If you’ve read War Brides, you will already have some sense of Helen Bryan‘s wonderful storytelling skills. Her latest novel is The Sisterhood and I’m delighted that she’s on the blog today talking about her writing. I’m also pleased to announce a two book giveaway of The Sisterhood. To qualify, please leave a comment either here or on my Facebook page.
You’ve written two novels and one biography. What draws you to historical events as the backdrop for your writing? Aside from the fact history is so interesting, and often a case of truth being much stranger than fiction, it is a rich seam of inspiration for a writer, from cataclysmic events to quirky nuggets of stories. At the same time, it never fails to surprise me how people of different periods are the same- what I call the “human constant” factor. For thousands of years circumstances, and societal and economic pressures have changed, but the human experience, the hopes and fears, search for love, the biological imperative, the lure of riches and power, the hunger for a spiritual dimension, remain very much the same. Historical fiction authors put convincing flesh on real historical bones- rather like necromancers I often think.
Context is everything, which is why research is so important. Bridget Jones may have the same desire for love and happiness as a fetching bodice-ripper heroine of the eighteenth century. However, unlike Bridget Jones with her job, flat, boyfriends and chardonnay-fuelled angst, the eighteenth woman’s choices were usually circumscribed by a limited education and material dependence on men. Whether of an independent turn of mind, or more likely, obliged by circumstances to support herself, her employment opportunities were mostly at the lower end of the pecking order – servant, governess or prostitute. Were she to find true love, marriage (and economic support) in the arms of a lusty hero, she better hope he hadn’t perfected those bodice-ripping skills that left her swooning in the brothels. Venereal disease was rife at all levels of society and its treatment -with mercury -was just as likely to lead to disfigurement and death. Failing that, the heroine faced a very real risk of dying in childbirth. Historical fiction’s happy endings, in their context, are often more precarious than they first appear, with the Angel of Death hovering in the background.
You studied law and worked as a barrister. How do these experiences inform your writing? Are you now writing fulltime? I write full time, but my background in law has proved invaluable. It teaches a writer to be observant and nit picking about research and period detail and to focus on what is relevant. Also, lawyers are in the persuasion business. As anyone familiar with courtroom drama will appreciate, presenting a case in court, particularly to a jury, involves putting together a kind of narrative to make evidence and the applicable law fit together. The more entertaining and convincing the narrative, the better the lawyer’s client’s chances are. Writers have to be similarly persuasive.
My late father, also a lawyer, always advised younger colleagues “Know your case well, and then always go over it one more time to see what you’ve missed.” I still adhere to this piece of advice, rewriting and re-rewriting until the publisher’s deadline forces my hand.
Do you have a particular approach to research and writing? Research is the easy part. In the main, this consists of burying myself in the British Library, to read about whatever period I plan to write about, and making notes by hand. While I can’t imagine writing on anything but a word processor, handwriting research notes tends to fix information in my brain, and significantly, at this stage the landscape of the novel starts to take shape.
Another good thing about research is that it’s possible to do it almost indefinitely without actually writing anything, while looking impressively busy. However, research isn’t limited to books. Useful information for a writer can crop up anytime, anywhere- newspaper stories, a snatch of conversation overheard in the street, a color, the weather, a landscape, any small detail that will pull a reader into the story. In particular, I am always on red alert for names. Characters must have exactly the right name, and only then do they begin to be real for me. That’s when I begin writing, fitting them into that landscape.
As for writing itself, the first rule for any writer is the same- show up at the desk. Then write. I prefer to write in my study and I absolutely must begin writing first thing in the morning, having reluctantly woken up with the help of strong coffee known in my family as “mum’s rocket fuel”.
Have other writers of historical fiction or historical non-fiction influenced you and, if so, how have they influenced you? An early introduction to historical fiction has undoubtedly been my greatest single influence, kicking open as it did the doors of imagination. I grew up in an extended family, with grandparents with houses and attics full of books and many cousins, where a reading child was a quiet child who was not actively getting into trouble and therefore viewed as a Good Thing. Nobody would have been unduly concerned even had they noticed I had bloodthirsty tastes, eschewing fairies and Disney stories for a dusty set of Victorian children’s books by an English historian and educator named Henty, who clearly felt that there was no need to spare any punches when writing for children. There was a particularly gripping volume of his about the French Revolution and the Reign of Terror, featuring a delightful family of aristocrats who met a gruesome end on the guillotine. The book gave me nightmares and might not pass the “responsible parent” test today, but Victorian parents- and mine -were made of sterner stuff. The important thing is, it really brought history and the people in it alive. And killed them of course. I was hooked.
I was also a huge fan of classic comics. A passing phase, but a usefully visual one, that introduced me to Don Quixote and Prince Valiant and Ivanhoe and from there it was but a short leap to Arthur Rackham’s beautiful illustrations in King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. The image of a hand in a jeweled sleeve reaching out of the lake to catch Excalibur when Arthur threw it in was the most romantically dramatic image I had so far encountered. I went through a medieval phase, devouring TH White’s “Once and Future King”, puzzling over the romantic entanglements of Arthur and Guinevere and Lancelot and Morgan la Fey, before moving on to Anya Seton’s bodice-ripping “Katherine” and the Brontes. At fourteen I instinctively grasped that Heathcliffe was not the sort of person my mother would ever allow me to date, and was riveted by this first glimpse of a dark side that I could not yet comprehend.
