Game Face: Historical Fiction Gets Serious

Peter Leavell, a 2007 graduate of Boise State University with a degree in history, was the 2011 winner of Christian Writers Guild’s Operation First Novel contest, and 2013 Christian Retailing’s Best award for First-Time Author. Peter and his family live in Boise, Idaho. For entertainment, he reads historical books, where he finds ideas for new novels. For relaxation, he writes westerns. Whenever he has a chance, he takes his wife and two homeschooled children on crazy but fun research trips. Learn more about Peter’s books, research, and family adventures at

Your historical fiction manuscript sits on a knife’s edge.
Falling to one side awaits epic historical fiction. The other side? Epic
historical failure.

Historical fiction owns an element that comes with
significant responsibility. It’s time to get serious.
Historical fiction
shapes views of the past.
For good or for bad, historical fiction forges images and
impressions of the past into minds. When the American gold rush is mentioned,
many minds reference Francine Rivers’ Redeeming
.  American Civil War? Gone with the Wind or Killer Angels. Many feel they know
medieval history because they’ve read Pillars
of the Earth
Use history wisely.
Because in historical fiction, history is the flour of bread.
If the wrong ingredient is added, is the recipe ruined? For some, no—they like
salt instead of baking powder. But historical fiction readers are usually
informed. They know what the pudding should taste like. And if you use skim
milk instead of whole milk, they’ll know.
Raise the history standard in your manuscript. That means reading.
And more reading. Until you don’t tell your friends how many
books read. Until you pretend you watch TV, so you can fit in. Until, embarrassed
and ashamed of your dirty little reading secret, you have three Goodreads accounts with fictitious
names just to keep track of your books.
Reading history leaves
an impression on you.
When at long last you sit and write, after reading your
fill, history dominates your head. Nothing specific, maybe—just history. You can’t
help but write history. Sweeping themes of humanity. Struggles of what it was
to live in another time.
Graduate yourself from knowing about history to living
history. Breathing it. Loving it. Writing the past.
Leave the reader an impression of what the past was really
Mr. Leavell,
where do I begin studying history? How do I get my historical fiction game face
You’re serious? Good.
A great overview of world history is Susan Wise Bauer’s The History of the Ancient World,
followed by The History of the Medieval
, and just out is The History of
the Renaissance World
In the back of her books are notes and bibliographies. These
are trusted sources. If a time period interests you, read the books she lists. Those
books list sources. It’s okay to find those books and read them. And then read the primary sources
listed. You can find gold mines in the bibliography of any historical books.
Then contact your local college history professor and ask
what she’s reading. Read those books, along with the ones she’s written. And
finally, subscribe to periodicals and journals, such as the American Historical
Review. Sure, they’ve got some bias, like taking down Christianity, but it’s
the latest in historical thought. And someday, you might be in a position to combat bias.

Keep reading until this hobby of loving history has gone
terribly wrong, taking over your life. When your manuscript falls off the knife
edge and on the side of epic historical fiction, keep reading history.
What’s your favorite historical fiction novel? Author? Time period?
Gideon’s Call is an unprecedented tale of tragedy and triumph amid the backdrop of the Civil War through the story of Tad, a very clever slave boy who comes of age as America’s war reaches the sea islands of South Carolina. Tad’s desire to better himself is obstructed by the color of his skin, until Northern soldiers force the evacuation of white plantation owners, setting 10,000 slaves free in a single day. These circumstances seem like a dream, except that the newly freed slaves have no money, no education, and little hope for the future—unless someone rises up to lead them. Based on true events, Gideon’s Call is the dramatic tale of a young man who battles the shame of his past and faces the horrors of war and unimaginable prejudice to become the deliverer of thousands of freed slaves.

The Times are Changing, But You Still Have Time

by Yvonne Anderson

For the first time ever, I
forgot to change my clocks Saturday night for the time change Sunday.

The only consequence,
fortunately, was getting up with my cell phone alarm at 6:00, staggering into
the kitchen to turn on the coffee, seeing the clock on the microwave saying 5:00, and thinking Huh? Then I remembered: It’s Daylight Savings Time.
was disappointing to realize the microwave clock lied to me and I couldn’t go back to
sleep for another hour. But I’m thankful for my self-adjusting cell phone
alarm. Without it, my whole morning would have been thrown out of whack.
Speaking of times and
seasons, this seems to be the season for writing contests. I keep seeing
reminders from ACFW that the deadlines for submission to the Genesis and Carol
Award contests are breathing down our necks.
Like the Genesis contest,
Novel Rocket’s Launch Pad Contest: Boosting You Out of the Slush Pile is for
writers who have never released a novel through a traditional publisher. It’s a
way to gain experience in the submission process, to get some unbiased input on
the opening of your book, and, if you’re a winner, to get a little attention
for your work.
The contests are similar,
but there are two big differences:
1) With the Launch Pad
contest, the grand prize is this really cool blown glass rocket trophy,

something no other writing contest
can boast, along with the opportunity to bypass the slush pile and get your
submission into the hands of an agent.

2) The submission deadline
for the Launch Pad contest is still a comfortable distance away. We have
different deadlines, depending on the genre, but the first one isn’t until
April 10. And that’s only for Suspense/Crime/Mystery/Thriller. If your story is
in another genre, you’ve got even more time.
Some unsolicited feedback
from people who participated in previous years:
Peter Leavell, author of Gideon’s Call, recently volunteered: “I will preach it from the highest pulpit, the
two mandatory contests are Novel Rocket and Genesis. I applied the feedback
from both and entered Operation First Novel in 2011. Christian Retailing also
chose it as the Best First Novel winner for 2013.” 
This email came from UK writer Magda Knight, who entered two stories in the
Middle Grade/Young Adult category in 2012: “At the risk of burdening your inbox I’d
like to voice my appreciation of the incisive and immensely helpful critiques
by the judges. I don’t think I’ve ever had such pertinent and useful feedback.
Absolutely game-changing. Please accept my thanks for setting up such a great
competition. I may not have won, but thanks to those critiques I feel like I
won anyway. Huzzah!”
From two other past entrants: “I can’t tell you
enough how much it has helped me. Just getting my work out has been hard for
me, because I usually don’t receive any feedback. Both of the judges’ critiques
were extremely helpful.”
“The comments were spot on. Some were very
encouraging. It’s given me new motivation to continue on. Thank you, thank you,
thank you!”

So how about you? The deadlines aren’t
pressing yet, so you can breathe easy and often. Check out the complete rules. (Contest
rules, that is, not rules for breathing.) And, if you’ve got a novel manuscript
you’d like to share with us, give us a try!

Yvonne Anderson writes fiction that takes you out of this world. Look for Ransom in the Rock, the third book in the Gateway to Gannah sci-fi series, to release this spring!

Peter Leavell: Historian, Author, Family Man

Peter Leavell

Peter Leavell, a 2007 graduate of Boise State University with a degree in history, was the 2011 winner of Christian Writers Guild’s Operation First Novel contest. Peter and his family live in Boise, Idaho. For entertainment, he reads historical books, where he finds ideas for new novels. Whenever he has a chance, he takes his wife and two homeschooled children on crazy but fun research trips. Learn more about Peter’s books, research, and family adventures at and on his Facebook page:

Peter, why do you love history so much? What happened?


For me, history is a hobby gone wrong. My 4th grade teacher lecturing on Laura Ingalls Wilder sent me into another time and place. Since then, I’ve either aced all my history classes or completely destroyed the grading curve. Let’s not talk about my math and Spanish classes, though. History is more than just good stories. It gives me lessons on how and why people chose what they did.


I’ve never been to South Carolina, let alone during the Civil War era. How’d you make it seem so real?


At first, I needed to know the people involved and the raw historical data—from the tools they used, food they ate, to the events locked in time. I learned this from books.

Then I visited the area. I saw what Edward Pierce saw, felt what Laura Towne (left) felt, and imagined what it would be like growing up on the islands. (Pierce and Towne are real historical figures who appear as characters in Peter’s book.)

