Category Archives: Research

From One Writer to Another: A Short “How To” on Writing Fiction

I wrote this post for my friend and colleague Rachel Thompson’s BadRedhead Media blog several months ago. And now it comes home. 🙂

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Do you have an idea for a great story? Does something inside push you to string letters together in complete sentences that end up filling multiple pages? Do you feel as if you’ll burst if you don’t stop RIGHT THIS MINUTE and record those scenes and that dialogue swirling round and round in your head?

Welcome to my world, and the world of so many others like me. Welcome to the world of WRITING. What do I do NOW? you may ask. I’m so glad you did. I have answers for you. 🙂 In this post, I’ll address writing historical (specifically, medieval) and fantasy fiction, as they are the setting/time period/theme of my current Work in Progress.

While writing fiction can be as simple as sitting down and setting pen or pencil to paper (or fingers to computer keyboard – whichever your preference), it isn’t always so. It surely wasn’t that simple for me. Oh, the words may flood your imagination and before you know it, you’ve written a complete chapter. Good for you! I sincerely hope it’s that easy for you. Quite often, though, research is necessary, even if it’s just looking up the meaning and best use of a word or phrase.


If like me you write historical fiction, then your setting (geographical) may be a place that exists or did at one time exist in the real world. If so, you’ll need to be sure you know a few things either before you begin writing the story or at some point before you’ve finished your first draft:

  • Where in relation to the rest of the world that place exists (or did exist, if it doesn’t anymore). Part of my book takes place in medieval Silesia, Poland. While it still exists, the borders have changed over the centuries and today it’s divided between Poland, Germany and Czechoslovakia.
  • Topography – mountainous, plains, desert, etc.
  • Climate(s)
  • Culture(s) – how the natives interact with one another and with foreigners/visitors.
  • Cuisine
  • System of exchange – bartering, coin money, etc.
  • Native/national costume/style of clothing (if any). I say “if any,” because in America for example we don’t have any one national style of clothing.
  • Weaponry, soldiers/armies, defense/offense, justice system
  • Sexuality – discrimination between the sexes, expectations and perceptions that separate the genders, local/national traditions/norms for single persons, married persons, etc.
  • Language(s), dialects
  • Medicine/healing
  • Travel between cities, towns, villages, countries

This is by no means an exhaustive list, but it’s a good place to start. The necessity for research is one reason why some books and series take years to write and publish; all of the research that must take place before pen is even set to paper, research that continues while writing, and then the redrafting, polishing, editing and proofreading. If you’re going to spend the time and energy writing a story with the intention of publishing, then you want to be sure it’s your best work. Every time. Your writing skills may improve with each successive book – in fact, they almost certainly will improve. That doesn’t mean your earlier works weren’t your best; they were your best at that time.


Historical Fiction

So. What will you write about? Will you write a coming-of-age tale? Will you write a swashbuckling adventure full of pirates and damsels in distress? Whatever you choose to write about, you’ll probably discover the truth of one of my favorite quotes of all time about writing. Leo Tolstoy said, “All great literature is one of two stories; a man goes on a journey or a stranger comes to town.” The first time I read this quote, I took it as a challenge – a challenge to find a book that WASN’T about one of those two stories. So far, every story I’ve read (literally thousands) has supported this statement.

All fiction is based on one of these two ideas, and you build upon them. Even if the story doesn’t begin with a journey or an arrival, one of those is still present. While, as Patricia C. Wrede points out, a hero going on a journey or a stranger coming to town aren’t plots per say, they ARE precipitating incidents that introduce the plot; they are where the plot begins. They are the foundation upon which all fiction is built.


And what about fantasy? On one hand, writing fantasy can be easy – it’s often make-believe, after all, and subject only to the limits of each writer’s imagination and motivation. On the other hand, it needs to be believable. And if your fantasy is set in the real world – sort of a small step off the beaten path – then you still need to research the setting, time period, etc. This is what I did in my book, SERPENT ON A CROSS, and its work-in-progress sequel, VEIL OF MENACE. I combined real-world historical events and places with fantasy, mythology and Jewish mysticism/esotericism. Some of the fantasy-related research that’s gone into this series is:

  • Eastern European (mainly Russian and Polish) mythology and folklore
  • Jewish folklore and superstition
  • Jewish proverbs
  • Jewish esotericism (NOT kabbalah – my story predates traditional kabbalah)
  • Other writers’ works on any of these subjects

The Actual Writing

Even though writing fiction may not always be as simple as sitting down and setting pen to paper, it doesn’t have to be a daunting prospect; it shouldn’t be. In my case – because I love research so much – the actual writing was sometimes set aside in favor of the research. I finally had to make myself stop (or at least pause) researching and start (and finish) writing the story. Of course, my impatient characters often made their presence felt, usually in the middle of the night, not letting me sleep until I wrote down the scene(s) beating at my imagination.

As for what to write about, the sky is virtually the limit (actually, I’m pretty sure outer space still has vacancies as well). Write about what you know and want to share with others…write about things that scare you that you wish didn’t scare you…write about something you’re interested in learning more about.

