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Writing an Historical Novel About Thomas Jefferson

Updated on April 19, 2010

A Salon Room in Jefferson's Paris

Writing my historical novel

The more I learn about writing historical fiction and the deeper I get into the history of 18th century France, the happier I am with my choice for attempting my fourth novel. With each manuscript (three are carefully tucked in my filing cabinet) it seems I get closer to the quality I would be proud to publish.

My first novel manscript is a police procedural set in San Diego. The second, which I wrote after a marvelous trip to southern France, is about the relation between a French vintner and his wife. The third was another police procedural but set in Cherbourg, France and Exeter, England. I visited both those place for about a week each time.

The manuscript I am currently working on and of which I have finished a first draft is a mystery involving a serial killer of Americans in Paris in 1786, when Thomas Jefferson was Minister Plenipotentiary (I was criticised by someone for using the less officially correct title of Ambassador).

Every writer of historical fiction has to be very careful to make sure the amount of historical information included does not overwhelm the plot and characters. There's such a temptation to flaunt one's hard won knowledge about locales, fashions and behavior of the time. But that's a no-no. Sufficient information, but not over the top.

Now that I'm engaged in re-writing, I am being very careful to watch that style (flow, ease of reading, sound, etc.) and plot (laying one pipe after another, as one famous writer put it) are not interrupted by too many factoids about 18th century fashion, popular music and theater, kinds of carriages and coaches, food, etc., etc., etc..

I am also continually reading. Information about the times, such as biographies and historical studies of lifestyles and fashions. (I had the luck of finding a listserv run for re-enactors of 18th century life, who are experts on all kinds of details, mostly about America, but some about Europe.) But also books about writing, some of which I've listed below. So it's kind of a running game between learning and doing. And, as all my readers understand completely, it's all about the struggle to find the time and organize time to get the prioritized work done.

I have, in the past year, attended four different writing workships, each for a month and half. I'm lucky that in the San Francisco Bay Area I have access to a number of offerings of workshops. From each of these I got different things. One was a group of stark amateurs (with a few exceptions), but from that I got valuable responses from people who came at my writing without preconceived notions of what good writing is. (Except, let me note, a very irritating repetition of the one mantra they seemed to know about writing: "show, don't tell." That's a slogan which says nothing about what the balance should be between showing-dialogue and action-and telling-narrative and description. Showing and telling are both of huge importance in writing fiction-or non-fiction, for that matter.)

One workshop did not distribute writings before meetings, but we each read our ten pages and people gave their immediate reactions. I suppose it was done because a lot of people wouldn't read the distributed materials and therefore not return to the class. In any case, the value-as in all workshops-very much depended on the expertise of the people attending. The leader of the workshop did come through with few, though extremely telling, insights into my work and his suggestions did make a world of difference, for example leading to the a strong focus on Jefferson's fourteen year old daughter.

The other workshops had a good mixture of sophisticated and naive readers. And we distributed our work to be read beforehand. The attendance did fall off as people, like in college, found they didn't have the time to do the reading. And you could see that some raced through the thirty pages of material from several writers for each session probably fifteen minutes before they got in their car. But the instructor offered excellent insight and taught a bit about both the basics and sophisticated matters of writing. And there were participants who were amazingly sophisticated about writing and helped a lot.

And Jefferson? What's fascinating is to peel away the onion skin of his personality and try to infer what was going on in his mind. He was thoroughly human, but at the same time thoroughly the Virginian aristocrat. The great piercing of his armor took place when his wife died after only ten years of marriage-and he never wed again. The other emotional bond was to his daughter. But, characteristically he never spoke of his wife after her death (nor did he re-marry, though he had a love affair in Paris). And his love for his daughter whom he brought with him to Paris was shown in his many rather cold directives about her education and his gifts to her, for example a harpsichord. Still, it's my job to penetrate the aristocratic wall and dip down into his emotional life. That and the wild times in pre-Revolutionary Paris make the huge effort worth it.


Comments about the last book listed above

The last book in the list above, How to Write and Sell Historical Fiction by Persia Woolley is a very helpful book.

