Tips for writers who need to adapt and discard old habits
Jumping into fiction writing can sometimes be challenging, especially if you’re carrying with you a history of writing nonfiction. Nonfiction writing — biographies, histories, memoirs, how-to books, self-help and much more — employs different skill sets and methods, so authors new to fiction need to be aware of the stylistic differences between the two forms — and how to breathe emotion and life into your fiction works.
We recently had a fantastic guest on First Draft Friday who was well-versed in this topic. Historical fiction author Michael Paul Hurd spent his career working for the government and spent a large part of that time writing reports and teaching about writing. When he retired and made the transition into historical fiction, he struggled at the beginning.
Here’s our video chat where he described his journey and shared ways to unlearn those nonfiction habits:
In our chat, Michael discusses some the obstacles writers face in making the switch from nonfiction to fiction, including:
- Sticking to the facts without adding the juice and texture of creative storytelling.
- Stating that A + B = C. Writers can tend to convey events instead of bringing them to life.
- Being too succinct — those who write reports for a living often pare it down to the bare essentials.
He also discusses his “pre-read team” and who they consist of, where he found them and how they help out in his writing. We had some great questions from live attendees — I encourage you to watch the video above or read through the full transcript below.
Transcript of my talk with Michael Paul Hurd
Alessandra: Hi everyone. This is First Draft Friday. I’m your host, Alessandra Torre with Authors AI. And I am so excited today to be joined by Michael Paul Hurd, who is an author of historical fiction. And we’re going to be talking all today about breaking writing habits you may have, or, and also transitioning from writing one style to another style. So, that’s what we’re going to be talking about today, and I’m so excited to have Michael here. Do you want to just introduce yourself and give a little of your background?
Michael: Sure. Thanks for having me on the program this morning. I really appreciate it. It’s nice to have this opportunity. I’ll start with talking a little bit about my background. I’m of course right now retired from full-time employment, but my 40 year career history has been either as the military member in the Air Force or as the Department of Defense, civilian, just pretty much back to back federal service. And during a 40 year career, I spent a lot of time writing and teaching writing, and demonstrating writing and helping other people with their writing. So, it was a long and I won’t say stressful because there were a lot of things that I did enjoyed that everybody else was all stressed out about and I really enjoy doing it.
The stuff that I’ve written has been all over the map, I’ve done everything from writing soundbites for TV news programs. Yes, with the Federal Government, we did have an internal closed circuit television broadcast network that is now defunct because we couldn’t compete with CNN, but I’ve also written for the President of the United States. So if you want to talk about writing, happy to be tight, sys you know, those two markets right there, the president and the television soundbites are huge from the standpoint of the specs you have to write to for those. So, that’s pretty much my career in a nutshell. So now I can spin off from that to some of the things that I’d have to teach people and how I’d have to write in those environments as opposed to what I’m doing now, writing historical fiction.
Alessandra: But to clarify the writing that you did for all those years and the writing that you were teaching was non-fiction, I mean, it was correct, or it was reports or narratives that would describe?
Michael: It was event descriptive rather than policy prescriptive, so we had the focus on the facts and only the facts.
Alessandra: And that’s an interesting when Michael and I were chatting about this beforehand, and one of the things we’re going to talk about today is the difference between that. And I see a lot of authors that come into our industry from a technical or from a background where they did have to write reports or things like that. And a lot of early writers their writing – their fiction writing can be very prescriptive or very just, you know, this is what happened and then this happened and this happened. So, that’s what we’re going to be chatting about today is also kind of how to bring your writing to life and making that transition from one type of writing that you might’ve been taught in school or in your job to the fiction world. So, when you made that transition, now let’s chat a little bit about your books. You write historical fiction and six novels?
Michael: I’ve published five and working on my sixth, and they’re all based on where… I’m an amateur genealogist as well, so all of my books are based on them. All of my books are based on places where my family tree intersects with the events of history. Things like I had a great-great-grandfather that got murdered and the murder was never solved. The legend and the press accounts of the story suggests that my great-great-grandmother and her lover had something conspiratorial to do with his demise. But at the same time, my great-grandfather was in the room when it happened, you know, kind of like Alexander Hamilton in the room where it happened. And so, that messed him up for life. My great-grandfather was the basis for book three in my series – book three, Inequity and Retribution. Think about the title for a second, Inequity and Retribution. And I wove a storyline around the backstory of how messed up that murder made my great-grandfather, so that was one place that the intersect was really kind of – it was dark, my wife read that book and she says, “If this is your family, they’re pretty mess up.” And I said, “Yep.”
