Charlotte Gray is the author of eight non-fiction bestsellers including Gold Diggers, Striking It Rich in the Klondike, Reluctant Genius, the Passionate Life and Inventive Mind of Alexander Graham Bell and Sisters in the Wilderness, The Lives of Susanna Moodie and Catharine Parr Traill. She is a highly regarded writer and historian, and I am truly delighted that Charlotte has agreed to talk about writing historical non-fiction.
I’ve asked many of the same questions posed to historical fiction writers – the similarities in Charlotte’s responses are striking.
You have written several books of literary non-fiction. What drew you to this genre? I began my writing career as a magazine journalist, with 5,000 word articles about a range of subjects, particularly politics. My goal was to explain the How and Why of events, not simply the What. I wanted to take readers behind the words they could grab from any front page or screen, and illuminate the visions, personalities, personal dynamics and motives of the players.
It didn’t take me long to realize that, to understand Canadian politics, I needed to know some Canadian history. But I found few books that brought this country’s past alive for me. So I took the writing craft that I had learned as a magazine contributor, and applied it to history.
What do you think attracts readers to your books? I get a real buzz when readers tell me they love my books because “they read like novels, but I learn so much from them.” I do not write fiction, but many Canadians have a block about reading history. So I use fictional techniques (scene-setting, construction of dialogue from primary sources, build-up of suspense) that allow readers to feel that they are in a familiar genre – even though they are not. At the same time, I do a huge amount of research, looking for both the most important facts and for the kind of details that fire the imagination – what people look or sound like, what they were eating etc.
Do you have a particular approach to research and writing? My approach to research is to cast the net as wide as possible, and gather as much information as I can. I know that this is exactly what writers of good historical fiction do too: they don’t rely on generic colour details to enliven their prose: they know exactly how a particular woman prefers to dress, in what colours, fabrics, styles and so on.
Have other writers of historical non-fiction or historical fiction influenced you and, if so, how have they influenced you? My great Canadian mentor in historical non-fiction was Sandra Gwyn, who wrote The Private Capital. Ambition and Love in the Age of Macdonald and Laurier. She was a good friend and my predecessor as Ottawa Editor of Saturday Night magazine. At the moment I am consuming the books written by the American historian Adam Hochschild, such as To End All Wars, about World War One. I constantly learn from writers like these about innovative ways to structure a story, and how to inject wit into my prose.
I read a lot of historical fiction, by writers like Hilary Mantel, Jane Urquhart, Edward Rutherfurd and others. The good stuff really works for me, but I find many novelists have trouble writing convincing dialogue from a distant era. And their female characters sound like liberated twenty-first century women, because it is so hard to get into the mindset of a woman who has been raised to think she is second-best or worthless.
What ingredients make for successful historical non-fiction? Trustworthiness. I have worked hard to establish a reputation as a non-fiction writer who does not invent characters, events, conversations. If I say what somebody is thinking, I know about their internal monologue from private letters etc. So readers can know they are increasing their knowledge and understanding of Canadian history without constantly asking themselves, “Did this really happen?”
Another reason that readers like my books is that I approach some of the big events of the past (settlement in Upper Canada in the 1830s, the Yukon Gold Rush of the 1890s) from unusual angles. What was it like for the women living on those hardscrabble pioneer farms? How did miners survive living in tents when the Yukon temperature fell below -40C? This allows a reader to identify with people who lived decades or centuries ago – just as he or she can do with a character in a novel.
Are these ingredients quite distinct from historical fiction? A novelist is not under such constraints to stick to the known facts…he or she can let their imaginations run! (But if they have somebody driving a car in the 1880s, that’s a problem!)
But any author faces the same challenge – how can I grab my reader’s attention?
Can you tell us what you mean when you say that the frontier between fiction and non-fiction is under constant negotiation? A novelist like Hilary Mantel is scrupulous in her research, and in her two novels about Thomas Cromwell (Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies) never places one of her characters somewhere when records show that he was somewhere else at the time. So she works almost like a non-fiction writer, except that at the same time she is shaping a particular story, describing Cromwell’s inner thoughts (for which there are no records) and describing scenes that are totally imaginary.
