Writing Historical Fiction with Eilidh Miller


Tell us about yourself.

Oh, goodness. I'm 41, and a California native. I've lived in Los Angeles since 2006, and grew up in the Central Valley. I went to school at the University of Oregon, where I started as a journalism major before I switched to English Literature. I also minored in history, though I didn't declare it. That one sort of just happened without my realizing it. I'm married to an awesome guy who is a scientist by day and a writer at night, and we have a daughter who will be 4 in August. My animal sidekick is my Shiba Inu, Fate, who has more friends on FB than I do. Of course, she was a SF Shiba Puppycam pup, so she had followers from Day 1. I'm a database admin in my day job, volunteer as a medic, and work as a performer at living history events.


When did your writing journey first start, and what inspired you? I've been writing since I was 8. One of my aunts gave me a journal for Christmas, which I'm sure she intended to be a diary. However, I looked at it and decided I was going to write a book. I vaguely remember it being a story set during the Gold Rush-era about a girl who didn't know she was dead. I based her dress on the color of the outside of the journal. I'm sure it was terrible and I have no idea where that journal is now, but I've always wanted to write. It's why I started out in the major I did, thinking I wanted to be a reporter, but I saw the industry shrinking and decided against it. I stopped writing for a very long time after college. I didn't make time for it in my life. After my daughter was born, however, I started up again as a way to deal with my postpartum depression, a place I could go to that was free of those thoughts. I decided I was going to write a short story about a character a play at events, and that story turned into a novel! Haven't published that one, though. Maybe someday.


What are you currently working on? I just finished the 14th book in the "Watchers" series -- actually meant to be Series 2: Book 1. I decided I wanted to take a short break from that world since I've been writing in it pretty steadily for the last year and a half, so right now I'm working on a novel completely unrelated to that series. This one is straight historical fiction, and the pieces I wrote got some really good feedback from my test readers. This story is about two young people who've known each other their entire lives, and their relationship in the run up to a war that will completely destroy everything they know and their entire way of life. If I finish and am not quite ready to go back to "The Watchers," I have two novellas I wrote that probably need work and could be turned into novels themselves.

Awesome. Tell me more about the Watcher series and your other published works. I got the idea for the original story while driving home from work one day, and as soon as the baby went to bed that night, I sat down and started writing it. Unlike other things, I didn't bother with historical research because I honestly didn't intend to do anything with it. I finished the first draft in 10 days and sent it off to friends just to amuse them. Within two days they were all getting back to me with, "When's the next book? What happens next?" I was surprised by the reaction, but I wrote the first draft of the second one in about 10 days as well and passed it off. It got the same reaction. I decided I should probably do some research if I was going to keep writing them. Again, my intention was only to keep them amongst friends. I had never considered actually sending anything I wrote to agents because I didn't think I was good enough.


I was having a great time writing them for the group reading them, which grew to about 60 people. I was able to get them out every 10 days or so until I got to Book 10 and life got in the way a bit. They were all novel length drafts, which didn't seem like a big deal to me, until I mentioned it to a friend that's also a writer and she kind of stared at me in shock. "You've written how many of these in less than six months?" That's when I realized that maybe my pace wasn't normal, but they were kind of writing themselves!


"The Watchers" centers on a young woman named Grace Evans and her work for The Council. The Council is 400 years in the future and gotten rid of war to create this sort of egalitarian society. They've also discovered there are multiple timelines running at once, all with the same events and people, but when history repeats it can change, and if the change negatively impacts the world they've created, they send a Watcher back to make sure history happens as it originally did. Watchers are all women and come from 6 family lines. Grace is the newest Watcher from her line, but she already has a reputation for being really, really good at her job. The Council sends her to tackle the more difficult missions, so when she gets sent to stop a man named Euan from dying in battle she doesn't really think much of it. Euan, however, has zero interest in not going to the battle -- this is his job after all -- and so there's a battle of wills between these two people.


