Outlaw King – and a crazy connection

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We were at TIFF last week – Toronto International Film Festival – which is always a fantastic event. We choose a range of films from various countries and genres with the added bonus of hearing from directors, actors and producers after the films screened.

One of this year’s films was Outlaw King – directed by David Mackenzie of Hell or High Water fame and with Chris Pine as Robert the Bruce, Scotland’s king during the early 14th century. It will come as no surprise to you that I love films with historical settings and this was no exception. The battle scenes and Scottish countryside alone were worth it!

So what’s the crazy connection?

Well, it turns out that I’m descended from Robert the Bruce (aka Robert I). I knew my grandmother on my father’s side always claimed that we were descendants, but I have to admit I always assumed it was one of the family myths that have little to do with reality.

I have a folder containing some family genealogy research my father did a long time ago (he died in 1981, well before Ancestry.com!), so after seeing the film, I decided to examine it more closely. The challenge was to figure out how all the different family trees he had in the folder were connected. One tree begins in 1806 with the 5th Duke of Buccleuch, another shows the Stewart tree beginning with Robert the Bruce (sometimes spelled Bruys). Then there are trees for the Douglas clan, the earlier Buccleuch clan, and another for the Dukes of Queensberry.

Tracing the peerage of Scotland is a difficult task. Dad did it well, but he left no roadmap for those of us who might wish to understand the labyrinthine connections.

Now that I’ve scrutinized the details and checked various Internet sites for clarification, I think I’ve figured it out.

  • a grandson of Robert the Bruce (Robert I) through his daughter Marjory was Robert II
  • Robert II has many children including Isabel (also found spelled as Isabelle)
  • Isabel married James, 2nd Earl of Douglas
  • following the Douglas line down through the centuries, we find Jane, daughter of William, 3rd Earl of Queensberry and 1st Duke of Queensberry (now isn’t that confusing)
  • Jane marries Francis, 2nd Duke of Buccleuch
  • following the Buccleuch line we come to Walter Francis, 5th Duke of Buccleuch and 7th Duke of Queensberry and Walter’s son Lord Francis Scott
  • Lord Francis Scott has a daughter Hester Anna Scott
  • Hester marries George W Shields of Ireland; they have a daughter also Hester Anna, who marries Herbert Francis Thomas my great-grandfather

So there you have it … I’m connected to Scottish royalty!

By the way, I highly recommend Outlaw King.

FOR MORE ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION FOLLOW A WRITER OF HISTORY (using the widget on the left sidebar)

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.

Author Robert Masello on writing historical fiction

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ROBERT MASELLO is a former New York journalist, Los Angeles television writer, and currently the author of several historical novels, including his most recent, The Night Crossing. Publishers Weekly called it “an interesting alternate history [in which] Masello creatively reimagines the inspiration for Dracula with thrills, frights, and a splendid final confrontation aboard the Titanic.”

How’s that for a story concept? I’m delighted to welcome Robert on publication day for The Night Crossing. Let’s see what he has to say about writing historical fiction.

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I never meant to get into this racket. Historical fiction. But nobody believes me when I say that.

Still, I guess the signs were there all along.

In high school, the only subjects that truly interested me were history and English, and as a result, they were the two in which I excelled, winning the prizes in both (a Merriam-Webster dictionary and a copy of Barbara Tuchman’sThe Proud Tower.  I became a lifelong devotee of Tuchman, though the dictionary has long since disintegrated.)

I wrote some contemporary novels over the years, set among the struggling writers and musicians and artists of New York – a world I knew all too well – but it wasn’t until I went sort of crazy and embarked upon a supernatural, dual-narrative story about the Crimean War and, in the present-day, an Antarctic research station that I found myself truly engaged. When I was asked what I was working on, and I tried to explain, people looked at me like I’d lost my mind. I’d get a pat on the shoulder, a sympathetic glance, and a “whatever lights your fire” kind of comment. That book —Blood and Ice— was, I’m relieved to report, published by Random House and other houses all over the world, and at least nobody acts like I’ve gone off the rails anymore when I tell them my latest strange inspiration.

The Night Crossing is the most recent evidence of my penchant for mixing history and mystery, fact and fiction. Its protagonist is Bram Stoker and it purports to be the true story behind the creation of his 1897 masterpiece, Dracula. Oh yeah, I might not have made clear that I like my tales to be generously spiced with the supernatural. So this one was the ideal brew, allowing me to wallow in research of the late Victorian era and at the same time read lots of spooky stuff turned out by Stoker and some of his contemporaries.