At the same time, biographers are increasingly speculating on the inner lives of their subjects, although they have no evidence on which to base a sentence that begins, “He thought…”
The fluidity of the line between fiction and non-fiction has persuaded me to do endnotes for my next book, as well as the Source notes that I have always used for my books. The endnotes will appear on my website, so they can be consulted by readers of both paper and electronic versions of the book.
How do you select new stories to tell? I look for stories that pique my curiosity, and that also challenge me to tell them in a way that will engage readers. There must be good primary material (letters, diaries, newspaper cuttings) and my publisher must like the proposal! There are many stories that catch my attention, but if there is no material for me to use, or if the story or person is unlikely to have popular appeal, I know I cannot do it.
My next book, The Massey Murder, A Maid, Her Master and The Trial that Shocked a City (to be published by Harper Collins in September 2013) arose from my decision to do a True Crime book. I could see that book buyers love crime stories – thrillers, true crime, crime fiction, trials. Those books were flying off the shelves at CostCo and Indigo! I realized that this would be a great doorway into the past. I spent a long time looking for a crime story through which I could paint a larger picture – the turmoil in Canada in the first year of the First World War. The book is set in February 1915, but it covers a lot more ground than a simple murder.
What techniques do you employ to write productively? Ha! Only the obvious ones we all try to employ: establish a routine, get enough sleep, make sure I get some physical exercise every day, keep reading good books. Perhaps my most important technique is to walk my dog every morning along the Rideau River, musing over the day ahead.
Do you think of yourself as having a brand? If so, how would you describe it and how do you reinforce it? My publishers tell me I have a brand, which is a Good Thing. This is all about marketing, isn’t it? And most authors I know (myself included) feel a little uncomfortable about sharing such a concept with cars, cell phones and breakfast cereals.
However, at the same time of course I am proud to hear people talking about the “Charlotte Gray brand,” or suggesting that a new book by a rising star is “in the tradition of Charlotte Gray.” I hope that it means lively writing, strong characters, narrative drive and an ability to send readers time-travelling backwards.
Have you considered writing historical fiction? No, I don’t need to. I love what I’m doing, and I think there is enough drama in history so I don’t need to make anything up.
What do you do to connect with readers? I do a lot of public speaking (I’ve just been a panelist on CBC Radio’s Canada Reads) and I have an active website and blog. I reply to all letters and messages I receive. I love hearing from readers, either in Q&A sessions after a talk, or through my website, because it is my chance to hear what they enjoy or want to know more about.
What do you know about your readers? I know they are very well-read! Their bookshelves must be groaning, because they tell me about other books they have enjoyed – many from outside Canada. Many of my readers belong to Book Clubs.
What data do you collect about your readers? I’m afraid I have no idea how to collect data from my readers. I would certainly love to know more about them.
What strategies guide your writing career? I have a very simple strategy: I only write books that I myself would want to read. Luckily, my success has meant that I’ve been able to stick to that plan.
What would you do differently if you were starting again? I might have paid more attention to my brilliant teachers when I was studying history at university! I’m appalled at the huge gaps in my knowledge. But otherwise, I have few regrets. I am happy that I didn’t start writing books until my three sons were teenagers, so I could have uninterrupted periods each day in which to write. Having a happy family is the most important achievement in my life, but it takes work. That’s why many women writers, such as Carol Shields, start their careers as published writers a little later than most male writers.
Is there a question you would like to answer that I haven’t asked? This has been a fascinating exercise for me: I’ve enjoyed the conversation. I am particularly happy that you asked almost exclusively about writing: you didn’t ask about reviews, prizes, awards, public recognition etc. Those are horribly important these days, because they drive sales and motivate publishers – but most writers feel paralyzed if we start thinking about them, and anticipating whether or not we will be on some crucial list.
Many thanks, Charlotte. As mentioned above, your responses are very similar to writers of historical fiction, which I find fascinating. Your next book sounds like a compelling story and I look forward to reading it. Readers might also enjoy your essay titled “Creative Non-Fiction”: The Best of Both Worlds.
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