To celebrate the release of her second historical novel, Daughters of the Resistance, author Lana Kortchik shares her top five writing tips.
Lana Kortchik’s Top Five Writing Tips
For as long as I can remember, I’ve been obsessed with historical fiction. As a child, I always had my nose in a book, even when I was supposed to be doing something else, like homework. The Count of Monte Cristo was my number one favourite, with its dark themes of revenge and ultimate forgiveness. The Three Musketeers was a close second, with its astonishing friendship and swashbuckling adventures. Dumas has an incredible ability to transport you back in time and capture your imagination and I couldn’t get enough. When I was a little older, I discovered one of his lesser known novels, The Companions of Jehu, and it led to an obsession with Napoleonic history that lasted a lifetime, and a university degree. At university, I realised there was only one thing better than reading historical fiction, and that’s writing it.
Every writer is different and what works for one person might not work for others, but below are five tips that always help me when I’m writing my books.
1. Research, research, research
As writers, we use our imaginations to create worlds, characters and events. But if it’s historical fiction we are writing, we want the historical background to be as accurate as possible. Our goal is to take the reader on a trip to the past, and in order to do so, our made-up world needs to fit in neatly with history. And that’s where research comes in.
Before I start writing a new book, I spend at least three months researching the time period. Once you’ve decided when your story will take place, read everything you can get your hands on – diaries, memoirs, newspaper articles, even novels published during your chosen period. If you are writing about Russia in the 19th century, read Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. If you are writing about Napoleon, read Stendhal. The more you research, the more authentic and accurate your representation of the period will be. Not only will you be able to fill your writing with unique time period detail and position your story better against the backdrop of historical evets, but as the period comes to life inside your head, chances are so will the plot and some of the characters.
Investing into months of research might seem like a waste of time at first but it allows you to immerse yourself in the time period and truly understand it. I love this part of writing. I could spend forever reading about people’s lives and imagining what they had been like. But eventually I have to force myself to stop and write that book.
2. Find your passion
I often find that writing something I’m passionate about is the best cure for writer’s block. When you are passionate about your subject matter, the words come easier and everything falls into place – the plot, the characters, the setting and the conflict. As Robert Frost once said, ‘No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader.’ If you are excited about your story, chances are, the readers will be too. If you love your characters, the readers will too.
The first step is to choose the time period that fires up your imagination. For me, it’s always been World War II, with two of my novels set during that fascinating and heart-breaking period. Like many Russians, I grew up hearing about the war from my grandparents. These stories are in our blood, they are part of our national identity, part of who we are. Researching the war is always an emotional experience, and I hope these emotions shine through in my writing.
3. Keep your eyes and ears open
Ideas for a book can come from anywhere – a conversation you overhear at a bus stop one day, a song, a movie scene, even a dream. All you have to do is listen. My debut novel, Sisters of War, was inspired by an article I read many years ago, about a Soviet actress who survived the occupation thanks to the kindness of a German soldier, who twice a day fed the local children. I found it fascinating that kindness and love could be found on both sides of the conflict, sometimes where you least expect it. I knew I had to write about it and so the character of Mark was born, a Hungarian soldier fighting for Hitler against his will, while doing all he could to help the Soviets.
My second historical novel, Daughters of the Resistance, was inspired by my grandmother’s memories of the war and the partisan battalions. Writing about my grandmother’s experiences during the war was heart-breaking and heart-warming at the same time. Because of that, this book means the world to me and I am so excited to share it with my readers.
4. Make them human
Relatable characters keep readers turning pages. Even if your characters lived hundreds of years ago, they experienced love, jealousy, sadness and joy – just like us. As writers, our job is to get to know our characters, listen to them, learn their backstory, get under their skin, understand what makes them tick and then paint a realistic picture for the reader.
Readers might not care what your characters are wearing, but they do care what they are thinking and what motivates them to act in a certain way. The more complex they are, the more likely they are to hold the readers’ attention. Nothing in life is black and white, and fiction is the same. If there are villains in your story, make the reader understand why they do what they do. Make them sympathise and almost feel sorry for them. Give your good characters flaws they can work on. It’s our flaws that make us human. Conflict, whether internal or between the characters, is essential to keep the readers invested in the story.
In Sisters of War, Natasha falls in love with an enemy officer and is forced to hide her feelings and their relationship from those close to her. In Daughters of the Resistance, Lisa falls in love with someone else’s husband. As I write, I’m always eager to learn how the conflict will be resolved in the end. And I hope the readers feel the same way.
5. Start big
The first few pages of your book are the most important because it’s what the readers see first. Capture their imaginations with your first few pages and they are likely to read until the end. But if they are bored, they might put the book down and move on to something else. I always try to make my beginnings as dramatic as possible. Sisters of War starts with the Nazis marching through the streets of Kiev for the first time. In Daughters of the Resistance, Lisa’s train to a German factory is intercepted by the partisans. My current work in progress, set during the Russian Revolution, starts on the day the revolutionaries take over Petrograd.
Similarly, the first line is extremely important, and for the same reason – it’s what the readers see first. My favourite first line of all time is from Anna Karenina: Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. With this beautiful first line, Tolstoy created a true masterpiece. It sums up what the book is about perfectly and grabs the readers’ attention, making them want to read on and on. With all that pressure, I find the first line the most difficult to write. Often, I search for the perfect first line long after I have finished writing the book.
And the most important thing? Don’t get discouraged! The world needs more historical fiction. If writing brings you joy, keep going and don’t pay attention to nay-sayers and critics. There will be so many of those along the way. More often than not, it takes many years to get a book published but once it’s out there, it’s the best feeling ever.
As for me, I’m currently finishing my fourth book (my third historical novel). Once that’s done, I’m planning to go back to the period I am truly passionate about, the World War II. I will keep my eyes and ears open as I search for an idea for my new book.
Best of luck and enjoy your writing journey!
Lana Kortchik’s latest utterly heart-wrenching World War Two historical novel, Daughters of the Resistance, is out now.