Therein lies the danger, however, for writers of historical fiction. You can get lost in the research. You go down into the archives and only turn up again twenty years later, blinking at the sunlight, with shaggy hair and curling fingernails. Not to mention the fact that you’ve missed your deadline by maybe a decade. For The Night Crossing, I devoured a couple of biographies of Stoker –Something in the Blood by David J. Skal was indispensable –and a handful of books about the Titanic, on the decks of which the climax of the novel takes place in 1912. But then I forced myself to stop. (If you wanted to read everything ever written about the Titanic, you would never be seen again.) What I want as a writer is to be able to provide a convincing sense of immersion in the era; what I want as a reader of historical fiction is to enjoy that immersion without ever feeling that I’ve stumbled into an “information dump,” an unmediated regurgitation of the research that the author performed and, because authors do get inordinately attached to their fact-finding work, can’t resist including.  Lest I fall victim to it myself (and I’m sure I have at times), I always try to remind myself that less is more, and that the telling detail is worth a whole page of exposition.

For instance, the very fact that Stoker, desperate to become an author and not just the dog’s body to Henry Irving, the most famous actor of his day, quietly underwrote an illustrated publication of his own volume of short stories, entitled Under the Sunset, told me so much about the man himself.  Or the fact that the lookouts on the Titanic that fateful night did not have a pair of binoculars on hand. (Afterwards, it was mandated.) Or that London society at the time, in the grips of what might be called Egypt-mania, often enjoyed mummy-unwrapping parties, where the hosts desecrated the ancient remains:

“The corpse, tightly bound in discolored linen, lay like some sacrificial beast on the trestle table before him . . . The outermost bandages crisscrossed across the body, and as Thorne began to snip away at them, his sister grabbed the loose ends, tore them off, and let them flutter to the floor like confetti . . . Mina was close enough that she could smell the antique aroma of the mummy – the tarry bitumen that made up part of the coating, the salty natron that was employed as a preservative, the ancient oils and fragrances that had anointed the body after forty days of drying. The mummification process could be a long and laborious one, especially when done properly.  Each limb, each finger and toe, was separately wrapped to maintain the body’s integrity.  Reversing the process, undoing layer after layer of protective covering, was not an easy task.”

Not so different, come to think of it, from writing historical fiction, where the goal is to preserve the past and then reveal it, layer by layer, until it feels not only real, but almost alive again. Although Bram Stoker, who gave us the immortal Count Dracula, has been gone for just over a hundred years now, I like to think he’d have given me his blessing for The Night Crossing.

The Night Crossing by Robert Masello

It begins among the Carpathian peaks, when an intrepid explorer discovers a mysterious golden box. She brings it back with her to the foggy streets of Victorian London, unaware of its dangerous power…or that an evil beyond imagining has already taken root in the city.

Stoker, a successful theater manager but frustrated writer, is drawn into a deadly web spun by the wealthy founders of a mission house for the poor. Far from a safe haven, the mission harbors a dark and terrifying secret.

To save the souls of thousands, Stoker—aided by the explorer and a match girl grieving the loss of her child—must pursue an enemy as ancient as the Saharan sands where it originated. Their journey will take them through the city’s overgrown graveyards and rat-infested tunnels and even onto the maiden voyage of the world’s first “unsinkable” ship…

FOR MORE ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION FOLLOW A WRITER OF HISTORY (using the widget on the left sidebar)

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.

Becoming a Writer of History

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Lauren Speeth has shared her stories in film and print over the years with audiences around the world. In her first novel, Thread For Pearls, she shares what she has come to understand as the fundamental human experience of resiliency and hope. I’m delighted to have her visit today.

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The Lived Experience – Conveying the ‘60s and ‘70s in Thread for Pearls

I never imagined I’d become a “writer of history.” My “Aha!” moment, though, came when I visited a favorite antique store and saw something from my childhood labeled “mid-century vintage.” A lightbulb went off in my mind: I’m mid-century vintage, and that means I can write about it with authority. And so, I did. Meet Fiona Sprechelbach, a young girl I imagined growing up in mid-century America.

Putting pen to paper, it quickly became obvious that my fading childhood memories wouldn’t help me write more than a very few pages. I had to become a researcher to really get it right and then let my imagination soar.

Here’s how I made the process work: I sketched out the events that I felt were important to history. From the start of the book in 1962, I traced out historical landmarks in a sequence, from the Cold War to the Kennedy assassination, the Beatles, the Summer of Love, Earth Day, the Nixon impeachment hearings, Carter’s election, and so on. I then superimposed those historical events with moments from Fiona’s childhood that would make the history come to life: running from tear gas at a Vietnam War rally, learning side-by-side India’s “untouchables,” the highs and lows of living on a rural Pennsylvania commune…

A curious thing happened when I started sketching out Fiona’s world. I began noticing how her times and our times held some remarkable similarities. Back then, we were ducking and covering for a possible nuclear explosion. Today, the drills are for fear of gun violence. I realized that my work of fiction could ring true today and offer some help for coping in today’s world, and it could be a story of resilient hope.

