Tim Weed is the author of Will Poole’s Island. A few weeks ago, I found a post Tim wrote on world-building in historical fiction and thought I would ask him to share some of his thoughts. My thanks to Tim for agreeing to participate.
Tim is the winner of a Writer’s Digest Popular Fiction Award and a Solas Best Travel Writing Award. His writing has appeared in many magazines and journals. Based in Vermont, he teaches at GrubStreet in Boston and in the MFA Creative & Professional Writing program at Western Connecticut State University.
MKTod: What are the ‘magic ingredients’ that make historical fiction unforgettable/irresistible? In your opinion, what do the best historical fiction writers do to ‘get it right’?
Tim Weed: For me, it’s about fiction first and history second. One has to get the underlying architecture of the novel right: irresistible characters, an emotionally satisfying dramatic arc, a compelling voice and point of view, and the particularized, resonant truths about the human experience that are brought to life by the best novels in any genre. Beyond that, it’s about how immersive the story is, and this for me is largely a question of world building.
MKT: Are historical novels inherently different from contemporary novels, and if so, in what ways?
TW: There’s a quote that I love from Andrew Miller, writing in The New York Times Book Review a few years ago, about the appeal of distance, and of “the strangeness such distance produces and of the lives lived recognizably in the midst of that strangeness.” He compared historical fiction to science fiction, pointing out that both genres require the writer to depict the only world he or she can possibly know—“the here and now”—in other terms.
To me, this notion captures much of what I love about historical fiction, both in the writing and in the reading: it’s at once a dream we have to enter and an oblique reflection of ourselves. In my experience, this kind of mind-altering immersion is harder to find in contemporary novels—if by “contemporary” we mean novels that are set in times and places very similar to the quotidian spheres in which we tend to live out our lives.
MKT: What aspects about the past do you specifically try to highlight in your novel(s)?
TW: I’m drawn by the gaps in our knowledge, and I’m interested in depicting facets of the historical worldview that may be less obvious or more difficult for the contemporary mind to understand than can be depicted in nonfiction historical writing.
Let me give you an example from my recent novel, Will Poole’s Island (2014). In the course of my research on 17th century New England I became interested in the clash of two seemingly opposed worldviews: that of the English protestant colonists and that of the Algonkian-speaking natives. What I discovered was that these two cultures had something in common that seems very strange to us now: they were both deeply rooted in the visionary and the unseen.
English sailors reported a sea serpent coiled on a rock off Cape Ann. At Casco Bay near what is now Portland, Maine, an English colonist reported using a hatchet to cut off the hand of a triton that had reached out of the water to grasp the side of his canoe. On the Indian side, it was believed that holy men could walk ankle-deep in stone, and that they could drive one to madness with their screams. Dreams and visions were a means of sacred communication, connecting the believer with the mystical forces of the universe. And so on.
I found this aspect of the 17th century mindset fascinating, which is why it figures so prominently in the novel. In a sense, my characters are enacting something essential to understanding the period. It also happens to be something that is—understandably, given how alien it seems to us now—only glancingly covered in most of the “straight” history that has been written about the time. To me, this is exactly the kind of rich vein that’s worth exploiting in historical fiction.
MKT: In writing historical fiction, what techniques do you use to ensure that conflict, plot, setting, dialogue, and characters are true to the time period?
TW: Generally what I’ve done is to limit my initial research to just enough to allow me to write a rough draft. I need to be immersed enough in primary sources to have a feel for the “historical voice” of the period. I need to know the broad outlines of where the story can and can’t go given the parameters of history, and I inevitably find those little treasures of plot and circumstance that come to one while one is doing archival research.
Then I write the draft, and the draft tells me how much and what kind of further, in-depth research I need to do. I do my best to get the history right—although, again, my primary allegiance is to the integrity of the fiction, not that of the history, so story comes first.
MKT: What aspects do you feel need to be included when you are building a past world for your readers?
We want the reader to forget all about those black marks on the page and enter a kind of trance state—what John Gardner called the vivid, continuous dream of fiction. For me, this means that much of the research both early and late in the process has to be of the sensory variety: what did things look like, smell like, taste like, and feel like? So I often find that research equals travel, and sometimes a bit of outdoor adventure as well. I like this kind of research. I think of it as one of the perquisites of life as a novelist—the gods know there are downsides too!—and a nice spiritual balance to the archival research.
TW: Do you see any particular trends in HF?
I don’t think I have a wide enough perspective to do justice to that question, although it strikes me that Hilary Mantel has laid down a marker. Her books have an irresistible urgency, a sense of gravity, and a sense of universal relevancy that transcends the genre. If you look back on the great masterworks of historical fiction—novels like War and Peace, A Tale of Two Cities, The Age of Innocence, The English Patient—you can say the same thing. So it may not be a trend, but it’s certainly something to spur us on.
MKT: Please tell us a little about your next writing project.
TW: I’m writing a novel about young rebel in 1820s Ireland who seeks his fortune as the sidekick of a charismatic highwayman. When the law closes in the two make their escape by emigrating to New England, where the young Irishman attempts a career as an early American outlaw. It’s been a lot of fun to write and research. I guess we’ll find out if there’s a market for it!
Will Poole’s Island by Tim Weed: New England, 1643. A meeting in the forest between a rebellious young Englishman and a visionary Wampanoag leads to a dangerous collision of societies, an epic sea journey, and the making of an unforgettable friendship.
“This riveting portrayal of early Colonial New England shines a speculative but compelling light on the time and place.” Kirkus Reviews.