The real secret, though, is one word: Magic. No, really. The time period is magic to me, as are the people involved. I care about them, want to know everything there is to know. So I leave no stone unturned—no detail is too small to put in my head.


In your book, Gideon’s Call, the real people and the fictional characters were indistinguishable to me. I didn’t know Pierce and Towne were real until I got to the end of the book and read your updates on what happened to them after your book’s timeline. How did you get to know them so well that you could present them as full people?

In a related question, did all the things that happened to the real people really happen or were some of the events fiction as well? If some were fiction, how do you place real people within fictional events—and have confidence that you’re being true to that real person?   

This is a great question and I’m glad you asked it. The real characters such as Edward Pierce and Laura Towne feel like friends to me. I spent so much time immersing myself in Pierce’s writing and Towne’s diary that I got to know them fairly well. Their interactions with Tad and Peg (fictional characters) were based on how Pierce and Towne reacted to real children.

Most conversations really happened, especially where Pierce is involved. Sometimes I condensed information for time’s sake, but the overall outcome of the discussion is the same.

So, did Pierce get a lashing on the dock by Colonel Nobles? Yes. Did Laura Towne wish to teach? Yes. Did she give the freed slaves tobacco and 50 cents as they were marched to Hilton Head for training? Yes. Did Pierce meet with Lincoln? Yes.


One of the emotional moments in your book has to do with Laura Towne’s school bell. Did you get to touch the actual bell? If so, what was that like?


Laura Towne and three students

The museum curator was standing in the room with me as I looked at Laura Towne’s bell. We both stared at it for a moment. It was as if the curator was looking at it for the first time, through my eyes. The feeling in the room was intense. Brilliant. Tangible. Because the bell in front of me was a symbol of Laura Towne’s life.

She wanted the ring of the bell to call the children to school—and to remind the parents of their days as a youth.

Finally, when the curator left, I reached out and touched it. I thought—I hoped—I might be transported back to the days when her school was a going concern. But it didn’t happen.


Your website ( describes you in three ways: Historian, Author, Family Man. Why those three? Why, particularly, Family Man coupled with Historian and Author?


I couldn’t be a historian or author without my family. When researching, my two children opened doors for me that I could never have opened without them.

Here’s an example: While on the islands, we stopped once to eat. While Tonya (his wife) and I ate, the children were invited to watch an old woman weave sweet grass baskets. While her ancient, black fingers worked the strands, she told them stories. I wanted to sit at her feet as well, but I’m not as easy to trust as the kids.

This journey of research, writing, and publishing is a family journey.


What has been the hardest thing about seeing your first novel published? The best thing? The most unexpected thing? What has not happened that you expected would?


The hardest part is knowing I won’t spend the intimate time with Tad and Peg again—they wormed their way into my heart and I loved them. They were real to me.

But the best thing is that they have come to life through readers.  That is so unexpected, so amazing. They feel like flesh and blood now. And I do find myself worrying about them.

Juggling story ideas

I expected a manual to come in the mail on how to be a published author. I waited, and waited, and it never came. Looking at other published authors, they seem so calm, cool, and collected, I really thought there was a trick to it. There’s not—or at least none of them will tell me what the trick is!

So I’m going back to my writing cave to research a new book, only to come out to speak at writer’s conferences, which I enjoy far too much.


Do you have any other talents—or is writing pretty much it?


I’m not sure you would call it a talent, but I juggle. I can count to 10 in Klingon. Knitting is a new hobby I picked up—because it’s historical. I used to play video games until they completely took over my life, so I jettisoned them and replaced them with more family time, reading time, and researching more history. I think I got the best of that deal.

Read my review of Gideon’s Call.

Michael Ehret loves to play with words and as editor of the ACFW Journal, he is enjoying his playground. He also plays with words as a freelance editor at, where he often takes a writer Into The Edit, pulling back the veil on the editing process. He has edited several nonfiction books, played with words as a corporate communicator, and reported for The Indianapolis Star.