Alessandra: I think that’s every family, you just got to dig deep enough. So when you were in government writing, what were some of the bad habits that you picked up there that you really had to struggle with or correct when you made the transition to fiction?
Michael: I think the two worst that I had to overcome was, of course, one being sticking only to the facts that you have, and basically, A plus B equals C. There was no, why is a written in cursive? And then the other was that the whole concept of the writing that we had to do was to use as few words as possible yet convey the message. As opposed to some of the more bureaucratic government writing where, why use one word when 50 will do? Look at military specifications, for example, there are pages and pages of describing a zipper. But our writing, because it was reaching policymakers who didn’t have the time to read through all the so-called flaw; we had to do things in as few words as possible.
So I taught writing courses, teaching people how to do that – a class that I taught was called Writing to the Point. And it was a three to four-hour seminar where we picked apart pieces of writing where, you know, how can you say this in as few words as possible? And so, we did that. But some of the other stuff that I had to work with was personnel related writing, which people don’t like writing about themselves. In the agency that I worked for, every year the employees would have to put together a promotion package and they have to write about themselves. And some of the managers in the agency were telling people, “Well, you have to fill out the box with words.” It didn’t matter whether they were good words or not, but just fill up the box. And usually, the boxes are limited to about a thousand characters.
And I said, “Well, wait a minute. If you’re telling them to fill up the box and that fill up the box is a thousand characters of absolute crap, and I can tell them to put 200 words together that will make them look like they walk on water and don’t make any ripples,” that was what I was trying to teach them was economize on your words. Use creative punctuation like colons and semi-colons and pair everything down to just absolutely what you need to get your message across. So, getting out of those habits was extremely difficult. My wife probably summed it up best when she said that you write too precisely. And so, I had to work with that. And then I realized that, okay, wait a minute, I may know how to write, but I don’t know how to write fiction. So, the best way to become a better writer is to read more of other people’s writing.
I spent a lot of time reading, you know, reading books by Sara Donati, Kate Quinn, a few other more contemporary writers whose names escape me right at the moment; that’s part of being retired at 62 years old. But anyway, but just reading a lot of their stuff. And I still say that Sara Donati’s writing has been probably one of the biggest inspirations for my own writing in that the way she describes the events and scenes. And if I find myself in a hole with trying to be able to describe something as I go look for one of her books in the Wilderness Series, because of just the visceral and visual response that she can evoke when I read her stuff, I use that to try to tailor my own writing. So anyway, that’s kind of going a little bit off on a tangent, but it’s kind of where my writing has been in the past, where it is right now, I rely very heavily on my pre-read team.
Alessandra: And anyone watching, I can see you guys you’re joining us from YouTube and Facebook. Hey everyone. If you have any questions as we go, don’t be shy. This is a half hour video chat, and we want to be sure we answer as many questions and interact with you guys as much as possible. So, feel free to chime in if you have any comments or questions as we go. But a pre-read team – what’s interesting is when you’re talking, I was thinking it’s not normal for… it’s great that you can recognize your own shortcomings because a lot of times we don’t know our own shortcomings and it helps if you have an alpha reader, someone like your wife who’s reading, but a lot of times you need that other voices. And so, I was curious when your notes said your pre-read team. So, can you tell us a little bit about that team, when they come in, who they’re comprised of? And before we do, can you spell out… one of our viewers from YouTube said, “Who wrote the wilderness series?” You mentioned how great she was at writing scenery and settings.
Michael: The name is Sara Donati. You can search for her on Amazon or wherever you want to buy your books from. I’ve read all of them electronically so I know they’re all out there. And she’s also got a second series that she’s putting out there too, which is just as good as the first.
Alessandra: And it’s historical fiction, is that correct?
Michael: Yes. She tells a story of a family in Upstate New York and the hobby branch out all across the Eastern United States over a period of about 50 to a hundred years, and just phenomenal the way she writes.
Alessandra: Fantastic, I love that. So, going back to the pre-read team, tell us about them.