As the time draws near and Grace starts to get more desperate, she considers breaking the primary rule: you can't change history. In the end, the choice she makes changes her life and his forever. The series is all about Grace's travels through historic events and the people in them, and how she solves the problems set before her while working within some pretty strict limitations such as the role of women in society wherever she is. She's great fun to write! There's also some crazy research stories too but you may not have space for those . That sounds really cool. What has drawn you toward historical fiction? I've always loved history! It's so fascinating to imagine what life was like, what sides of stories were never told or were lost to history somehow. Only the very rich and extraordinary were written about, but what about everyone else? How did they experience these times? It often leads me to wonder what I might do or be like in their places. I know a lot of people see history as just a bunch of boring dates and numbers, but underneath that there is so much more. There's art, and literature, and life. There are people coping with extraordinary times without realizing they are even part of it, just going about their lives. We're in one of those now, and it will be fascinating to see how our stories are told in the future. In historical fiction I can take all of those imaginings and put them down on paper, create those people and weave that history through the lens of their daily lives. I can imagine their encounters with the historical figures we read about. The one thing I don't do is change history to suit my story. I bend my story to fit with the established history, because the history is the true story, intriguing enough without having to add things that never happened. A lot of people read historical fiction and take that as fact, so if people are going to do the same with mine, I want the information they take away to actually be true. What are some of the challenges of writing historical fiction?

Research and research rabbit holes! I spend a lot of time poring through virtual archives and looking at source documents to try to verify the information I'm putting into the story. For instance, the 3rd book of "The Watchers" series is 100% about someone's time in the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745. I spent hours reading source documents like letters, journals, pamphlets, and books. I reached out to Clan Cameron's chief for information. I made extensive use of a 2 volume book from 1827 about the rebellion where there were accounts from survivors who were still living, and there was an absolute wealth of information there, but I had to be willing to read through 800 pages to find it. With research rabbit holes, it's super easy to get sucked into reading about something you saw mentioned somewhere else, and to just keep clicking until you're nowhere near what you were originally searching for. It's really hard to avoid sometimes! Another one is bias. Trying to treat a historical figure fairly no matter how much you might dislike them and might want to make them terrible people. Don't get me wrong, there are some figures out there who truly were terrible people, but you can't be the one to put that on them. Their actions have to speak for themselves and so do they. I always try to remember that what's written isn't the full story, that they likely had their own reasons and motivations that weren't necessarily intended to be bad, but it happened anyway. "You can't view the past through 21st century glasses" is one of my favorite sayings.


I love that you take the research so seriously. Where can writers get a hold of these type of documents? Any good websites online or do you have to visit libraries?I

I found the 2 volume book on Google Books, actually, where they have a lot of out of publication/copyright work stored. As much as I know some people dislike Wikipedia as a source, it's a good starting point. Don't take it at face value, but check out the citations and see what information people are using to make their assertions. Go read it yourself and see what you make of it. Don't give up on Google searches. If you aren't finding what you want, trying phrasing the search differently. Be willing to wade through pages and pages and pages of results, because what you want probably isn't going to be in the first 2 or even 10 pages. If you keep digging you'd be surprised at what you find. Things like published dissertations -- these are fantastic for both information and citations to use to find even more information -- rare books, hits from varying universities and museums who have digitized their archives. Libraries are great if you have one in your area. Make extensive use of the librarians -- they are magic -- to help you find what you're looking for. They can help you get information from other libraries or access collections you might not be able to get to on your own.


Oh! And don't be afraid to send emails to people! You never know unless you ask, and the worst they can say to you is "no." I didn't expect much to come of the snail mail letter I sent to Lochiel, the Clan Cameron chief, but he got back to me quickly. He was quite happy to help by not only answering my questions, but directing me to where I might find the answers for the questions he couldn't answer.


Great advice. What particular periods fascinate you the most?


I really love the 16th - 19th centuries. There was so much social and political change in such a short period, it's incredible. For me, it makes them ripe for storytelling.


Absolutely! I imagine there are some difficulties too, describing real places where you may or may not have been.

How do you manage this challenge? Oh definitely, and this is where your source documents come in handy again. A lot of times you will find descriptions of places in journals or letters, and if those places still exist you can compare those to the photos you can find to see the differences. If they don't, you can fill in the blanks a bit within reason, using descriptions of similar places. This happens a lot with houses and castles; maybe they don't exist now, but you can imagine what they were like based on layouts and photos from surviving places from the same period. On the other side of it, you can actually go there. This isn't an option for everyone and I'm extremely lucky that I've gotten to do it. I have actually been to Achnacarry estate in the Scottish Highlands, were "The Watchers" is set. I spent a week there and was able to verify details and distances not only at Achnacarry but other places in Scotland that are mentioned in the series. By the time I left, Achnacarry had become one of my favorite places in the world.