Here are two comments about this book from

" I bought this book at Amazon sight unseen, without knowing anything about it, just hoping it would have some useful stuff in it. It definitely does.

Other writing books I've read are written from a contemporary mainstream or particular genre viewpoint. Yet writing historical fiction requires a somewhat different approach. And this is what Ms. Woolley covers, from plot and characters and research to the business aspects of being a writer, like exactly what happens to your manuscript after it's accepted for publication.

Because she's done this herself (The Guinevere trilogy) the tips and examples she offer all make sense.

Some are practical -- she predicts you'll be buying a lot of books (for research) and getting additional bookcases to put them in.

Some deal with writing -- she notes that readers want to read about people and not about facts, so don't load down your narrative with stuff that doesn't impact the plot or the characters -- instead, you might follow Carson McCullough's example and save that info for a glossary in the back of your book.

Other examples are culled from Parke Godwin, William Shaara, Margaret Mitchell and other historical novelists.

Advice aside, I found it encouraging just to read a book by someone who understands that historical novelists share something that other novelists don't have, or should I say, aren't afflicted with."


"There are a lot of how-to books out there for authors and aspiring authors, but this is definitely the most helpful one I've read. Persia Woolley covers everything from initial research, through plotting and re-writes, to residuals and movie rights. Along the way, she pays special attention to one of the biggest challenges that writers face while in thick of their work: dealing with technical details without letting go of the big picture. Woolley offers specific, practical advice on both the 'inspiration' part of the writer's work (research resources, forceful characterization, story momentum) and the 'perspiration' part(keeping track of story action using computers, file drawers or index cards, dealing with an agent). But her greatest gift is encouragement: the conviction that the world needs your story."

Q & A About Writing My Book

The book I am working on now is my fourth novel manuscript. I have previously sent two of the four to agents and received encouragement. Why didn’t I continue on with those manuscripts, revising and sending them out?

It was a question of throwing good time after bad time. After re-reading each finished manuscript I decided it would take longer to revise and re-shape the manuscript for likely publication than it would to write a new one and perfect it.

My friends and relatives (except one) have been nicely quiet with their advice. None of them (except the one) nagged me to try to get the older ‘scripts published. The one who did nag me threw at me the old criticism that “you’re being too perfectionist.”

It was this criticism that made me confront two issues:

1. Was I being too much of perfectionist?

2. What degree of perfection (or smoothness, or interest) does a ‘script have to have to be published today.

The answer to the first question I resolved as follows: When I buy a book, I think not only of the twenty to thirty-five dollars I have to shell out. I think about the anywhere from four to twelve hours I’ll have to spend with this book. If I don’t spend the time reading the entire book, I have to deal with regret for wasting the money or disappointment with the quality of the writer or the fact that the writer’s interests, style and plot didn’t match my own. A book has to be really well done to wake the attention of a person reading at night in bed, traveling on a boring airplane (and resisting sleep and the movies) or even wide-awake with spare time to read.

I recently came across a quote that really struck me: “A book is not written, it is built.”

What that meant to me is that there is a substructure to even the best written books that make them into a “page-turner” or at least a “worth-getting-back-to” for a lot of people. The most basic element of that substructure to me is suspense. Suspense at every point: beginning, middle and end of paragraphs, beginning, middle and end of every page, of every scene, of every chapter, and, at the end of the book, the suspenseful feeling that “I wish there was more to read in this story.” That’s perfection for a writer: when the reader feels nostalgic for the characters and has flashbacks about the plot.

So, no, I don’t feel-yet-that I’m being too perfectionist. Do people nag: “Hey, you, brain surgeon, you’re being too perfectionist, just drill the hole!” or “Hey, you, rocket scientist, what you reading so much stuff wit’ numbers for? You’ll spoil your eyes.”

If you’re writing to wake up people in beds and planes and even to excite people comfortable on a Saturday afternoon, I do believe you have to train like a verbal boxer, think like a rocket scientist, and wield a word scalpel as acutely as a brain surgeon.

Second question: What degree of perfection (or smoothness, or interest) does a ‘script have to have to be published today.


