Had you asked me what my least favorite subject was in high school I would have said history. Yet, historical fiction has become my chosen genre. It sort of crept up on me over the years and grew into a fascination for all things historical.
Straight-up history, the way I was taught in school, was super boring. I remember lists of battle dates and descriptions of bloody conflicts. So, when I think of historical fiction the way I write it, I’d describe it as historical action/adventure. Rather than having history as the basis for the story, the story comes first and is then infused with history. In other words I attempt to immerse the reader into a world set sometime in the past.
I’m fascinated by the many colorful and exciting times humans have lived and suffered through. I find that the more I dig into the past of an individual, the more interesting that person becomes. Let’s take Lord Werner von Hanstein, a knight who lived in Thuringia, Germany during the late Middle Ages. He was master of Castle Hanstein and had a hot love affair with a beautiful woman. He also feuded with a nasty duke, did a bit of street robbery and later in life became city captain of Lübeck in Northern Germany. From what I could find out he was super charismatic and despite being a lord beloved by the peasants of his villages.
What do you find most challenging about the writing process, and how do you deal with it?
Two things come to mind:
- No matter how much I work, write, edit, research, etc., I never feel I’ve done enough. I always hear that little voice whispering how there is so much more to do. When you have a physical project or any defined task in your job, you go do the work and pat yourself on the back. Being an author and working for yourself there is no limit and the sense of accomplishment, if felt at all, is short-lived.
As mentioned under a different topic below, I’m working on becoming more patient. I think recognizing you have to give it time and believing in yourself ultimately help to keep your sanity.
- For me beginnings are hardest. Putting that first paragraph, page and chapter down requires the author to commit to some degree. Even though any chapter can be edited or thrown out, I often have doubts. First pages also determine the ‘voice’ of our character(s) and so it’s important that it’s done right. In fact there is a slew of twenty or thirty to-dos for first chapters. First chapters always daunt me when starting a new manuscript.
When and where do you do your writing?
I typically begin writing around nine am in my office, an ex-bedroom with lots of book shelves and a desk. I have a really great chair that allows me to sit for many hours. Some people love to write in a coffee shop, but I find that too distracting. You’re talking to a chocoholic, so to keep myself going in the afternoon anything with chocolate works for me and I eat way too much of it on a daily basis.
When I develop new material, I typically take several breaks, go to yoga class, walk the dog and do housework. It is during this time I work out any story problems, things I’m missing, a way to get my protagonist out of a pickle. Some days I work until five pm, others I quit early. I rarely work late into the evening because my brain seems to go into a fog after dinner.
What have you learned about promoting your books?
My publisher makes sure my books are available through the major retailers in the U.S. and other English-speaking countries. I keep a presence on Facebook, Goodreads and Twitter, participate in author fairs and bookstore visits, go to schools and generally anywhere people want me to share stuff about writing, historical research and my books. I also now teach at libraries and a community college and am presenting at writing conferences. I’m really excited about being able to present at next year’s Historical Novel Society (HNS) annual conference.
They say patience is a virtue and I tend to agree. I’m trying to exercise more patience because the chance a book becomes a bestseller is extremely small. Consider the number of books published every day. I think right now more than 3,500 books hit the market on a daily basis. That’s a lot of noise. Even if you’re published through one of the major five publishers in New York, chances are you’re not landing on the bestseller list. It takes a lot of marketing dollars, connections and a healthy dose of luck.
For most authors this means we keep writing high quality books and keep marketing them, involving ourselves in our communities, teaching and sharing and being good people. And eventually, ever so slowly, we grow our audiences and maybe, just maybe one day, we can actually live off the income we generate.
So, I’ve decided to enjoy every minute of my author journey, well okay, not every minute, but I’m definitely enjoying the process of creating and polishing a story and seeing it through to publication.
It’s the best thing in the world.
What are you most proud of as a writer?
Looking back at how far I’ve come. I cringe when I think about my first manuscript and how proud I was at the time. Being a new writer we don’t realize how much is still missing and that it takes thousands of hours of writing, studying craft and reading to grow as a writer. I’m most proud that I stuck with it and kept going to workshops, studying books on craft and listening to my critique partners.
It’s not easy to receive negative feedback but it is an effective way of learning. I know I continue to learn every day and I strive to get better as long as I can make my fingers move on the keyboard. So, keeping a positive attitude through the low points in my journey has been important.
If you could have dinner with any writer, living or dead, who would it be and what would you talk about?
I have a number of favorites, but my all-time favorite is J.R.R. Tolkien who I can no longer ask. I’d love to know if he had the “Lord of the Rings” story in his head before he began or if he came up with it as he wrote. I just find it so fascinating how he developed these amazing characters and beings and this convoluted, connected story where every group plays a role. I found it challenging enough to write the “Escape from the Past” trilogy and make sure that I didn’t leave lose ends. His is way more complicated and remains my favorite fantasy read.
Annette Oppenlander writes historical fiction for young adults and anyone who loves stories set in the past. When she isn’t in front of her computer, she shares her knowledge through writing workshops and indulges her old mutt, Mocha. In her spare time she travels around the U.S. and Europe to discover amazing histories. The mother of three ‘former’ teens, Annette lives with her husband in Bloomington, Ind.
On Twitter: @aoppenlander