Michael: Well, when I wrote my first book, I was very insular in how I did it. I didn’t even tell my wife I was writing the book to be perfectly honest. I just got up one morning and said, “Hey, I just published a book.” And she goes, “You did what?” “I just published a book?” And she said, “Well, wouldn’t you have liked to have me read it before you published it?” “No, I didn’t want to even know I was doing it.” And as a result of her reading it, I ended up having to do a second edition. There were places that needed to be fixed, but that’s a different story. But as I went along, I recognized that I needed other people to read what I was writing even before I got to the point where I was formatting it for publication. So, somewhere around a hundred to 150 page point is when I started reaching out to my pre-readers to say, “Hey, I’m ready for you to read something. Do you see any plots in my storyline? Do you see anything in my characters that’s missing? Do you see anything that I need to change to advance the story or advance the character?”
For example, one of my pre-read teams are a mother and daughter pair; they’re British subjects that are living in Portugal right now. And I ran into the daughter just by accident on one of the other writer pages that I subscribed to. And I ended up working with her on publishing one of her books, and co-writing the book of poetry and short stories with her. But what her and her mother have done, and particularly her mother who’s 92, she is a voracious reader, and she has no qualms about telling me, and says, you need to dress this up a little bit, give me more fluff is basically what she had said. And I took that to heart with Book Four in my series, it’s called Wayward Son. That particular book, I was trying to describe a wedding scene and a wedding reception.
And again, I went back into that government writing mode of describing the event as it was happening, you know, the bride came down the aisle and then she still stepped on the rose petals, and then she knelt at the altar, and then the priest said this, that, and the other thing, priest or minister, whichever. And Elizabeth, the 92 year old comes back and says, “Well, what color was her dress? Was she sweating? How did the food taste at the reception?” All of this stuff that she felt I needed to draw the reader into the book, rather than just describing the event. So that has resonated with me and I always relied on her feedback. At some point during the production process, she’d go back and say, “Well, you know, in this chapter, you could have done this a little bit different.”
Alessandra: I’d also think in all your government writing, probably emotions and feelings were almost non-existent because it didn’t really matter, I guess, like your personal opinions or how people felt during activities, but in the book – was the bride nervous? Is she excited? Was she hiding a secret? Was she mad at her mother-in-law for something? So, what were the emotions of that day?
Michael: Well, if you don’t mind, I’ve actually got a sample from my work in progress on my screen right now that I can read a paragraph, if you want. And remember, we’re talking about a German family that’s in an enclave in Russia. That was based for German colonies; it’s now part of Ukraine. But anyway, the paragraph goes like this. It says, “Friedrich recognized that as our invitation to proceed, he advanced closer to her guiding her towards the bed and kissed her passionately; his hands at the same time, tenderly exploring her body, first over the negligee, and then gently removing it. Dorothy responded in kind easing Friedrich out of his clothing as well. At her first sight of a man in an arouse state, her eyes widened. She stifled a nervous giggle while at the same time pulling him closer to her naked body. In spite of their readiness, the first time was clumsy and even a little bit painful for Dorothy. However, is the hours of their first night as husband and wife advance towards sunrise, their excitement with each other grew. They quickly forgot their previous celibate lives and focused on the pleasure that they were discovering together.” I wouldn’t be able to do that in government writing.
Alessandra: I got a little concerned at the beginning, so I was like, oh, this is a family friendly show, but you did fantastic.
Michael: That’s exactly my point was what some of the feedback I got from those two ladies who as they read that paragraph, and things like the nervous giggle, they said, why don’t you insert something about the bride being nervous on her wedding night and maybe a little bit of a giggle. But then they said, “Hey, it was sex without the sex.” And so, it’s things like that; but for somebody that’s, you know, those subjects were just completely off limits in my professional writing. Thank you, Margaret, I saw your comment. But that’s the sort of thing that I’ve used my pre-read team to get the feedback on to make those scenes better in my books. And that was just one that because it came to mind immediately as having received such positive feedback that I thought I’ll used that as an example.
Alessandra: Yeah, and you have handled that scene well. So, you have two women, a mother and a daughter that are both on your pre-read team that live in Portugal but are British; who else is on your pre-read team?
