Apricots and Wolfsbane, Writing Tip

Bringing the Past To Life – OSW CyCon 2019 Historical Fiction Blog Hop

An enticing plot, memorable characters with relatable flaws, and fast-paced tension will draw a reader into any story, but for historical fiction, the goal is also to transport them to the past. Here are my tips for bringing the past to life:

  1. Details paint a scene in a reader’s mind but they should not be blatant. Simply mentioning “she rested a hand on her bodice” instead of “hip” begins to place a scene in the past. The historic period should be another aspect of the scenery and plot, but not the dominating characteristic – meaning avoid paragraphs of detail dumps. Instead, integrate historical context into subtle actions, the way characters converse, and in word choices through entomology research.

  2. Use all the senses; do not just describes objects that are seen. How did clothing of the period feel against skin? How comfortable was the furniture? The way food is prepared affects the flavor and smell. What ambient sounds are in the scene?

  3. Research. For as much as details pull the reader in, wrong information can also throw them right out. A single anachronism can destroy the entire moment the author has meticulously crafted. It sucks, but that’s the truth. This condemns the historical fiction author to countless hours of research for the tiniest details we take for granted with modern time periods. To help with the never-ending task, here is a list of my favorite historical fiction research resources.

  4. Make sure the problem – and solution – are historically accurate. History can bite the author in so many ways. For my novel, Apricots and Wolfsbane, I spent several days researching if it were possible for my Tudor assassin to have a greenhouse to overcome her ingredient shortage. (You can read about that research saga here.) Your character may not have had access to loans, education, or even a trustworthy food supply based upon their gender, race, and historical period. But at the same time, these historical hardships can help shape your character, provide opportunities for growth, and force the author to take less-predictable plot choices.

For another perspective on bringing history to life continue the OWS CyCon blog hop with: Robinette Waterson, who writes about the Victorian era.

Wait…What is OWS CyCon?

Our Write Side Cyber Convention is a virtual book fair May 17-19, 2019! Check out the site for book giveaways, live panel discussion, virtual fair booths, cover wars, and more!

While you’re there, please vote for Apricots and Wolfsbane in the HistFict Cover War!

K.M. Pohlkamp is the author if Apricots and Wolfsbane, an award-winning novel following the career of a female poison assassin in Tudor England. She is a blessed wife to the love of her life, proud mother of two young children, and a Mission Control flight controller. A Cheesehead by birth, she now resides in Texas for her day job and writes to maintain sanity. Her other hobbies include ballet and piano. She can be found at http://www.kmpohlkamp.com, Twitter, or Facebook.

Apricots and Wolfsbane
Lavinia Maud craves the moment the last wisps of life leave her victim’s bodies, to behold the effects of her own poison creations. Her morbid desires are balanced with faith since she believes confession erases the sin of murder, though she could never justify her skill to the magistrate she loves.

At the start of the 16th century in Tudor England, Lavinia’s marks grow from tavern drunks to nobility, but rising prestige brings increased risk. When the magistrate suspects her ruse, he pressures the priest into breaking her confessional seal, pitting Lavinia’s instincts as an assassin against the tenets of love and faith. She balances revenge against her struggle to develop a tasteless poison and avoid the wrath of her ruthless patron.

With her ideals in conflict, Lavinia must decide which will satisfy her heart: love, faith, or murder, but the betrayals are just beginning.

Writing Tip

My Favorite Historical Research Resources

Small details transfer the reader into another world, and for historical fiction, another time. Lingering honey upon a tongue after a character sips mead, the warmth of a candle flickering in the mind, the sound of a metal zipper opening in the corner…

And nothing destroys the mood more than an anachronism.

All of this condemns the historical fiction writer to hours of research – a thankless task necessity for our genre. To aid the burden, here are some of my favorite resources available from the comfort of your favorite writing place.

A Timeline Of Slang

These timelines were developed by Jonathan Green, a “slang lexicographer.” His website has timelines for 31 terms including oaths, weapons, rich/poor, death, money, and private body parts.

For example, clicking on “drunk” brings up this visual timeline of what people called that slop in the tavern over the last hundreds of years.

Online Etymology

Etymologies are explanations of what words meant and how they sounded in the past. This Online Etymology website is a fantastic way to check if a word was common in the period of your manuscript and the origins of a term.