That so cool. Being a Campbell, I’ve always wanted to visit Scotland. Talk to me about writing historical characters. Obviously a woman from 1745 is much different than current day. Is it difficult to portray this accurately? And what do you keep in mind for character development? Ahhhh! Campbells! The ancient enemies of us Camerons! You should absolutely go if you get the chance. Fort William (Campbell country) is gorgeous. Women were definitely different, but not in the way you might think. The Scots had a lot of respect for their women because they were the ones who were the backbones of the clan and the family, keeping things going while the men were off raiding or at war with each other. That being said, there were still limitations on what they could do or say, roles they were expected to fulfill. They might have more leeway than perhaps the daughter of a noble might, or those of a similar class in England, but it only went so far. I think the trick, for me, is what I said above about 21st century glasses. It can get difficult to not have them respond to words or situations in the way you would (and sometimes it happens anyway), but it doesn't mean they can't think or feel those things even if their words and actions don't reflect it. I like to do that and I find it helps with those situations.


As for using that with character development, I have to keep in mind what their expectations would have been then. Clearly they wouldn't have expected the same things you or I do, theirs would have been much simpler and within the roles they played in society. Could they have dreamed about more? Hell yes! And they probably did, but they knew what was realistic, too. Would a noble daughter dream about marrying someone she loved instead of marrying as a business transaction? Of course. But the reality is that the most they could hope for is that there would be care and mutual respect in the marriage, that they wouldn't absolutely hate the man, and maybe if they're lucky they'd end up loving him.


The fun I have is putting a 21st century woman like Grace into the mix. She knows the history, knows what's expected, and she plays within those lines. But every now and then she likes upsetting the apple cart just for the fun of doing it and seeing how these men react to it. She also relishes playing by the rules and still managing to succeed.


That does sound like a lot of fun. What advice would you give someone interested in historical fiction?

Find your period. Find the one that speaks to you and start there. Next, do some preliminary research about your setting in that period, and I don't mean places. Check out what historical events happened around that time. Who was in power? What were they like? Were they popular with the people or were they not because their policies were considered onerous -- and realize this could vary based on region. The colonies thought George III was a horrible tyrant, but he was quite popular in England. Go into it with an open mind and the realization that what you know might be wrong or, at best, the Cliffs Notes version. There are probably a lot of nuances, and you can absolutely use those. Have a bare bones idea of who your character is, what they do, what social class they are. That will inform a lot of your decisions. Research what life was like in general for people of that class or that trade. What could they expect? What sort of food and opportunities did they have access to? How does all of this inform and work with the story you want to tell?


Be willing to make adjustments based on what you learn. Pay attention to the tiny details that may make or break your story with a reader. The clothing, the descriptions, the items they use. Were they called the same things? Did they use things then that we don't use now? Don't put something modern in if they didn't have it, because someone will catch that and it will pull them out of your story. For some people it's the dialogue -- modern cadence or ideas will yank someone right out. Take a little bit of time to read the writing from the period (especially letters if you can find them) to get a good idea of how people spoke.


I have a friend who recently complained about being pulled out of a historical story because of the ingredients being used by a character who could have afforded them or had access to them -- nutmeg, cinnamon, pepper, etc. were all locked away in upper class kitchens because of how expensive they were. It's highly unlikely that your typical farm laborer would have them, have access to them, or even know what they were or tasted like. It sounds really daunting, but it isn't, especially if you love the period you're working with. You'll want to learn more and more and know all you can, and just imagine the richness of the setting you're creating for your reader.


That’s great advise. Is there anything that I should have asked about writing historical fiction that I didn’t? No. I think those are great questions. I think the best piece of advice I've ever gotten was to love your story and your characters, because if you don't then no one else will either

That’s great advice. So down to my last two questions. What’s one random fact about yourself? The sillier the better I spent more than a few summers milking cows at a dairy and I can still do it!


Awesome. And I know you already shared a lot, but if you could only give one piece of advice to a writer, what would it be? Don't give up and don't get discouraged. If you believe in your story, keep pushing. Have test readers who give you honest feedback, and really listen to what they're saying. Be willing to make changes and edits, because a lot of times they're noticing issues you can't see when you're too close. Publishing is a tough business, but don't be afraid do it yourself, either. That’s great advice. Thank you so much for your time.

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