Looking for more from Sean McLachlan? He also hangs out on the Midlist Writer blog, where he talks about writing, adventure travel, caving, and everything else he gets up to. He also reproduces all the posts from Civil War Horror, so drop on by!

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Guest Post by Cynthia Hope Clark: History is the Foundation for Any Novel

Before I get to my very special guest blogger today, I want to make two quick announcements. First, welcome to all my new readers who dropped by for the Origins blogfest. I had a great time reading your blogs and I look forward to getting to know you. Second, the $2.99 sale of my Civil War novel A Fine Likeness ends on February 15. Get it now at Amazon, B&N, or Smashwords before it goes back up to $4.99!

While I try to avoid clichés, Cynthia Hope Clark needs no introduction. Famous for her blog and Funds for Writers site where she passes out writing wisdom like candy on Halloween, she is a cornerstone of the online writing community. Now she's published her first novel, Lowcountry Bribe – A Carolina Slade Mystery. I've known Hope for years and I can't think of a more appropriately named person. She keeps it positive while keeping her eyes wide open to the pitfalls of writing life. Her persistence has paid off and now the world is getting an exciting new mystery series. So without further ado, here's Hope!

When we contemplate history as writers, we think of historical romance, period novels, time travel sci-fi, nonfiction travel guides, textbooks, and magazine features. However, I propose that all authors must study history to create the best prose, no matter what genre they write.

I write contemporary mystery fiction. Like any novelist, I had to establish setting for my new release Lowcountry Bribe – A Carolina Slade Mystery. The location is the rural coastal area of South Carolina, known locally as the Lowcountry.  My protagonist grew up in the outskirts of Charleston County. A client offers her a bribe, and the story takes off through downtown Charleston and rural Edisto Island. History has no bearing on the bad guy’s motives or the heroine’s efforts to take him down, but the colorful past of the region certainly gives the reader a more 3-D image of where the murders and kidnappings take place.

For instance, while Slade hunted in the courthouse for deeds related to real estate fraud, a task that should seem mundane, I whisked the reader away with a quick mention of Sherman’s march through Charleston.

Heir property without clear chain of title was a common issue in a county so steeped in history. General Sherman’s march through the state at the end of the Civil War had devastated hundreds of title records.  Many longtime residents still wouldn’t mention his name, or spat when they did. I wasn’t too fond of the General myself. My great-great grandfather had fought in the Mississippi Cavalry, Company F, along with five of his brothers. One of them had deserted, something we didn’t discuss.

Not only do we better understand the degree of difficulty of the quest, but we become more engaged with the character. She might not be a battle flag-waving confederate, but she respects her heritage.

Slade then finds herself hunting for clues and ultimately seeking a deranged farmer in remote regions of a county most people only affiliate with Charleston, the beautiful city that serves as vacation destination for so many. While one could write about wide open fields and broken down barns and call it rural, a description that could fit in any county in most any American state, a dose of history keeps the reader captivated while Slade eats up road in her search.

People stepped back in time traveling outside of civilization where a historical past and the present blended together. Pockets of plantation slave descendants lived incognito between pieces of water, dirt roads and pine-oak thickets dripping with Spanish moss.

Knowledge is empowering. Before we write about fictional characters, we often jot notes, even pages, of traits, likes, desires, flaws and looks about them. Authors don’t use those lists for reference. On the contrary, they write that material to develop an inherent feel for the character. When the author opens a scene with the protagonist, she already knows how he’ll walk in the room and treat what he finds, all because she studied him top to bottom, inside and out, from his past to his present, even to what he hopes to gain in the future.

Understanding the history of your story’s setting empowers you precisely the same way. By understanding Civil War history, I could capitalize on it in my characters’ reactions, the landscape depiction, even decisions made by the players possibly because of their ancestors or who they once knew.

Let’s leave setting and talk more about character. As a writer, you use tags in dialogue, like he said or she said. Great dialogue, however, needs few, if any tags, because the dialect, manner of phrasing, and word selection can paint a clear enough picture to keep the reader oriented as to who is speaking. History plays a heavy role in that depiction.

All my books are set in rural South Carolina. In the Charleston area, one meets a variety of speech designs, from the downtown bluebloods to the Geechie dialect of some natives. In my second novel, however, the setting shifts to Beaufort, to islands known for the Gullah culture. That remarkable past dates to the 1600s, and helps the reader fall in love with the story. Between the voodoo and the impressive fact that those people were freed in 1861 by the Union Army, while the rest of South Carolina continued to fight the Civil War, the characters become more than cohorts in crime solving. Even the agriculture has a pertinent history, filtering into the plot. Also, immigrants in the story come from Haiti. After weeks of analysis, I pieced enough background together to weave a story how Haitians could be enticed to travel to America via other islands, and fall prey to human trafficking, because it’s happened before.

Every setting, every story, every genre has tremendous potential to grow into a deeper, higher quality read with the incorporation of history in the telling. I can’t imagine not doing historical research for my fiction, because with each tidbit I learn springs opportunity for my characters, my setting and even the direction of my story.

C. Hope Clark writes mystery by the banks of Lake Murray, South Carolina. Lowcountry Bribe, the first of The Carolina Slade series, can be found at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Bell Bridge Books, and your neighborhood bookstore. Hope is also editor of FundsforWriters.com , a well-known resource for working writers, recognized by Writer’s Digest Magazine in its 101 Best Websites for Writers from 2001 through 2011, over a decade of excellence.


  1. Thanks for the honor of writing this post, Sean. History is very important in my work, and I can't emphasize it enough in almost any writing.

    C. Hope Clark

  2. Anyone who's been to Charleston and/or read the novels of Pat Conroy or Dot Frank can feel the impact of historical events. When used in a novel, the deepen the reader's sense of place and make for realistic plot twists such as deeds destroyed in a war or the rich language and culture of Gullah. Since so many students think ancient history was whatever happened last year, I'm happy to find this post emphasizing it's importance in fiction set in "the right now."


  3. Thanks for the insight into your writing process, Hope. I've always especially enjoyed authors who manage to weave some history into the plot without stopping to give the reader a history lecture. I'm looking forward to reading Lowcountry Bribe.

  4. I was lurking here on Sean's site trying to get a sense of things, as I'll be a guest blogger soon, and I was really intrigued by the tips here. The section on tags is particularly interesting to me, because I spent much of the editing days on my first draft removing them, making my book move a lot faster. They simply seemed redundant. But now, I'm thinking: is it possible that my dialogue is actually working? Something to wish for anyway. Good insight, Hope and thanks for all you do for writers! All the best, Kathryn Hohmann


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