Ngram Viewer

Another way to check if a word was used during a time period is Google’s Ngram Viewer. This tool lists the earliest written record of a word. Keep in mind, especially for early historic periods, a word was likely used in speech decades before written records.

Historical Thesaurus

Well shoot, the word you just typed was not used during the era of your manuscript. No worries, use this Historical Thesaurus!

Historical Maps

My favorite source for historical maps is Old Maps Online. You can search via geographical area and obtain links to historical maps within the search field. For example, I’ve zoomed in on London, England and historical maps are linked to the right.

Another great map source is the Leventhal Map & Education Center, part of the Boston Public Library. This site allows you to also search by date with the timeline selector on the left.

Historical Names

What’s in a name? Well, a lot.

I find naming characters stressful. They can affect a reader’s preconceived notions before any description is offered. Are they an eccentric pirate with an exotic name? Are they one of a hundred farmers named Thomas?

Here are my favorite lists of early English names:


Have 30 minutes during your commute or jog? Why not research your novel at the same time?

Listening to historical podcasts from your period of history can be a great way to pick up little bits to weave into a manuscript and make the world come to life for your reader.

My favorite history podcast is the Renaissance English History Podcast produced by historian, Heather Teysko. Her casts are short, entertaining, and jam packed with interesting facts. I especially enjoyed this episode about 16th century cosmetics.

Historical Bibles

Given the domination of religion upon past society and politics, religious quotes often come up in historical fiction. But historic bibles are different than modern ones. Bible Study Tools provides multiple translations from different eras and languages.

Social Media

Yes, you read that right.

Facebook has a breath of historic groups and societies, many of whom are pleased to answer your questions. My current WIP takes place near Hinckley, England and I’ve received aid from the Hinckley Past & Present Facebook Group of historians. Shout out also to the English Historical Fiction Author’s Group who have helped me with research in the past.

Similarly, there’s a a breath of historical fiction authors on Twitter who are ready and willing to help. Checkout these historical fiction hashtags:

What else?

What is your favorite research resource? Please leave a link in the comments below!

Writing Tip

My Worst Writing Bad Habits: Using Find/Replace to Scrub the First Draft

The first draft is finished. Great! Um… now what?

I am often asked about my “writing process” and the more I write the more procedural it becomes – it is the engineer in me.

Getting the first draft on paper/electrons is a monumental task. And if nanowrimo and write sprints have taught me anything, it’s that snails could crawl over the keyboard faster than I write. So when the words are flowing, the last thing I want to do is disrupt my train of thought by editing.  But when the words flow, my bad writing habits tend to sneak in. That’s OK, a first draft is just getting the story down so it can be molded.

But it needs molding.

So after completing a first draft, the next step in my personal writing process is a systematic scrub for my worst writing habits. I have a list of my issues and systematically go through the manuscript with “find and replace” to address them before diving into developmental edits and more complex issues.

In all of its glory, here is my list:

1. Minimize Filtering

These are words that unnecessarily filter the reader’s experience through the character’s point of view. they place the character between the author and the reader. Examples include:

  • To see
  • To hear
  • To think
  • I wondered
  • I read
  • I saw
  • I feared

For example, instead of saying “She felt fear as she heard another’s footsteps,” it is more compelling to write “Shivers ran up her spine with the unmistakable echo of approaching steps.”

I have a personal list of my most used filtering words and use find/replace to do perform manuscript surgery. However, no rule is absolute. Notice I said “minimize” and not “delete all.” Do what makes sense for your manuscript,  your voice, your story, and the particular use.

2. Check overuse of certain words

Every author has a list of safe words that they overuse or naturally rely on during writing. While drafting, I overuse the word “with” and for the sake of getting the story out, I often get lazy and my characters “smile” a lot. (Smile 🙂 )

By using the find feature, I can systematically go through each instant of my commonly overused words and determine if there is a more exciting alternative. This also provides variety to the voice.

Don’t know your over used words? Don’t fret! Try running your manuscript through a word cloud. Instructions here.

wordcloud ASAW

3. Check your common grammar errors

Despite a degree in journalism (and simply knowing better) I often confuse “it’s” and “its”. Needless to say, its it’s on my “must check” list and is easily fixed with find and replace.

