Historical Novelist Peter Golden Shares Tips for Transforming Real People Into Fictional Characters

"Writing is a job...and requires the same day-to-day discipline—that is, showing up and getting your work done. I can think of no better advice for writers." While that's his best advice, he has other great tips for writers. Check them out here.
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Peter Golden is an award-winning journalist, novelist, biographer, and historian and the author of Comeback Love. He lives outside Albany, New York, with his wife and son. Wherever There Is Light, his second novel, is a sweeping, panoramic tale of twentieth-century America, chronicling the decades-long love affair between a Jewish immigrant and the granddaughter of a slave. Captivating and infused with historical detail, this is the epic tale of three generations, two different but intertwined families, and one unforgettable love story. You can purchase Peter's book at your local indie bookseller or here, and you can connect with him at petergolden.com, on Facebook, on Twitter, and on Instagram.

This guest post is by Kristen Harnisch. Harnisch is the award-winning author of The Vintner's Daughter, the first novel in a series about the changing world of vineyard life at the turn of the twentieth century. Her next novel, The California Wife, will be released in 2016. Harnisch has been a speaker at the Writer's Digest Conference and currently lives in Connecticut with her husband and three children. Connect with Kristen at kristenharnisch.com, on Twitter @KristenHarnisch, and on Facebook facebook.com/kristenharnischauthor.

Kristen Harnisch-featured
The California Wife

1) In Wherever There is Light, you write so vividly about forbidden love, bigotry and religious intolerance. What intrigues you about these themes?

So much was forbidden in the 1930s, and there was no shortage of social hatred, which made it impossible to write about the period without addressing them. When you write historical fiction, history has plenty to say about the themes you write about it. And these themes are inherently dramatic and perfect for a novel.

Peter Golden Minetta Tavern

2) How have your discussions with world leaders such as Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, Mikhail Gorbachev, Yitzhak Rabin and others influenced the fictional stories you write?

The overriding conviction I took away from these interviews was how important it is to be objective—to ignore your own political leanings and understand the leaders on their terms. How they saw the world. How they tried to do their best given the circumstances. This is the opposite of what we now think of as news, where the goal seems to be, particularly on cable shows, to bash the leaders you disagree with.

3) What advice would you give to historical novelists about transforming real people into fictional characters (as you do in this novel)?

Seek out people who are burdened by conflicts. It will make your job easier because conflict is the basic ingredient of drama. Also—and this is crucial—understand these people on their own terms and in their own time. Don’t judge them. Inhabit them.

Wherever There Is Light Edited Bolder 50

4) For novelists who aren't trained journalists--but who need to conduct interviews for their research--what tips would you offer for approaching and questioning experts?

Be prepared! Think of what you’d like to learn and read, read, read. That way, when you do the interview, and an interesting nugget comes up that you hadn’t anticipated, you will be able to dig more deeply into the subject. And remember: the person you’re interviewing will be impressed—and flattered—that you took the time to learn so much prior to the interview and will probably tell you more than he or she might have had you gone in uninformed.

5) How do you pick the subjects for your novels?

I think about a novel I want to read and go look for it on the Web and in the library. If I can’t find it, I write it.

6) What are your favorite books/resources on the craft of writing?

On Writing Well by William Zinnser and The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White are two that can be can helpful throughout a career. And there are many other wonderful books that assist with craft—for instance, Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass and How to Write Bestselling Fiction by Dean Koontz. However, the one that had the greatest impact on me when I was starting out was Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast. That’s because in his memoir Hemingway demonstrates that writing is a job, with all the rewards and frustrations of any job, and requires the same day-to-day discipline—that is, showing up and getting your work done. I can think of no better advice for writers.

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Brian A. Klems is the editor of this blog, online editor of Writer's Digest and author of the popular gift bookOh Boy, You're Having a Girl: A Dad's Survival Guide to Raising Daughters.

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