a writer's research process, authenticity in historical fiction, Blythe Gifford, historical fiction, historical fiction authors, ingredients for best sellers, researching historical fiction, writing techniques
I’m very pleased to have Blythe Gifford appearing today. Blythe is known for creating a wonderful balance between history and romance. She has written medieval romances featuring “characters born on the wrong side of the royal blanket” and is writing a series set on the turbulent Scottish Borders of the Tudor era.
I see that your tagline is ‘On the Borders of Historical Romance’, what made you choose that as your focus? My Brunson Clan trilogy is set on the Anglo-Scots border during the early Tudor era, so it refers specifically to the Scottish Borders. But beyond that, the term “borders” refers to two other characteristics of my work. First, the time periods I choose tend to be outside the current mainstream of historical romance, which is squarely focused on Regency England. And second, my work tends to be close to the edge where historical romance becomes historical fiction, so it refers to that border as well.
You have written several historical fiction novels and have been successfully published by Harlequin Historicals. What do you think attracts readers to your books? To paraphrase an old presidential campaign motto, “It’s the romance, stupid.” By which I mean that first and foremost, my readers want an emotional love story with a happy ending. That said, my work is grounded in history and virtually all my books have included a real historical personage as a character, which is a little unusual for historical romance. Despite this, my stories are very much about the people who lived it and their emotions. As a result, I hope reading one of my books is like living a slice of history, not just reading about it. I once had a line on my website, “to them, it wasn’t history, it was life.” I can only guess that my readers enjoy that experience.
Do you have a particular approach to research and writing? At the beginning of a project, I’ll read generally about the time period, until I find the “hook” that drags me in. For example, when I was developing the Brunson Clan trilogy, I read broadly about the Reiver era, in general, across the entire 16th century. Scottish Border Ballads are a great legacy of this area and the story behind one of them, “The Ballad of Johnnie Armstrong,” caught my attention. It seems there was a Reiver who was enticed to meet with the Scottish King under safe conduct but was hanged, along with his men, when he arrived. I wanted Johnnie to have a happy ending, so that started me down the path, though I turned the entire story inside out. Still, there’s a kernel there, a specific historical event, and that has been the case with nearly all my work.
As I get into the story, I’m always searching for the sensory details that will allow me to walk around in that world and experience it. I have a map and a calendar at hand to keep me grounded, and in some ways, I find images better research than words. But the physical sensations, scent, touch, sounds, really put me in touch with my characters. The “everydayness” of real historical life is, of course, the most difficult thing to pin down, particularly before literacy was wide-spread.
As an example, in the second book of the trilogy, CAPTIVE OF THE BORDER LORD, the Brunson daughter goes to court, where she is out of place as a “country bumpkin.” During the development phase, I participated in an historic dance workshop at the Romance Writers of America National Convention and experienced the types of dances they would have done at court then. I consider myself a good dancer, but the first time through, I felt incredibly awkward. That gave me a great insight into how Bessie Brunson would have felt, tripping over her feet before the king.
Have other writers of historical fiction influenced you and, if so, how have they influenced you? I heard Philip Roth quoted recently as saying “After the first ten years, the influences fall away.” Since I’ve been writing seriously for more than twenty, it’s a little hard to say what influences are left, but two books come to mind. The first was not “historical” when it was written, but JANE EYRE was the first book I remember reading that was about “romance.” It really gripped my junior high school heart. I have a theory that romance writers are either about Jane Eyre or Jane Austen (apples and oranges, I know!), and I’m all about the Eyre angst. While the Regency era is the most popular in historical romance, it never drew me and I blame both Charlotte Bronte and Anya Seton for that.
Seton because around that same time, I read Anya Seton’s KATHERINE. That book more than any other gave me my profession. It sparked a lifelong interest in fourteenth century England and the impact that love, and the resulting royal bastards, could have on history. When I started writing romance, I began in the fourteenth century and my first books usually featured royal bastards, real or imaginary, as main characters. That was a direct result of my love of the subject and time period sparked by that book.
What ingredients do you think make for a favourite historical fiction author? Do you deliberately plan for these ingredients in your writing? First of all, any author must tell a good story. The basics of craft (pacing, character, dialog, plot) must be strong. I’ve seen writers use the novel as an excuse to drape lengthy descriptions of period food, clothes, and politics around a flimsy story. Or, conversely, they assume readers already know the history and explain too little, so the reader is left confused and, worse, feeling that historical fiction is only for the already educated. It’s a real challenge to whisk the reader into the story while sprinkling just the right amount of historical detail and context into the mix. I try to get that right and hope I succeed.
How do you select new stories to tell? It’s a delicate balance between writing the stories that call to me and still positioning them in the commercial space. My decision to write the Brunson Clan trilogy is a good example. I wanted to write a trilogy, because readers love them, and I thought to move from medieval England across the border into Scotland because Scotland is second only to Regency England in popularity.