4. Minimize the words “was”/”were” and passive voice

During editing I find I can often replace “was/were” with more interesting verbs and finding these two words is also quick way to start targeting passive voice.

Active voice is generally more interesting, but passive voice does have its uses. Here’s a fantastic article which describes when passive voice can be the right choice.

5. Minimize adverbs

It is generally agreed that adverbs weaken writing and most authors have heard Stephen King’s quote: “The road to hell is paved with adverbs.”

One problem with adverbs is they are subjective and most often can be replaced by a more accurate phrase that provides an image of greater depth.

The good news: most adverbs can easily be spotted by searching for the word “very” and the characters “ly ” (note I recommend adding a space in the search after the ly).

Example: Instead of “She left quickly” consider “She sprinted” or “She sped like a criminal” or “She hurried.”

Of course, not all adverbs are bad and there are good use cases for them. Read more at this fantastic blog post about adverbs by Henneke.

The rest of my bad habits are not easily identified with find and replace but the above list provides a good start for editing.

What is on your personal bad habit list? Please share your editing tips in the comments!




Writing Tip

Surviving the Fair Chaos: Tips and a Checklist for Selling Your Books

Planning for a book fair, comic con, or any book sales event is a lot of work which distracts from precious writing time! To simplify the task, here’s my checklist for events.

1. Books!
This should be a given, but you will need your book to sell. The difficult question is: how many? If you’re traditionally published, then you’ll have to buy them from your publisher and it becomes a math/risk game – buy too many and you won’t make a profit, have to few and you’ll miss out on sales. Unfortunately I haven’t found a magic formula for this dilemma and from talking to local authors, it seems it’s hard to predict turnout at events you have not been to before. I would recommend having 5-6 copies of each title/hour of the event.

Of course, you can sell other things besides books. I’ve seen authors also sell journals, and cards, etc.

2. A Sales Price and Sign.
You’ve got books, but how much should you charge? I recommend charging as close to retail price as possible, but with some discount. Also consider the ease of making change (it’s easier to charge $15 then $16 and then have a lot of $5 bills on hand to make change). Think about the psychological affect of the price ($9 sounds better than $10 simply because it’s a single digit). Also decide if you’ll give a discount if someone buys more than one book.

Whatever you decide, you’ll need some sort of sign to display the price. I also put a quick summary of my book with reviews on the sign in a frame.

3. Cash to make change and a good bag/box to keep your money safe.
Bring more than you think you need. You don’t want to lose a sale because you can’t break someone’s $20.

4. A credit card reader.
I was unsure if this was required but several authors assured me it was worth the effort and I have to agree: I would lose a lot of sales if I didn’t take credit card.

I use Square. They will send you a free device reader and the app is free and easy to use. If you sign up with this referral link, you’ll get your first $1000 or 6 months fee free (afterwards it’s 2.5%+10 cents per swipe.) I’ll get a perk too I greatly appreciate! (Thank you in advance.) You’ll also have to decide if you want to charge more for a credit card payment than cash.


5. Sales Tax Permit.
(U.S. information below. If you’re in another country, you’re on your own…)

If you’re like me, this item is more daunting than writing item #1 above. Tax laws vary significantly from state to state. Depending upon where you live,  you may not have to pay sales tax if you do not sell more than a certain amount of sales in a year. If you live in Texas, like me, you have to pay no matter what. Some venues will want to see your sales tax permit before you start selling. I have to file quarterly with the State of Texas – even if I didn’t sell something that quarter. What a pain!

Regardless of what state you live in, you need to know the NAICS (North American Industry Classification System) code for the product you’re selling. NAICS is the standard used by Federal statistical agencies in classifying business establishments for the purpose of collecting, analyzing, and publishing statistical data related to the U.S. business economy. Interestingly enough, it is managed by the Census Bureau. To save you an hour on the phone, the NAICS number to sell physical books is: “454390 Other Direct Selling Establishments.” (Totally obvious, right?)

I wish I had better tips for you on this topic, but you’ll have to spend time digging into your state laws and applying for a permit if required.

6. An Ice Breaker.
You’ve got a product, you’re set up to sell, now you need customers!

Think of an ice breaker to draw potential readers to your booth; something age and genre appropriate. Nothing is a bigger turnoff than an obvious sales pitch as the first words from a seller’s mouth.

