An Interview with Historical Fiction Author – Helen Bryan

The SisterhoodIf 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.

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25 Responses

  1. Helen Bryan’s interview was a good way to start off what is usually the Frantic Day of the week; despite all the coffee, she seems to have a calming approach to the morass of the writing process. I liked two things she said. First, historical fiction writers are story tellers. Without the story it would be yet another boring history book. The other point she makes is that though times, mores, and circumstances change the basic human element is timeless. It’s important to remember that history’s characters were just people also.

  2. “Another good thing about research is that it’s possible to do it almost indefinitely without actually writing anything, while looking impressively busy.” This made me laugh because the research is my favorite part. In writing my novel, I finally had to set the research aside and get the story down. I’ve taken to doing what I call “Just in time” research. If the story calls for some historical detail, I dig it out when I came to that point – or during rewrites. Otherwise, I’d still be doing research, most of which would be interesting to me but without purpose in my story. Thanks!

  3. This is the first interview I’ve ever read with Helen Bryan, so thank you Mary! It’s great to read her perspectives on researching and writing. One question I would ask is this, Was the length of “War Brides” (496 pages) ever an issue? Were you ever told by editors or beta readers to cut out certain parts of the story, such as back story or description?
    Another question is, since she spent years in the 1940’s while working on “War Brides”, was it difficult to transport yourself to a totally different period and culture for “The Sisterhood”?

    1. Dear Rachel,
      Thanks for your questions.
      In answer to the first, it’s less a case of publishers finding long novels problematic, more a case of tighter editing producing a shorter but better book. “War Brides” was considerably longer in the first draft and the editor suggested- without insisting- that it would improve the book if I lost one minor character, a nurse, with a good storyline of her own. The editor’s reasoning was that with five brides, yet another character and storyline diluted the book too much. I make it a rule always to try it the editor’s way and when I did, sorry though I was to lose Betty, I saw the editor was right. But I’ve been lucky in that I’ve never been asked to cut any significant elements of a book.
      The other point about length is that a few years ago publishers were more hesitant about taking on long books, because they assumed length put readers off. But judging by the many successful novels out there now that are as long as, if not longer, than mine, I don’t think that’s the case any longer.
      To answer your second question about switching historical periods, this is never a problem because research has the effect of switching the mind onto another track. Oddly, what is disconcerting is returning from the past, any past, to the present. Having spent the day with sixteenth century nuns, down a smugglers’ tunnel or reliving the Blitz, what is a shock is suddenly realizing it’s past time for supper, everyone’s starving and I need to transport myself smartly into the period and culture of my kitchen and concentrate on spaghetti.
      Best wishes,
      Helen Bryan

      1. I just finished reading War Brides and really enjoyed the book. It was long, but you found yourself caught up in their lives. WHAT an ending! Hooray for the 4 ladies! I have had the pleasure of visiting London, but not for long. I love Britian and wish I had had the travel buy years ago. I am going to see if the library has any more of your books. Keep up the wonderful writing.
        Judy Stock

        Southern Indiana USA

        PS: I met Felix at the Huddersfield Station a few years ago. My friend lives in Somerset and we made a special trip to Huddersfield just to meet her.

  4. ‘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 like this advice. Thanks, Helen

    1. Hi again, Lynne. Here’s Helen’s response: “Thank you so much, Lynne, for your kind words about The Valley. I’m delighted you enjoyed it. Unfortunately I can’t say at this stage exactly when the next book in the trilogy will be out. It’s well in progress but I still have a few characters as yet unborn, not to mention quite a few folks to kill off. After that, it’s in the hands of my lovely publishers. But I have a feeling the awriterofhistory blog will be among the first to be notified by Amazon, so watch this space!
      Best wishes,
      Helen “

    1. Hi Emma,
      I haven’t written any book club questions for The Valley- yet. But your query got me thinking about the way I like to portray characters as people who, in fiction as in life, aren’t exactly 100% sympathetic. So when I do suggest discussion questions for a book club, they tend to be geared towards eliciting readers’ opinions (1) about a given character’s behavior and (2) what the individual reader would do in the circumstances , given the time and place.
      So, with The Valley, I’d propose the following :
      1. Do you view Sophia’s behavior as moral or amoral? She began on the right foot, thanks to the example of her devout English godmother. But then- she got to Virginia Colony and in a fairly short space of time ,she committed theft, was an accessory to murder, furthered the appropriation of Native American land by claiming the valley as “hers” , and was prepared to condone future bigamy by persuading Henri to marry her for her own purposes, telling him they could simply ignore the marriage if it proved convenient to do so later. On the other hand, she was a good mother, abhorred slavery as her godmother had done, and was the means of freeing several slaves and their families and giving them land.
      2. Did you find Henri charming or shifty and unreliable as a husband?
      3. The Valley was partly inspired by my collection of old cookbooks. Not the best selling , coffee table, beautifully photographed tomes by modern super star chefs, but the kind of local cookbooks produced by communities across America for generations, mostly written as a labor of love to raise funds for a particular project or in support of some good cause. Local people donated favorite family recipes and often a story to go with them, and the result is often a fascinating historical document. Older readers ( like myself) will be familiar with these, but for a book club, I’d ask if any members had such a local cookbook they’d be willing to show the club. If one is available, what human stories can be teased out of it? It’s an interesting archeological dig exercise.
      If that was the sort of answer you were looking for, I hope it’s helpful.
      All best wishes,

  5. Thank you for your quick response. I will add questions one and two to the twelve I’ve already prepared. One of my questions will be to discuss the line from Lady B’s prayer book, “duty or inclination.” Our club always rates the book under discussion which often takes up much of our meeting time. By the way, “War Brides” was an excellent read. Thank you again, Emma

  6. Hello, I am so happy to have found this blog. Helen’s book “War Brides.” The cover has two women holding hands. One of the women is my mother. The other woman is still living. It amazed us to see them on the cover of this book. In my reading about Helen. She loves stories of friendships. These two women met when when they were in the first grade. They are both southern women. If my mother was still alive, there friendship would be 88 years!! If you know of some way we could communicate with Helen it would be greatly appreciated. Thank you, Debra

  7. I sent a message, but not sure if you received it or not. I just finished reading War Brides. Great book and kept me glued to see what was going to happen next. Hooray for the 4 war brides and their justice! I was lucky to visit London and wish I could go back. I was in England twice and love the country. My friend lives in Somerset and we went to Huddersfield to visit Felix at the train station. Also got to see the display of Princess Diana’s wardrobe at Kensington Palace. We were the on a day the late Queen was having a tea party, but alas not invited. hahaha
    Going to see if my library has any more of your books.

    Thanks, Judy Stock
    Southern Indiana USA

    1. Hi Judy .. so sorry I didn’t get a chance to approve your comment earlier. The blog is set up to allow me to approve comments the first time someone new posts a comment. I’m delighted to know that you enjoyed Helen Bryan’s novel.

      Wishing you lots of great reading!
      Mary (M.K.) Tod

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