However, the Scottish Highlands, where most romance is set, called to me not at all. The Borders, on the other hand, was in the center of the Anglo-Scottish conflict for three hundred years. It was a good fit for my interests and, as I explained above, I settled on the early 16th century because of the Ballad of Johnnie Armstrong.
Though I was all set to promote my “Scottish” trilogy, when it came time to market the books, my editor tagged them as “Tudor”, so my description became the Scottish Borders of the early Tudor era. And, not to my surprise, I’ve had several lovely reviews of my “Highlander” books.
But I have story ideas stacked up like planes on the runway. I hope I have time to get to them all…
What techniques do you employ to write productively? Do you have some to share? Let me know! A few tips I can suggest. I write at the same time every day. I don’t wait for the muse to strike. I set word count goals and have learned to delay revising hard copy until late in the writing process instead of printing and revising daily. With the Brunson books, the primary research applied to all three books, although I still had new things to learn for each story. That, and knowing the characters well by book three, allowed me to write those books in six months each, a schedule I hope never to repeat!
Do you think of yourself as having a brand? If so, how would you describe it and how do you reinforce it? My background is in marketing, so I’ve been very conscious of branding. This business favors the predictably prolific writer, so I’ve tried to establish the hook of my brand in several books before moving on to something new. First, I wrote about English royal bastards (literally), both real and imagined. My last “royal bastard” book was set on the Borders, so to write a Borders trilogy, even though in a different time period, was a natural transition. Next, while I might have been wiser to stay on the Borders, I’m going back to fourteenth century England and the court of Edward III.
There are other time periods I would like to write, but have postponed in order to establish myself in the reader’s mind. Ultimately, I think a writer’s voice is her brand. And there, I’d describe myself as a writer of angsty historicals set in time periods of change and disruption. There’s a lot of competition, however, and “royal bastards” or “early Tudor Scotland” may be easier for readers to relate to as an introduction.
What do you do to connect with readers? A website, newsletter, Facebook page, Twitter, Pinterest, Goodreads. I blog with the Unusual Historicals group and I did extensive guest blogging to promote the trilogy. But I’m most consistent on Facebook.
What do you know about your readers? Romance readers as a whole are voracious readers and they read across many genres. Most are women, yes. My readers tell me they read in multiple formats – as many in e-book as in print and many read both. Libraries are still important sources of books for them, too. I’ve been honored to hear from readers in many countries, since Harlequin has made my work available around the world. I must admit, I’m still really amazed when I receive a fan note from someone I don’t know personally!
What data do you collect about your readers? Their email addresses if they will share them. I occasionally ask questions on Facebook about what/how they are reading, but I don’t have ZIP codes or mailing addresses.
What strategies guide your writing career? Strategy is too grand a word! Just a few guidelines. Don’t chase trends. Keep showing up at the page. Stay true to your muse. Have faith. Don’t worry about what you can’t control.
What would you do differently if you were starting again? Two things. I would have started earlier and I would NOT have spent six years writing my first book. Such a rookie mistake! Finish it and move on!
Do you have any advice for writers of historical fiction? Remember that the book is not about history. It’s about the character. The history in the book should only be included to the extent that it touches the character and brings him or her to life.
Is there a question you would like to answer that I haven’t asked? A final comment, perhaps. As writers of historical fiction, we face the particular challenge of making our characters authentic yet accessible to the modern reader. If we were to faithfully present the world view for our time periods, it is likely that the modern reader would not understand, nor sympathize with the characters. On the other hand, to imbue an historical character with modern attitudes is as grating as anachronistic dialog. This is a tug-of-war particular to our genre, I think, piled atop the usual authorial angst. That said, I love the journey of discovery that awaits me with each book.
Thanks for having me.
And thanks for participating, Blythe. I love your down-to-earth views on the business of writing. A few items spoke to me: don’t spend six years on your first novel (wish I’d heard that before the six years spent); the balance of historical accuracy and accessibility to a modern day reader; “story ideas stacked up like planes on a runway” is such a great image which probably resonates for many writers. You’re the first author who has considered the notion of brand – congratulations on that!
Blythe Gifford has been known for medieval romances featuring characters born on the wrong side of the royal blanket. Now, she’s published a Harlequin Historical trilogy set on the turbulent Scottish Borders of the early Tudor era. The books are RETURN OF THE BORDER WARRIOR, November 2012, CAPTIVE OF THE BORDER LORD, January 2013, and TAKEN BY THE BORDER REBEL in March 2013. The Chicago Tribune has called her work “the perfect balance between history and romance.” Visit her at www.blythegifford.com, www.facebook.com/BlytheGifford, www.pinterest.com/BlytheGifford or on Twitter @BlytheGifford. Author photo by Jennifer Girard.