Since Apricots and Wolfsbane is about a poison assassin, I ask people as they pass if they want to try some poison trivia. It’s a great way to see if they might be interested in the topic of my book. I give them a trivia question that’s not too hard because people get so excited when they get it right! Then I launch into my book pitch and hand them a book to look it.

I’ve see other authors comment on something someone is wearing, ask people what type of books they like to read, ask if they’ve visited a specific destination, etc.

7. Decorations for Your Booth.
Along with an ice breaker, the physical set up of your booth can attract readers. Decorate it with appropriate items of interest. (I use battery powered candles and a mortar and pestle). Use table cloths to cover the bare table. Use a cake stand or some other item to add vertical height for appeal and pick up a small stand to hold up the book.


8. A Big Cover or Banner
A blown up version of the book cover can help attract readers from a distance. I love my book’s cover and had it printed on foam board. I’ve had several people come over from across a room to look at the foam board and then comment they also love the cover.

At least at the time of my research, Vista Print was the cheapest vendor to print on foam board (you can save some money if you print to a standard size) and I picked up a cheap, collapsible easel from Amazon.


9. Consider Your Appearance.
No matter what you wear, look professional and approachable. Since I write Tudor English historical fiction, I wear my Renn Fair Garb and it does attract people to my booth – it also serves as a nice ice breaker 🙂

This is not the time to wear those high heels. Pick a comfortable shoe so you can be out in front of your booth selling. Prepare for a lot of standing!

10. Promotional Material
You’ve got a potential reader at your booth – Great! Make sure they at least leave with something to remember you with: a bookmark, a business card or some freebie. Just because they don’t buy your book there, doesn’t mean they won’t grab the kindle later!

11. Sweat The Small Stuff.
When in doubt, pack it! Bring:

  • Lots of good pens to sign books
  • Rubber bands
  • Extension cords/battery 9ack for that cell phone which is taking credit cards
  • Masking tape
  • Post-It Notes – Write the reader’s name on a scrap piece of paper before you write it in a book. It’d be awful to have to waste a book because you spelled their name wrong!
  • Plastic bags in case a buyer asks for one
  • Snacks! You need to keep your energy up, but try to refrain from eating at the booth.
  • Water – You will do a lot of talking!

12. Do You Need A Friend?
Having a helper can be great. They can take sales while you talk to others. If you’re participating in a panel (or just need to run to the restroom), a friend can watch your booth as well.

13. Wheels.
You have a lot to carry and books are heavy! Bring a wagon, a dolly, or something to help you transport everything from the car. I pack things in a large rolling suitcase.

14. A Smile.
Yep, it’s cliche but no matter what, have fun and be polite.

What is missing from my list? If you have a great tip to share, please leave it in the comments!


Apricots and Wolfsbane, Writing Tip

When Your Hobby Becomes A Job

Writing is my escape. Under a blanket with my laptop, I can go anywhere, be anyone. For countless nights, from behind my humble keyboard, I dreamed of publishing a book. And now that it’s happening, I’ve found my “hobby” is less relaxing.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m loving every minute of this new adventure. Every time I get an e-mail from my publisher, a little part of me still stares at it in disbelief.

But suddenly I had the pressures of deadlines, the burden of being creative on the clock. My writing “to-do” list grew longer than my list of house chores. At times, my sudden second job became more stressful than my days at NASA. I often found myself calculating how many pages I needed to edit each night to make a deadline, staring at the clock – Did it really take me an hour to edit that one page?

My outlet for anxiety, my relaxation method, quickly became the source of my stress.

To cope, I learned to take breaks. To power off the laptop for a night and make progress on my to-be-read pile. To relax through other creative means: I edited family picture books and played around with video editing.

But through all the anxiety, I remembered to step back and take a breath. I’m publishing a book! And in 43 days! I want to savor every moment of this dream coming true, since I know it’s only for a fleeting moment.

At this point, there are no more editorial letters or notes to address. The cover is designed. In a few months, I know the requests for guest blogs will decline. Eventually it will just be me once again with my laptop, writing under a blanket, hoping I’ll be lucky enough to do this all again.