Michael: Well, for the Inequity and Retribution, I also had a retired Illinois police officer, who we met on a cruise ship of all places who helped me through the forensic pieces of the book. And he would say, “No, back in the 19s teams, they didn’t do things that way. They didn’t even have fingerprints back then, so he says using fingerprints was not a good thing, but we’ll set that one aside because that’s the only the only book he’s been involved with. But for example, I’ve got a cousin out on the west coast, so my first cousin once removed as a matter of fact who is almost exactly 20 years older than me. He’s 82. He reads my books and finds holes in the storyline and holes in the plot. He says, “Well, you said this here, but it doesn’t match with what you said here, so you’ve got a dichotomy going on there that you really need to go back and fix.” So again, at the a hundred to 150 page point I start corresponding with him and we ended up fixing a lot of the storylines and a lot of the plot problems that people probably would have caught. And it kills your credibility as author when you do that, and he’s instrumental in keeping me on track or making sure that I’ve got a consistent story.
Alessandra: Is historical fiction – is it pretty even with 50\50 male, female readership?
Michael: It’s hard to tell. I really don’t know. It all depends on what you’re writing about. Some of the other historical fiction authors that I’ve read, when they start focusing on battles and that sort of thing, the readership tends to be predominantly male. The battles and adventure type writing; the readership tends to be predominantly male. But if you start throwing in a family dynamic, and if you start throwing in a little bit of romance, a little bit of the tension in some of the stuff, then you get into a more mixed readership. So, I’m not writing to any particular audience, but I am trying to write to a storyline if you will.
Alessandra: Yeah. The reason I ask, I think it’s smart that you have two women on your pre-read team and your wife. I don’t know if she’s part of those four, but that is great, especially if you do have… I write romance and suspense, my romance novels, almost all of my beta readers are female, but it would be good and I really should have at least one male beta reader, but that audience is like 95% female readers. And my suspense books, a lot of times I do have male and female beta readers for that, because it’s a split. If I have a male point of view, then it’s really important for me to have a male reader. But we have a question from Joylyn – I hope I pronounced your name right. First of all, she said, her sister, a nurse provides her with a lot insight and plot holes. And the beauty of pre-readers or beta readers as they’re often called is they don’t need to have like a background in writing or in editing, if anything, it’s better for them not to, just to be a normal reader who has close attention to detail. But she said, “Mike, how do you deal with the drudgery of rewriting if you have some deep plot holes?”
Michael: I don’t really feel that it’s drudgery to have to go back and rewrite. There are times when I have to take a step back and try not to get defensive when somebody is giving me constructive criticism. But once I read the plot holes that they’re telling me, that I say, “Oh, yeah, I’ve got to fix that.” So, it’s not drudgery; it’s a must do part of writing the book. It’s enjoyable because that discussion that takes place when you’re trying to resolve the issue, to me is part of the fun writing process, so I wouldn’t call it drudgery at all.
Alessandra: And one thing I do, especially if I noticed that I do have a deep plot hole or an issue, and this is a great thing to do just anyways, is when I’m done with my first draft or when I feel like I’m pretty close to where I need to be, I’ll outline the entire book so far. It’s not a big deep outline. It’s a bullet point port per scene, but I’ll outline everything, and especially with dates; that to me would be the hardest part of being historical fiction author, especially if I’m crossing a long timeline is figuring out dates and months and making sure that I don’t have someone who had a baby and suddenly their baby is talking, but their babies shouldn’t be talking yet because she’s only, you know that’s where I struggled. But outlining your book is fantastic for that, because then you can say, “Oh, here’s that whole, I need to fix it in this scene, this scene and this scene, so you can really kind of see your book at one time. And I discover plot holes a lot.
Michael: Are you a pantser or a plotter?
Alessandra: I’m a pantser.
Michael: You’re a pantser, so am I.
Alessandra: I’m a planter. I’m trying to be better about plotting, but I’m really a pantser at heart, which means my first dress go like this.
