on the Prairie series, all which taught me to look for women of strength and resilience, wit, and spontaneous ingenuity—no matter what constraints society put on them. A sixth sense that has served me well as a journalist and novelist.

And, of course, there was Scott O'Dell's wondrous Island of the Blue Dolphins that completely engrossed and transported me, opening my eyes to the magic of historical fiction.

What are you currently reading?

As is always the case with me, I’m reading a lot of nonfiction and biographies as prep for my next project. But I am also working my way through the list of past Scott O’Dell award winners, in humble homage and awe of now being included among them. Right now, I’m thoroughly enjoying The Hired Girl and next will dive into All He Knew. In adult fare, I recently joined the bandwagon of love for Lessons in Chemistry and the Vanishing Half.

How do you choose what you're working on? When do you know it is the next thing you want to write all the way to THE END?

I always look for what feels “a hole in coverage” and therefore more unique—topics or people not thoroughly explored yet. I often test out ideas on groups I’m speaking with. WALLS, for instance, came about when I was out in schools and bookstores talking about Suspect Red, a novel set in McCarthyism and the terrible Red Scare of the 1950s. There was a lot of ill-informed discussion at the time about NATO and as a child of a WWII veteran, I was stunned by how few people (pundits, politicians, and adults) understood that it was formed in reaction to Soviet Russia’s aggressive take-over of Eastern Europe and its ruthless, 14-month-long blockade of West Berlin in 1948, a brutal campaign to starve Americans into leaving our post and Berliners into submission. So I started asking high schoolers what they knew about NATO. I received blank looks. Then I asked about the Berlin Wall. Again, mostly silent stares, although a few raised their hands to say, “I know it came down.”

There it was—a gaping hole in coverage that I wanted to fill with a good story by which teens would learn--through osmosis, soaking in all the historic facts and details I could weave in--while enjoying a gripping (I hope!) adventure. 

Where do you find inspiration?

In my research and in the interests/questions/hopes of my now-adult children, who have grown up to be such gifted creative artists, one a theatre director, the other a novelist/screenwriter. They are my best editors and my muses.

What is the best piece of writing wisdom you've received that you can pass along to our readers? How did it impact your work? Why has this advice stuck with you?

Two things that my editor at the Washingtonian magazine said to me. He’d been a UPI wire-reporter in his day, so he had a distrust of adjectives, hated adverbs (called them “latin words”) and demanded quick pace and rhythm, even in more lyrical passages. Perhaps an odd-seeming background for a magazine that featured what we called “narrative journalism,” stories told in scenes, a month-in-the-life-type portraits (and which now carries the more fancy label of “creative nonfiction”).

But it was actually wonderful, because he possessed a no-nonsense, sharp sense of story. I’ve never forgotten two things he said in that succinct, e.e. cummings way of his:

First, that if people are reading, they’re thinking. To not over-explain or point out the gist or meat of a scene or description. To write it and let readers find the insight for themselves. Of course, that meant that I needed to paint it well! Nuanced but still clear, evocative and illustrative.

Second, that stories on tough topics—(and I tended to tackle some harsh things: domestic violence, sexual assault, child abuse, mental illness)—absolutely had to contain two elements that were also THE most important things in writing. To make people cry (“which you’re very, very good at that,” he said) and to make people laugh. (He paused, before quietly adding, “and you’re not very good at that, Laura.” Lol!)

So, I never forget to balance the heart-breaking, the shocking, the troubling (which is endemic to so many of the novels I’ve done) with moments of levity, of sweetness, of hope, and to stitch into the narrative characters who might have a little quirk, a little whimsy, a little self-deprecating or wry bluntness, that can make readers smile. Unabated terror or sadness eventually loses readers and dilutes what an author is trying to help them see or feel. They glaze over.

What is your favorite book to recommend on the craft of writing? Why this book?

Oh dear, I’m not going to be particularly helpful on this question. I’ve been doing this so long now I don’t tend to read commentary on the craft of writing. When I was younger, though, I devoured Eudora Welty’s One Writer’s Beginnings and Russell Baker’s Growing Up. I am a big admirer of Newbery Award winning author, Phyllis Reynolds Naylor, and her succinct treatise The Craft of Writing the Novel is quite good. A friend also gave me a beautiful, glossy, coffee table type collection: The Literary Ladies Guide to the Writing Life: Inspiration and Advice from Celebrated Women Authors Who Paved the Way. I often dip into it for a sip of wise and energizing sustenance.

Bonus question: What’s your teaching vibe?

Hmmmm. An enthusiastic, maybe even a tad geeky lover of history and research’s sense of discovery, of playing detective, tempered with more serious how-tos, plus a sincere delight in learning from those I’m talking with. I genuinely love being among itchy 8th graders, who are full of questions and hopes and unabashed excitement about something they love. Hope it’s okay with ya’ll if I adopt the same aura of let’s-enjoy-ourselves-today-and-oh-my-gosh-look-at-this-cool-thing-I-learned!

I try to convey the wonderment and responsibility of a credo that John Steinbeck expressed so beautifully when accepting the Nobel Prize for Lit, that an author must always believe in the possibility of "the perfectibility of mankind," the quest and yearning for betterment.

Not naive, ever hopeful. Steinbeck said, “The ancient commission of the writer has not changed. He is charged with exposing our many grievous faults and failures, with dredging up to the light our dark and dangerous dreams for the purpose of improvement. Furthermore, the writer is delegated to declare and to celebrate man's proven capacity for greatness of heart and spirit—for gallantry in defeat, for courage, compassion and love. In the endless war against weakness and despair, these are the bright rally flags of hope and of emulation.”

Learn more about working with L.M:

You can sign up for L.M.'s upcoming seminar, How to Write Exciting, Evocative, & Commercially Viable Historical Fiction, and join us for what promises to be an in-depth and engaging class!

Instructor L. M. Elliott is winner of the 2024 Scott O'Dell Award for Historical Fiction and a New York Times best-selling author of fourteen historical and biographical novels. She has written on a variety of eras for a variety of ages. Her works include Louisa June and the Nazis in the Waves; Under a War-torn Sky; Hamilton and Peggy!, DaVinci’s Tiger; and two Cold War docudramas, WALLS and Suspect Red. Her novels have received multiple starred reviews and been named NCSS/CBC Notables; Bank Street College of Ed. Best Books; Kirkus’ 100 Best YA Novels, winners of the Grateful American Book Prize and the VLA Cardinal Cup for Historical Fiction.


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