Inside Historical Fiction with Maryka Biaggio

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Parlor Games by Maryka BiaggioI met Maryka Biaggio at this year’s Historical Novel Society conference. Not only is she an experienced author, but she is also a superb conference organizer with a PhD in Psychology! Maryka specializes in writing historical fiction about real people.

The quote below is prominently featured on her website. It happens to be particularly apt for our conversation.

“The historian serves the truth of his subject. The novelist serves the truth of his tale. As a novelist, I have tools no historian should touch: I can manipulate time and space, extrapolate from the written record to invent dialogue and incident, create fictional characters to bring you close to the historical figures, and fall back on my imagination when the research runs out.” William Martin

What are the ‘magic ingredients’ that make historical fiction unforgettable/irresistible? And in your opinion, what do the best historical fiction writers do to ‘get it right’?

Historical fiction done well immerses the reader in a different period, a different culture, perhaps even a different part of the world. I know I love the experience of getting utterly lost in a great historical novel. Writers who “get it right” find a way to slip the reader into the stream of a well-told story—as well as an expertly evoked time and place. They take the reader on a trip through time, into the world of people who lived a different sort of life. That’s no easy magic to make, but when it works it’s a dazzling experience for the reader (and, I believe, the writer who produced it).

Are historical novels inherently different from contemporary novels, and if so, in what ways?

Historical fiction is difficult to write. It carries with it all the basic demands of a novel set in contemporary time, including character, plot, pacing, and myriad other matters. But it also requires the writer to research the period, its people, culture, and mores—and to portray those while also telling a compelling human story.

So the rewards are multiplied. Reading historical fiction raises as many questions as any reader could ever care to entertain: How did people manage the daily demands of finding food and shelter before modern times? Who influenced the royal courts of kings and queens—and at what risk? How did people justify persecuting each other during the Crusades and Inquisition? What would life be like if I had been born in the Wild West?

What do you try to highlight in your novel(s) and why?

I write novels about actual people. Historical fiction based on real people is not unusual, and many readers love to eavesdrop on the lives of royals, celebrities, or notorious persons. Although biographies can satisfy some of that yen, fiction does something biography can’t always do—bring us inside these peoples’ worlds and show us their doubts, their fears, and words they might have spoken. As Historical novelist William Martin says, “The historian serves the truth of his subject. The novelist serves the truth of his tale.”

Many readers find their interest especially piqued by novels based on real persons.

Could it be that we are compelled to compare ourselves to others, and, when those others are real people, that their tales are even more captivating? In its most basic form story is about confronting life’s questions and quandaries. Writer E.A. Durden claims “it is the job of fiction to portray the full spectrum of human possibility, to remind ourselves of everything we are capable of—from exploring the heavens to breaking out of the clink.”

If one fascination stories hold for us is the means of measuring ourselves against others, it’s not at all difficult to understand the attraction of stories based on real historical figures. Unbelievable as their motives may be, far-fetched as their actions and circumstances seem, these people actually lived. We humans are meaning-making machines, and stories based on real people make the most delectable fuel for our story-hungry minds. If these real people could mastermind daring plots to separate a millionaire from his money, what adventures might be in store for any of us? If they could rise from poor beginnings and attain greatness, what might the meekest among us achieve?

In writing historical fiction, what research and techniques do you use to ensure that conflict, plot, setting, dialogue, and characters are true to the time period?

A particularly tricky part of writing historical fiction is conveying a sense of characters that is true to their times. That is, we cannot expect people who lived during the Middle Ages to declare themselves atheists—not when religion was the center of their world. Still, the writer must foster the reader’s identification with the people in her novel. So, it’s important for the writer to find a balance between portraying the influences on her characters and also revealing their humanity. Thus, I try hard to reveal the backdrop for person’s beliefs so as to make their “psychology” believable.

Readers expect authenticity. They want to trust that the writer has gotten the period and place right. So I try to use props that are unique to or revealing of the time I’m writing about, and I take care to be accurate. If I want to dress a lady for an evening at the opera in 1890, I’d better know what dress was proper for that occasion and what terms were used to describe lady’s gowns then.

I have used a variety of research strategies to capture my characters and their times. The period I write about spans from the late 18th to the early 19th centuries, so I have a broad array of resources at my disposal, including newspapers, novels written at the time, genealogy records, trial records (for those involved in criminal/civil charges), biographies, and nonfiction books about topics addressed in my novels.

I also travel. For instance, I’ve searched the National Archives in Washington, DC, for passport and travel records. In Chicago I studied buildings that were in existence during the period I write about. I arranged a trip to the south of France while I worked on my recently published novel. I paid the requisite fee to enter the exclusive gambling lounge at the Monte Carlo Casino, where I soaked up the ambience of the scene—the beautiful, inviting decor, the serious expressions of the gamblers, and the shuffling of chips—just as my protagonist did during her visits there.

What aspects do you feel need to be included when you are building a past world for your readers?

I believe that depends on the place and period. Again, authenticity is key here. A novel told about a high society woman during the Gilded Age better take note of jewelry and expensive gowns, neither of which would matter to a poor maid of Biblical times. The author should know the period and place well enough to understand what needs to be evoked in order to transport his readers there.

Please tell us a little about your latest novel.

PARLOR GAMES, published by Doubleday in 2013, is based on the notorious character May Dugas, born in 1869 to a poor family in a small Michigan town. I chose to write about her for a number of reasons: I was fascinated by the Pinkerton Detectives’ description of her as “the most dangerous woman in the world”; she did not shrink from adventure or peril; and I thought a first-person account would both challenge me and, if I succeeded, provide a fascinating glimpse into May’s world.

Apparently this poor girl clawed her way out of poverty by means of beguiling beauty, risk-taking bravado, irresistible charm, and quick wits. And I wondered: Was the real May Dugas a cold-hearted enchantress, an able provider for her poor family, or a free-spirited globetrotter? There was only one way for me to explore this—to write May’s story in first person and make her tell the story and explain her motives. That way, the reader and I could enjoy the journey as we explored her inner life. Seeing the world through the eyes of another is truly one of the most seductive aspects of writing—and reading—historical fiction.

Many thanks, Maryka. A superb discussion of what makes historical fiction unique.

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M.K. Tod writes historical fiction and blogs about all aspects of the genre at A Writer of History. Her latest novel, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE is set in WWI France and is available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. Her debut novel, UNRAVELLED: Two wars. Two affairs. One marriage. is also available from these retailers.

Mary can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads.