Recently, I finished a full revision of my current writing project—a full-length, alternative history novel (103,263 words to be exact). When published it will be my fifth novel. Each one, as any author could tell you, has been a tremendous challenge that has required years of patient hard work. As I move forward with my current project, I’d like to take a moment to step back and share with readers some of the aspects of writing a historical novel. Consider it a behind the scenes look at my writing process.
Inspiration – In my case, every novel has started with a small seed of inspiration. It’s not profound or sudden, like a lightning strike. Rather, it’s subtle and pleading, like an unreachable itch. The inspiration for my current Work-in-Progress (WIP) came, like the inspiration for my previous novel Resisting Removal, from a book by Anton Treuer. In The Assassination of Hole-in-the-Day, Treuer refers to an event in September 1862 that he calls “The U.S. – Ojibwe Conflict.” Having studied the U.S. – Dakota War of 1862, I was surprised to find out that at the same time war broke out with the Dakota in southern Minnesota, violence nearly erupted between the U.S. and the Ojibwe in central Minnesota. As I read further, I learned that at the time the Ojibwe leader Bagone-giizhig (Hole-in-the-Day) was rumored to have been in talks with the Dakota leader Taoyateduta (Little Crow). This got my imagination going. What if the Ojibwe and Dakota joined forces and, as allies, fought back against U.S. tyranny and settler-colonialism?
Research – Before any historical novel can become a story with a plot and characters and dramatic twists and turns, there must be a foundation of historical knowledge. This is important for many reasons. It creates authenticity, it prevents the past from becoming skewed or misrepresented, and it gives the author many ideas to work from. My research always begins with broad secondary sources. I read books that cover the historical context of the time period in order to familiarize myself with the people and places I’ll be writing about. Then, as I identify specific people and events that I think may fit in my story, I do closer research using both secondary and primary sources. At this point, I’m no longer reading full-length books on the topic. Instead, I’m skimming for information and sources that will directly illuminate the people and events of interest.
For my current WIP, I also did a lot of cultural research. One of my characters is an Ojibwe. I am not. Because of this, I had to familiarize myself not just with the history, but with the cultural practices and traditions of the Ojibwe people. To do this, I relied on several books such as Chippewa Customs by Frances Densmore and Ojibwe Waasa Inaabidaa by Thomas Peacock and Marlene Wisuri. Of course, this brings up issues of appropriation but that is something I cover in other blog posts.
Writing – At some point during the research process it’s time to put down the books and notes and to start writing. The research is not done, but it needs the guidance of a story, and the story doesn’t exist until the writing begins. Usually, when I start writing I have a general idea of what I want my story to be, but I don’t have an entire outline. I just start writing by relying on my original inspiration and the information revealed through my research. As I move forward, I write one chapter at a time, taking breaks in-between chapters to type what I’ve written and to conduct more research. I’m not sure what will happen or where the story will go. I only know of the events and people I want to include. As I write, I have to rely on my creativity to think of ways to build upon each chapter and to incorporate the important people and events involved in the history I’m sharing. Often, I fear there is not enough material to write an entire novel. But I tell myself that as long as I still feel like there is more to write—like there is more that needs to be covered—then I ignore that fear and just keep writing.
Another important aspect of the writing process is discipline. Writing a novel is a long process that requires the patience to move forward one day at a time without feeling overwhelmed or defeated. In order to stay focused, I rarely consider the entirety a project. Instead, I just try to accomplish something—anything—related to my WIP every day. Some days it’s an hour of writing. Some days it’s three. Some days it’s a half hour of typing. Other days it’s two hours of research. For me, it’s just about being persistent and disciplined. I don’t try to get too much done, and I don’t try to think too far ahead.
My current Work-in-Progress began as a short-story that I started writing in June 2018 while staying at my father’s house for a few days. At the time, I was entering my second year of my MFA program at Augsburg University, and I was required to write a short-story that would be critiqued at our summer residency. I wrote it in the mornings while my father worked on revising his own book. The story was about twenty-five pages long, and it received some criticism—which is the purpose of critique groups, after all. In the fall of 2018, I built upon the story with the goal of making it into a complete novel by the spring of 2019. However, in the fall I received some poignant but perceptive criticism that forced me to take a step back. Rather than continue to move the plot forward, I had to get to know my characters by exploring their backgrounds. It wasn’t until the summer of 2019 that I was able to move the story forward again, but this time with a much better idea of who my characters were and what they wanted.
Reaching the end of a first draft is not exactly a smooth process. As I already pointed out, I met some obstacles while writing my current WIP. And as I continued writing, I often found myself going back to rewrite or add scenes in order for the story to make sense with the new scenes, characters, and chapters I added going forward. This is true of every novel I’ve written. The process does not move forward in a straight line, rather it zig-zags forward until finally reaching an end point. For my current WIP I reached that point in September 2020.
First Read-through – The best part of the writing process, for me, is when I get to read my first draft. It’s a little bit nerve-wracking because as the writer, being so close to the story makes it hard to tell if what you did actually worked. But somehow it does work. I always enjoy the story the first time I read it, even though it’s not perfect, even though there is so much room for improvement. And, I’m always a little bit amazed. It’s a lot like finishing a marathon—you’re relieved, exhausted, and somewhere deep down you’re extremely proud.
Beta Readers – In this step of the process, I give the manuscript over to readers who volunteer to critique the first draft. They don’t provide any specific edits. Instead, they look at the story as a whole and provide the writer with general feedback. They point out plot holes and inconsistencies. They let the writer know what they liked and what they didn’t like; which characters were endearing and which characters fell flat. Beta readers are extremely important because they help frame and shape the story. For my current WIP, I sought beta readers in November 2020 and found about ten gracious readers—some friends and family, some colleagues, and some people I did not know at all.
First Revision – By January 2021, I had received feedback from all of my beta readers. This was incredibly gut-wrenching and always is. That’s because, after spending two years on a project, inevitably, it is painful to see it criticized even when criticism is the goal. But, my beta readers did a fantastic job by giving me insights that I couldn’t see myself. And I’ve learned that by listening to beta readers and incorporating their feedback the story becomes much better.
Using their feedback, I started on my first full revision of my current WIP in mid-January 2021. I began by adding a couple of chapters in order to further develop a few characters. Then, I started reading from page one, slowly working my way through each page, each paragraph, each sentence, and each word making revisions along the way. I expected that this would only take two or three months, but I didn’t finish my revision until May of this year. Because I was busy with my jobs and other obligations, I did most of my revisions between 5:40am and 6:30am before going to work. Although I wasn’t spending a lot of time working on the project, it was enough to move it forward.
The writing process for my current WIP is far from over. The next steps involve editing, revising, editing, revising, and then moving toward the submission process which involves querying and writing marketing plans and other things like that. But for now, after almost three years, I’ve completed my first full revision, and I’m currently working on a second read-through. Perhaps, in a year or two, I will continue this blog post so I can share more with you about the long, tedious, and rewarding process of writing and publishing a novel.
Colin Mustful is an author, historian, publisher, and editor. He is the author of four historical novels and the founder and editor of his own press, History Through Fiction. He has a Masters degree in history and a Master of Fine Arts degree in creative writing with a concentration in publishing. He lives and works in Minneapolis, Minnesota.