Between Revisions

Rosamond at 13There are a few writers out there who can dash off a manuscript and get it right the first time. They self-edit in their heads before they put fingers to keyboard. For most of us, however, producing a short story or a novel requires writing several drafts, and that’s before an editor lays eyes on it. The earliest one is usually called the first draft, but it also goes by other names, among them rough draft, shit draft, and no-one-sees-this-but-me draft. The process that leads to a final draft is called revising or rewriting. Between drafts, I like to let my manuscript “rest” for as long as possible, so that I can come back to it with fresh eyes and fresh ideas. That’s where I am now. I’ve done the first “read thru/revision” of the “rough draft” and it (and I) are taking a break.

Sort of.

The project (the third Mistress Jaffrey Mystery) may be on a back burner, but it’s still cooking. To be more specific, all sorts of “little things” cropped up during the first revision. Before I start the next one, I needed to do more research on some specific issues and check my facts on others,

the-matthew2To help me with this process, I have two people reading all or part of what I’ve already written. My husband, who is also my trusted beta reader, gets the entire book, which he will read on his iPad. He’ll give me “notes” after he’s done, particularly on continuity and whether or not what I’ve written makes sense. I also sent about thirty pages, all the material having to do with ships and seafaring, to James L. Nelson, nautical expert extraordinaire. He knows sixteenth-century ships, having sailed as a member of the crew on the replica of the Golden Hinde, and he also knows a lot about pirates. My knowledge of these things comes entirely from books, so he has helped me catch some bloopers. Luckily, fixing them didn’t require too much rewriting. The ship pictured here, by the way, is not the Golden Hinde, but rather the replica of the Mathew, which is closer in size to the ship in my novel.

On my own, I needed to check three things by doing a keyword search and charting when they turn up. One was the word invasion, since the nebulous threat of an invasion plays a key role in spy subplot that goes along with the murder mystery. The other two were the names of suspects. For each of them I needed to make a timeline to make sure I didn’t accidentally say they were somewhere they can’t be. Both need to remain on Rosamond’s list of suspects for as long as possible. That was pretty easy to do, and turned up no surprises, only a couple of places where I needed to clarify how long one of those suspects was out of sight.

alehouse2I also had to do some new research. This book is set in Cornwall. I knew that going in, and I did some research on the Cornish language before I started writing. The thing is, there’s also a Cornish dialect of English. In the draft, most of my characters sounded pretty much the same, but some are from London and the home counties, some are natives of Cornwall, and a couple hail originally from Westmorland. They wouldn’t all talk the same way today, let alone in the sixteenth century.

Language is always a dilemma in historical novels, and not only because writers try to avoid glaring anachronisms and obvious Americanisms. If I wrote dialogue the way Elizabethans actually spoke, their conversations would come across as bad imitation Shakespeare. A little of that goes a long way. So, you ask, if my major characters aren’t speaking exactly as they would in 1584, why do my Cornish characters need to sound authentic? A little goes a long way there, too, but I have to be sure I use the right little bits. That meant dipping into linguistics books, particularly Peter Trudgill’s The Dialects of England. Where Londoners used “you.” Cornish English speakers still said “thee.” They also said things like “I wished a good day to she,” and “Us be goin’,” “It do seem to I,” and “I be” instead of “I am.” Add a few words unique to Cornwall, like “smitch” for the dirty smoke from a fire, and I can capture the flavor of the language. The trick was to reconfigure the dialogue I need into those speech patterns. Not easy! At the moment, I’m compromising in places by having Rosamond “translate” what she hears.

the alewife in front of her alehouse

the alewife in front of her alehouse

There were also some relatively minor changes and additions I needed to make as a result of having increased my general knowledge of the way things were done in Elizabethan times. From reading Ruth Goodman’s wonderful How to be a Tudor, I gained a better understanding of how an eight-year-old boy in a gentry household would be expected to behave and have fleshed out his character. I also have a new perspective on the taste and texture of some of the food my characters eat. I’ll probably add a few more descriptive details at mealtimes on the next pass, but I have to be careful not to add too much. Nobody likes an information dump. The biggest change will be to the scenes that take place in an alehouse. Even before I read Goodman’s comments on alehouses, I had realized that mine was simply too large an establishment for the time and place. I’ve now gone through all those scenes to make them more accurate.