Many years later history’s enchantments hold. In fiction, I am partial to Carlos Ruiz Zafon, Larry McMurtry, Charles Frazier, Mrs. Gaskell, Hilary Mantel and hundreds of others. In non fiction Amanda Foreman’s satisfyingly lengthy and detailed “ World on Fire “the best book ever written on the American Civil War, and Giles Milton’s “Big Chief Elizabeth” pretty much brought life in my house to a standstill. Happily, there’s always so much more!
How do you select new stories to tell? Oddly, it often feels as if they select me. A story can begin anywhere- with a color, a time of day, a meal, a view, an event in history, the way a person walks, a character whose back-story I can immediately imagine. I tend to let my imagination roam. To non–authors this looks very much like staring aimlessly into space and doing nothing.
What ingredients do you think make for a successful historical fiction author? Do you deliberately plan for these ingredients in your writing? A fairly obsessive and disciplined approach to research is necessary if historical fiction is to convince the reader. A writer must look at the world through a character’s eyes, and imagine “what happened next.” I never exactly plan for this. If my stories are firmly rooted in the period they seem to develop their own dynamic. The only deliberate thing I do is concentrate on writing it.
What techniques do you employ to write productively? Aside from lots of coffee and beginning in the morning, I like to be left alone in my study, in what I call peace and quiet and my husband calls lockdown. I won’t answer the telephone or doorbell and turn ratty if someone breaks my train of thought. The bestselling author Nora Roberts famously told her family not to disturb her unless someone was bleeding or the house was on fire. She later amended this to arterial blood and actual flames. I would love a sofa cushion embroidered with her words.
What brand would you like to establish as a writer? How do you plan to reinforce that brand? I never set out to establish any brand, save as a teller of stories. If I could chose a brand it would be something along the lines of “the thinking woman’s historical fiction” because I think it’s important to give the reader “value” in terms of something to think about when they finish the book.
What do you do to connect with readers? Just write, mainly. If someone reads it, that is a very real connection. In addition, I think it is terribly important never to underestimate your readers, so I try to write in such a way that readers feel that I am appealing to their intelligence and sensitivity. I don’t blog because I would be so carried away I would never get anything else done, but I do respond to all readers who contact me.
What do you know about your readers? Generally, I would say they prize a good story, like a challenge, and expect solid historical detail. As you will know, many fans of historical fiction are already knowledgeable or keen to learn more about a period, so I’m always mindful that I need to write for the informed reader.
What data do you collect about your readers? There is no data as such, but I do learn from readers’ feedback. For example, one thing that has surprised me greatly is that at the end of what is already a long book, readers often want more! I tend leave a question or two hanging in the air, but now try to anticipate most if not all the “what happened next” demands and answer them. Another thing that impresses me is how thoughtful many responses are, in a way that goes beyond what I have written. For example, one woman left an online review of “War Brides” that said it was frustrating to be left with unanswered questions about the eventual fate of characters when the book finished, but she supposed that was what happened in war time. And that had been exactly the point of ending the book the way I did. She totally got it.
What strategies guide your writing career? Really, the only strategy I have is to read as much as possible, do the research, stay observant and keep writing. And avoid running out of coffee.
What would you do differently if you were starting again? Nothing.
Do you have any advice for writers of historical fiction? Obviously, I am big on research, and research can be a helpful kick-start when the time comes to confront the blank page or computer screen and begin to weave a story. Never be afraid to try ideas- let your imagination rip. Don’t worry if your wonderful idea/prose/poetic description falls flat the first, second or twenty-fifth time. Just rewrite it better, rewrite it differently or cut it. I usually have to rewrite most “good” ideas out of my system before making any progress, but cutting ruthlessly seems to create the necessary vacuum for something better. If you are lucky enough to have a good editor, ninety nine times out of a hundred you should follow his or her advice.
Is there a question you would like to answer that I haven’t asked? I sometimes wonder for whom authors write. The obvious answers, of course, are publishers and readers, but writing is such an intense and solitary business that I have begun to think we write, ultimately, to satisfy something in ourselves.
Many thanks, Helen. I wish you great success with Sisterhood. I particularly like your point about ‘the human constant’ across the ages as well as the question you’ve ended with, for who do we writers write? I’ll have to ask that on Facebook and on Twitter and see what comes out!
Menina Walker was a child of fortune. Rescued after a hurricane in South America, doomed to a life of poverty with a swallow medal as her only legacy, the orphaned toddler was adopted by an American family and taken to a new life. As a beautiful, intelligent woman of nineteen, she is in love, engaged, and excited about the future—until another traumatic event shatters her dreams. Menina flees to Spain to bury her misery in research for her college thesis about a sixteenth-century artist who signed his works with the image of a swallow—the same image as the one on Menina’s medal.
But a mugging strands Menina in a musty, isolated Spanish convent. Exploring her surroundings, she discovers the epic sagas of five orphan girls who were hidden from the Spanish Inquisition and received help escaping to the New World. Is Menina’s medal a link to them, or to her own past? Did coincidence lead her to the convent, or fate?
Both love story and historical thriller, The Sisterhood is an emotionally charged ride across continents and centuries.