Michael: And that’s the next point I wanted to talk about where you just segwayed right into that beautifully was making your storyline believable of, for example, right now I’m stuck right around 1900 to 1902 in Book Six. And what I’m looking at is, I’m looking at rail travel in the Eastern part of the United States and how all these rail lines interface with each other. And getting from point A to point B was not as easy as you might think, because of the different rails. But trying to take that deep research to the point where you can describe it in the book, it’s okay, what facts do you include, what facts do you leave out? For example, I realized that when my great-grandparents came over from Europe out of Bremen Germany and into Baltimore, which was a light bulb moment for me to find out, Hey, my great grandparents immigrated in the United States about 30 miles east of me. The light bulb went on, and I saw that when the north Deutscher Lloyd steamship line was bringing people over to the United States out of Germany, is they were actually providing them with tickets to authorize them rail travel from the point of immigration, to a point somewhere further west, and it was all one inclusive ticket. Well, that little fact, I was able to build a storyline around. But had I not done deep research, I would never found that. And then it makes everything believable when you can go that deep. Oh, Margaret’s asking you a question.
Alessandra: She said, how long does it take you to research one of your books for accuracy? So when like this what you’re talking about right now, are you researching the whole time you’re writing? Do you research kind of everything at the beginning and then dive in?
Michael: I have got so many tabs open on my browser right now that all of them are research related. I research as I’m going along. So, I don’t sit there and try to research because I don’t know where the story’s going to go. Being a pantser, you just sort off write and keep going. I spend probably twice as much time research as I do writing, because I want to have my mind wrapped. This is the government analyst in me kicking in, is that I want to have my mind completely wrapped around a concept before I write it down. And I have an example of that, is that I was writing my fifth book, the Seventh Wife, set in England, and I had a scene in the book that was written. It says when Catherine of Aragon was giving birth, that there were a bunch of people in the room and that the births were all observed.
Then I dug deep in my research and I say, wait a minute. The research is showing me that the observed birth thing didn’t start happening until Charles II and Catherine of Braganza after Charles was reinstated on the throne in the 1650s I think it was. I use that, and I actually wrote a factual essay for the English Historical Authors Society explaining, hey, my research helped me change a storyline in my book. So that kind of deep research to make sure that it’s not only somatically accurate, but socially accurate for the period is extremely important, and so you have to research as you go. One of the things that I probably will never do though is to try to modify my dialogue in the speech to fit the period in time. There are two schools of thought on that; you have to do either do it a hundred percent or not at all. So you just make sure that words like television and airplane don’t show up in a 17th century dialogue to be consistent.
Alessandra: I said, but you’re not using words like “doth” whatever.
Michael: No, no. And there were a few places where informal speech I’ll use the more formal formats that they used three, 400 years ago. But my current book, for example, I’m actually having to reawaken my German language skills. I learned German in high school, was an exchange student, and because they’re coming out of a German speaking area in the Ukraine, I’m going back and saying, “Okay, what would they be saying in German? How would they be saying this?” And so, I’ve interspersed German phrases, along with either a direct translation or thematic translation in parallel with how it occurs in the narrative. So, not only am I researching the historical part, I’m researching the language piece of it too.
Alessandra: And this why among other reasons, I don’t write historical fiction because I’m lazy.
Michael: I’ve learnt about more stuff, and I’m just a sponge when it comes to absorbing facts about history. Any historical history category in jeopardy, I usually do very well answering the questions. I just love the deep research that goes into writing this stuff when you’re going back hundreds of years. So anyway, we’re running short on time, I can see that.
Alessandra: We are. We’re out of time. I’m doing one final question, and this is from Elaine. She said what pleasure are you finding in fiction versus factual? Do you miss factual, do love being a fiction author? How has that transition been?
Michael: Answering Elaine’s question. I actually love doing what I’m doing right now with my writing, because it just feels right to me. It’s not like I’m writing to any constraints, any prescribed format, any prescribed wording, any prescribed, whatever…
Alessandra: Oh, no, Michael is frozen for me. … I’m going to go ahead and wrap us up. I hope you enjoy today’s presentation and chat. If you’re interested in reading some of Michael’s books, you can check out him on Facebook. He does have a post that he just posted with links to all of his books, and you can see Michael at facebook.com/lineagepublishing, so I hope you explore his novels. It looks like he dropped out. And if you’re interested in trying out Marlowe who is our fantastic developmental editor AI, she can read your manuscript and give you all sorts of incredible insights and feedback in just a few minutes, check out authors.ai. We’ll be back in two weeks for another First Draft Friday. Thank you guys for joining us and we’ll see you soon. Happy writing.