Rosamond's handsI’m still in a quandary about one thing. Rosamond Jaffrey is something of a rebel, so I can get away with defying convention, but when I do I have to be sure I can make her actions believable for 1584. She’s already disguised herself as a boy in earlier books. I know of instances when real women did so, despite the fact that it was illegal. What I didn’t realize until I read Goodman’s book was that cross-dressing was specifically forbidden by St. Paul. In this book, I really want to leave the windows open and the bed curtains pulled back overnight, but most Tudor people believed that the night air carried infection and shut everything up tight when it got dark. At the moment, the window is still open. I don’t know how else Rosamond can hear something outside the house in the middle of the night.

All these questions will be answered, as they used to say at the end of soap operas, in the next installment. Make that revision. In the meantime, minor corrections having been made, the manuscript really is resting. When I start the second read thru/revision, I’ll be looking for places to add descriptive details but I’ll also be looking for unnecessary words, descriptions, and even whole scenes that should be cut. I’ll do that revision and at least one more. The final pass will be a read thru aimed at fixing typos, adding missing words, and eliminating any remaining unnecessary or repetitious words. What I submit will be as “clean” as I can make it, if only because it’s just plain embarrassing to have an editor catch stupid mistakes.

It’s even worse when they slip past everyone involved in the editorial process and readers spot them.


Kathy Lynn Emerson/Kaitlyn Dunnett is the author of over fifty books written under several names. She won the Agatha Award in 2008 for best mystery nonfiction for How to Write Killer Historical Mysteries and was an Agatha Award finalist in 2014 in the best mystery short story category for “The Blessing Witch.” Currently she writes the contemporary Liss MacCrimmon Mysteries (The Scottie Barked at Midnight) as Kaitlyn and the historical Mistress Jaffrey Mysteries (Murder in the Merchant’s Hall) as Kathy. The latter series is a spin-off from her earlier “Face Down” series and is set in Elizabethan England. Her websites are and



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10 Responses to Between Revisions

  1. Your meticulous process fascinates and inspires, Kathy.

  2. Lea Wait says:

    Love your historicals, Kathy! Because (among other reasons) you do such a great job of integrating tidbits about life in Tudor England! Looking forward to reading this one.

  3. David Plimpton says:

    Thank you, Kathy Lynn, for this helpful post, not only for the the challenges and tricks of the trade in writing historical fiction, but the professional and thorough drafting, resting, review, rewriting and revision advice which seems valuable for all kinds of writing.

    I’m struck by the many challenges of getting historical fiction right the further your story is removed from an era in which the writer has experienced.

    For example in the historical, crime, thriller (but not mystery) book I am writing, set in 1960 New Jersey, where I grew up, I can rely on memory about events, places, people and speech, expressions, slang, dialect (bolstered of course by research to refresh my fading memory), but for a book set in 1584 that’s impossible. So I consider myself fortunate.

    I am making a list of the steps you outline as a guide to the fiction writing process.

    • Thanks, David. I’m glad the post was helpful. I suspect that most writers tend to become fascinated by whatever period they write about and that makes research much more enjoyable. Most of the time, looking for the strange little details that bring the story to life is more like a treasure hunt than real work.

  4. Peter Murray says:

    Thank you for this post. It could not have been more timely. It came within hours of my pulling out the incomplete manuscript of my first major effort, a 19th century true crime. I have fictionalized it to the extend of having one person interjected as a news reporter investigating the circumstances and alternative theory. I had put it away to mull over suggestions offered by readers and fact check. I had recently caught an error. I had my protagonist arriving at Portland’s Union Station in 1888. This would have been accurate had he come in July instead of January. Union Station did not go into operation until June of that year. Your post gave me a path to follow. Thanks

    • You’re welcome, Peter. Glad it helped. We can never be 100% accurate, but I think we owe it to our readers to try our best . . . or, at the least, put an author’s note at the end to explain why we fudged on something.

  5. L.C. Rooney says:

    It’s always fascinating to read about the writing process of others. Although I am glad my WIP is set in the present day (and I don’t envy you the volume of research that is necessary to do what you do!), there are still helpful tips in this post, especially since I have recently returned to my “resting” manuscript. Thanks, Kathy!

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