One of the wonderful things about writing a story is that you will always learn something, whether about yourself as a person or as a writer, about the subject, about the location. Perhaps all of the above. Such a wealth of knowledge awaits you as a writer. What are you waiting for?

Recommended Reading

Some general research recommendations (all of which I have read) for writing fiction and fantasy:


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One, Two, Buckle My Shoe…

I’m a boot snob.
I love boots. Warm weather, cold weather, or any temperature in between, I’m all about boots. BUT. I don’t like them to have zippers. I own one pair of over-the-knee boots that have zippers. I blame my sister-in-law; she complimented the way they looked when I tried them on at her urging. So I gave in to peer pressure and bought them. I do wear them, but not very often. All the rest of my dozen or so pairs of boots are either lace or pull-on. Yes, even the calf-high and knee-high pairs.
See, here’s the thing: zippers have been in existence for less than 200 years, and boots have been around for millennia (yes, I did my research 😉 ). So how were boots worn BEFORE the zipper was invented? They were either buckled, laced, or hook-and-eyed (also a more “modern” invention, but still older than the zipper), or simply pull-on with no closure (such as traditional riding boots). Wearing zippered boots is a bit like cheating, in my opinion.
My preference might have something to do with the fact that I love ancient/medieval/Renaissance/etc. history more than I do modern history. Buckles, laces and pull-on boots fit into just about any period. Zippers will instantly pull you back into late 19th century, at the earliest. And yes, I also prefer clothing without zippers – some of those things are sewn into the most inconvenient places; my arm neither reaches all the way up my back underhanded, nor all the way down my back overhanded. And God forbid the zipper get stuck halfway up or down your back!
Where was I?
Oh, yes.

All the pretty buckles! Image from

While I enjoy the convenience of a zipper in some types/styles of clothing, I prefer my boots to be “old-school.” Using a zipper to close your boots is just lazy. And zippers break/jam/pinch your skin far more often than do buckles or laces. Then where does THAT leave you? With a pair of boots you might’ve paid good money for that you can no longer wear because the zipper is no longer functional. Of course, you can have the zipper replaced or repaired, but that also costs money. Laces can be replaced rather inexpensively, and buckles are much more durable than zippers.
Buckles and laces can be decorative as well as functional. Don’t know as I’ve ever seen a decorative zipper. Have you? And laces can be switched out at will; anything from traditional leather to actual lace, in most any color and style. Buttons can also be eye-catching fasteners, especially if they’re hook-and-eye. I know, I know, buckles, laces, and hook-and-eye take much more time to fasten than do zippers. Which leads to my next question: Why do you wear boots? For functionality, for style, for comfort? Why can’t it be for all these reasons? For myself, it’s all of the above. And NONE of those reasons includes the need for zippers.

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Baba Yaga, an Incarnation

VasilisaThe legend of Baba Yaga has fascinated me since I discovered the Russian fairytale of Vasilisa the Beautiful, many, many moons ago. Vasilisa’s story shares basic commonalities with the Western fairytale of Cinderella: both lost their mother at a young age, their fathers remarried women who already had two daughters of their own, and both heroines were forced to work as servants in their own home. At this point, the stories diverge, each having its own unique qualities.

Vasilisa’s stepmother, determined to rid herself of her husband’s offspring once and for all, destroys all the lamps in their home and forces the young woman to visit Baba Yaga to request a light, knowing that those who entered the witch’s home rarely left it. But with the help of a magical doll inherited from her mother, her own innate honesty, and a little hard work, Vasilisa survived her encounter with Baba Yaga, returning home with the gift of a burning skull, which consumed the evil stepmother and her daughters, sparing Vasilisa.

Since then, I’ve been fascinated with the mythos of Baba Yaga. When researching Slavic mythology several years ago for my medieval fantasy novel, Serpent on a Cross, I again encountered her. This time, I delved deeper into her legend.

Bilibin._Baba_Yaga_CroppedIn most tales, Baba Yaga is portrayed as a hag who flies in a mortar, using the pestle as a rudder, sweeping away her tracks with a broom made of silver birch. She lives in a log cabin that balances on one or two chicken legs, surrounded by a disturbing palisade made of bleached bones, skulls perched atop each pole, some with rubies gleaming in the eye sockets. She’s a merciless, powerful witch, and depending which legends you believe, she’s also a Guardian of the Waters of Life and Death. THAT legend scintillated my imagination, as did the one that suggested “Baba Yaga” was more than one woman.

Thus, one of my secondary characters in Serpent on a Cross – Miraum – evolved into a Baba Yaga. In the incarnation of Miraum, Baba Yaga is a powerful healer and witch, but a mostly benevolent one. Her home doesn’t stand on chicken legs and while she’s ruthless, she’s not merciless, and just the current in a long line of Baba Yagas who serve as Guardians of the Waters of Life and Death. She becomes the mentor of my protagonist, Dennah, a young Jewish healer who’s recently discovered the unsettling fact that she’s a Weather Witch.

Serpent on a Cross is forthcoming from Booktrope, in print and epub re-release. I’m currently working on the sequel, Veil of Menace, where Miraum as Baba Yaga has more surprises up her sleeve. Stay tuned! 🙂

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