Notice we’re in a deep recession. (If you read this in 2012, hopefully we got out of it safely.) Fewer houses are being built for people to cuddle up in on a Saturday afternoon to read a novel. And a lot of other things are not being created and sold-including books. That means that publishers are needy in the sense that they want to believe their books will be sold.

But the good news is that the publishing industry is a lot like the movie industry. For all their experience and expertise it is difficult for the executives of these two industries to predict which of their babies will grow up to get rich. They can bet that the one hundredth replication of John Grisham novel either in print or film will attract a following loyal to the brand name. (I have no problem with that: I only buy Canon cameras,) I had a friend who managed a Denny’s restaurant who told me, “We don’t sell food. We sell the promise that you’ll get the same food in any Denny’s restaurant anywhere in the U.S. (He was slightly wrong, in some Denny’s I can get grits and some I can’t.) That’s the story of a brand: If you like Grisham #10, you’ll probably like Grisham #11. If Grisham kept you entertained on the flight from New York to Istanbul, he’ll keep you entertained from Istanbul to Moscow.

Oh, the good news: Both Hollywood and publishers make ninety percent of their profits from the Grisham’s. But, even now, in a downturn, they’re looking for new Grisham’s. And, they won’t know one until the see it selling out at theaters and bookstores. I won’t go into the long history of unknowns who have made it. And let’s not talk about the probabilities of winning lotteries. But you have to offer basically good quality to even get into the lottery.

Of course, "quality" means different things for a pot-boiling (i.e., page turner) detective story and a semi-literary historical novel. So, choice of genre affects the challenges one encounters and the goals one must meet in their writing.

Let’s just sum up:

You have to pay your dues. You don’t learn how to keep people awake reading your novel until you’ve learned the basics of maintaining suspense at every point of your book. But if you pay your dues and write a number of manuscripts that are “learning experiences” (fortunately, your not-so-good attempts don’t wind up in funeral parlors with holes in their heads, you’re only an “external” brain surgeon just trying to keep brains awake) it is likely that you will improve.

To improve my writing I read lot’s of books on writing from the typical self-help for writers books to books on writing by the best and most esoteric of authors. I have recently paid to be in three writers workshops. They were extremely different and each added a facet to my understanding of how to “build” a book. And, for me, this is how I work: I do not write every day. Sometimes, for several days I spend an hour or two on a long walk bouncing a question about my book (characters, plot, etc.) back and forth between my conscious and subconscious states. Recently I have spent a week of my spare time reading up on an historical character, an artist, I decided to showcase in my novel and kind of feeling that character’s emotional life (how he felt about himself, how he felt about his competition). I strongly believe every individual writer has her or his own way of building subconscious ideas, thoughts and images into a structure of suspense and entertainment for the reader.

I have a lot more to say about my experiences writing my historical novel about Thomas Jefferson when he was ambassador to France in 1786, but I’ll save it for another Hub.

Below you'll find a few videos which could be helpful and itnteresting for people who want to write.

Stephen King-Very Brief Advice to New Writers

Joyce Carol Oates - On Writing Characters

Writing Suggestions-Animated

Inspiration for Writing an Historical Novel


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    • profile image

      french mastiff  

      8 years ago

      Historical fiction is still my favorite novels that is always in my priority list i have read the some of the best stories of Jennifer and David and think such stories displays the bets of the 18 and 19th century some labriaries and e books were also available in the web.

    • Adrianna's Pages profile image

      Adrianna's Pages 

      9 years ago

      I have read many hubs in my short tenure, here, on HP's. Finally I have landed on the topic I can relate to in a big way. Historical Fiction! Great work. I will read your others, as well, to continue to give myself that shot in the arm, kick in the pants, whatever else I can think of to get myself moving again and regain a new sense of purpose and respect for my writing style.

      Another book for the writing "tool box" is Steven Kings "On Writing". Not just a How to, in fact it's not really a how to, at all. I recommend to all that share the love of novel writing.

      I will look into Wooley's works ('d ya like that play on words?).

      Greta job!



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