I worked hard to transport the reader back to important moments in American history. For example, for the lunar landing, I had families gathered around the television set, as happened across the country.

The room was abuzz. Everyone huddled around the television, their plates laden with Jiffy Pop and other treats, and their free hands holding mixed drinks or Tang, the beverage of choice of astronauts, in honor of the occasion. Yet, when the big moment came, the room was so quiet, you could hear, well, a lunar landing…

The Vietnam War helped define the era. Addressing that fraught subject, I paint a picture of a family divided about the war. I included the terror of running from tear gas at a protest and juxtaposed that moment against stories from the soldiers’ perspectives. I needed those perspectives to ring true. The march scenes are conjured from watching my uncle’s documentary films featuring protest marches. I also talked to friends who’d served in the war, so the war memories in the book are true to the lived experience of a number of veteran soldiers. Here’s Fiona’s Uncle Bob, talking about his assignment to Da Nang:

“We’d just landed. I was looking out over the runway area, and all I could see were rows and rows and rows of gray boxes. I had no idea what they were and asked one of the crew members what was inside—freight? supplies? The crew member turned ashen and told me they were our boys, waiting to go home. There were thousands of them, Fiona. Uncountable thousands. Endless caskets.”

As Fiona grows up, her perspective on the war grows more nuanced. Because she loves her father, she takes in his anti-war rhetoric. Later, as she’s interviewing her veteran uncles—people she also loves and whose viewpoints she also trusts—about their war experiences for a school assignment, her thinking shifts. There’s a lesson in there somewhere, about staying open to perspectives other than your own. That’s one of the most enjoyable things about historical fiction. Your eyes are often opened to new ways of thinking. I know mine were during the crafting of this book.

We have a tendency to believe that times were simpler in the past—we search for those mythical, easier times of yore by tinting our rear-view mirrors in a subtle shade of rose. I wanted Fiona to have that wistful “life was easier in the past,” idea in her head, so I chose the Victorian era for her rose-tinted era. To evoke those times, I chose a Victorian doll that was being advertised to children in the 1970s. Thanks to eBay, I was not only able to see the contents of the dollhouse, but also verify the exact price.

The doll came with a dainty parlor that included a grandfather clock, player piano, purple sofa, rocking chair, telephone, and miniature tea set. Jody’s pet dog, painted on the outside of her parlor, was forever caught in the act of jumping after a butterfly. The J.C. Penney ad promised an old-fashioned experience, “just like it was when grandma was a girl.” It had been years since Fiona had played with dolls, but this one awakened an old dream. Looking at Jody made her yearn to touch her dreams, to imagine them with skin and pantaloons and a fabulous hat.

Another plot device I used to carry the story along and make it personal, to help bring the reader into the room with Fiona, is the music. It is so iconic that I expect you to hear it as you’re reading. The music invites you to experience another level of nuance that cannot be conveyed by words alone. And to submerse yourself more fully, try the stereoscopic promo ad we created for the book: http://elfenworksproductions.com/tfp-promo/.

What’s next after Thread for Pearls? I would like to tackle the 1980s and ‘90s. I’ve seen the very computers I worked on when I was a systems engineer in the 1980s on display at the Computer History Museum, lovingly placed behind red velvet cords. This next novel will be about an entirely new character. I want to leave Fiona free with a rosy, open future, able to move in whatever direction my readers’ imaginations wish her to move. Anything else I would write about her would just fence her in—not a nice thing to do to a character, once you’ve brought her to life and given her resilient hope. Wouldn’t you agree?

Hard for me to think of the 80s and 90s as historical fiction, Lauren! But nonetheless, bringing those times to life will be an intriguing challenge. Many thanks for being here today.

Thread For Pearls by Lauren Speeth

A near-death experience in a car with her Mother; running from tear gas at a Vietnam War rally hand-in-hand with her Pop; a year in India learning side-by-side the country’s ‘untouchables;’ the highs and lows of living on a rural Pennsylvania commune…and all before Fiona Sprechelbach’s thirteenth birthday.

Set during one of the most politically divisive eras in American history, Thread for Pearls is a coming-of-age tale that takes us on a young heroine’s journey to faith and freedom amidst a turbulent family dynamic. It’s a story of resilient hope that questions whether it’s the events of our lives that define us, or the thread on which we choose to string them.

FOR MORE ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION FOLLOW A WRITER OF HISTORY (using the widget on the left sidebar)

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.