I am delighted that Susan Higginbotham joins the Top Historical Fiction Author series today. She brings fresh insight to the dialogue about writing historical fiction and I know that readers and writers alike will enjoy her views. Two of her books that I can personally recommend as wonderful reads are The Traitor’s Wife and The Stolen Crown.
Why do you write historical fiction? I sort of blundered into writing historical fiction a few years back when I re-read Christopher Marlowe’s Edward the Second online and became intrigued by the history behind the play. I began reading everything I could about Edward II, and when I read the story of his niece, Eleanor de Clare, it occurred to me that she would make a wonderful subject for a novel. In the process of telling her story, I found that I really enjoyed writing this sort of fiction, and it had the added bonus of giving me ready-made plots, as plotting has never been my strong point.
You are clearly very skilled at writing historical fiction. What do you think attracts readers to your books? I think a lot of readers enjoy the fact that I tell my stories through fresh viewpoints—the story of Richard III’s seizure of power through the Duke of Buckingham and his wife, for instance, instead of through better-known characters such as Richard III himself or Elizabeth Woodville. I believe readers also like the fact that I treat the historical figures I write about with respect and try to avoid black-or-white characters and clichéd characters, like the dreaded bride “sold into marriage” to a mean old man with bad breath.
Do you have a particular approach to research and writing? For research, I use primary sources as far as possible, even when that means I have to pay someone to transcribe and/or translate sources for me. (Fortunately, so many printed primary sources are available online now, that’s not as daunting as it sounds.) I also rely heavily on journal articles, which are often neglected by authors—there are some lovely nuggets of information in them. I love research and never really stop doing it while I’m writing, because there’s always a scene that will trigger a question and send me to my sources.
Since I write about actual historical figures, I know how my story is going to turn out, so I don’t always write my story in a strict linear fashion, but write a scene as it occurs to me and incorporate it into the story later. Except for the natural outline that the known historical facts provide, I don’t write according to a strict outline, so there are always some surprises along the way and changes in focus. For instance, my last novel, Her Highness, the Traitor, was supposed to be just about Frances Grey until I read a letter by Jane Dudley and decided that she needed a starring role as well.
Have other writers of historical fiction influenced you and, if so, how have they influenced you? I’ve learned a great deal about how to construct a good historical novel from authors such as Sharon Penman, Jean Plaidy, and Margaret George. I’ve also learned from my own reading of historical novels what I don’t like as a reader, and therefore what to avoid.
What ingredients do you think make for a top historical fiction author? Do you deliberately plan for these ingredients in your writing? I think the primary ingredients are good writing, good storytelling, and, above all, the ability to create memorable, well-rounded characters. I plan for these elements in my writing in that I try to write the sort of novels that I would like to read, but I’m not really one of those writers who thinks a great deal about the writing process.
How do you select new stories to tell? I look for a historical figure who catches my interest or who appeals to my sympathies. If if I start researching a certain character when I’m supposed to be working on something else, it’s a sign to me that I ought to write about him or her at some point.
What advantages do you think come from writing within a particular time period? Any disadvantages? There are definitely some historical periods that are more in vogue with readers than others, such as the Tudor period, and there are always going to be those who suspect a writer of attempting to cash in if she writes about that period, although for me, it was a natural progression from the fourteenth to the fifteenth to the sixteenth century. On the other hand, a writer who sets a novel in a less popular period risks having a wonderful story go unnoticed because readers simply don’t seek out stories set in that period. In the end, I think a writer should tell the story she wants to tell, but anyone who’s writing for a commercial publisher can’t afford to ignore the market altogether. Sometimes you have to tell the story you want to tell that will also sell.
What techniques do you employ to write productively? I often have a hard time buckling down to the keyboard, because I have a full-time job summarizing legal cases and by the end of the day, writing a coherent sentence is the last thing I want to do. Fortunately, I have a home office and a flexible work schedule, so I can rush to the computer when the mood strikes. When I’m on deadline, I just have to discipline myself.
Do you think of yourself as having a brand? If so, how would you describe it and how do you reinforce it? I think of my “brand” as writing well-researched historical fiction from a less-traveled point of view. I like to write about figures who haven’t featured much in historical fiction or about figures who haven’t met with much sympathy from other novelists. I reinforce my brand with my blog posts, which focus on the facts behind my fiction.
What do you do to connect with readers? I’ve been blogging for about seven years now, and I’m also active on Facebook. (I’m on Twitter too, but I send out links to my blog posts more than anything else—I just can’t be active there and be productive.) I post about my research and about topics that happen to catch my fancy, and I also let my sense of humor have full play there too. In addition, I run a reader-oriented bulletin board, Historical Fiction Online. I started doing these things to market my first novel, which was originally self-published, but I’ve made some wonderful friends through these sites and have had some great discussions about books and history. My blog and my Facebook pages also help to keep me connected with readers in between novels. At this point, I’d be on social networking sites even if I wasn’t an author, because they’re fun.
What do you know about your readers? I know they have a high regard for historical accuracy, and I know that many of them like the same authors I do. And I know they have excellent taste!
What data do you collect about your readers? I don’t collect data about them, though I read surveys about readers’ preferences and tastes, such as the one you did, with interest.
What strategies guide your writing career? I don’t really have one, except to try to write consistently good books so my readers won’t be disappointed.
What would you do differently if you were starting again? I’d start writing historical fiction earlier. I’d have a lot more novels under my belt now!
Do you have any advice for writers of historical fiction? Too many writers get paralyzed with worrying over what they should or shouldn’t do—Should I join a critique group? Should I hire an editor? Should I pick a “marquee name”? Should I write about someone who’s been written about already?—that they end up not writing! I say just write the story that’s in your heart and take it from there.
I also think that writers of historical fiction need to be prepared to “walk the talk.” If you bill yourself as someone who’s concerned with historical accuracy, you have to be prepared for the fact that readers will expect you to be able to back up what you say with sources. I also think you have an ethical obligation to treat the historical figures you’re writing about with respect, even those historical figures you dislike, and not to smear a person’s reputation just to spice up your story or to make your protagonist look better in comparison. For at least some of your readers, you will be shaping their view of history.
But while novelists should take their responsibilities seriously, they shouldn’t take themselves too seriously, and should cultivate a sense of perspective. A good sign that you are in need of a reality check is when you start comparing someone who gives your book a bad review to someone who tells you that your newborn baby is hideous. Your book is not a human being. It’s a product, just as the shoes you’re wearing and the car you’re driving are products, and not everyone is going to like the same products. If you realize that from day one, you’ll be a lot happier, and so will those around you.
Many thanks for your very interesting perspective, Susan. Some of the many aspects that stand out for me are: (1) writing about well-known historical figures offers a ready made plot structure which also allows you to write in a non-linear fashion, (2) “write the story that’s in your heart”, (3) that you run an online historical fiction forum – where on earth do you find time?, and (4) by the end of the day, writing a coherent sentence is the last thing you want to do – and yet you do it so beautifully!