Vanessa Matthews is a poet and author of historical fiction. Her debut poetry collection ‘Melodies of my Other Life’ was published in 2013. The Doctor’s Daughter is her first novel. When she is not writing fiction, Vanessa works as a freelance copy writer and marketing consultant. Please welcome her to the blog as she talks about her experiences writing historical fiction.
What are the ‘magic ingredients’ that make historical fiction unforgettable/irresistible?
I am not sure there is a magic recipe specifically for historical fiction, there are some rules that apply across all genres. Believable characters, strong plot and good quality writing. Those elements have been important since novel writing began. That said, I do think that there is something about going back in time that enables a reader to slow down, absorb themselves in rich historical details, disconnect from the fast paced world we live in. As a writer I think that setting a novel in the past gives me a way to examine modern issues through a historical lens. Historical fiction reflects how life was, but also offers a window on the world we live in today. The societal problems we thought were long gone are often still prevalent in 2015.
Are historical novels inherently different from contemporary novels, and if so, in what ways?
That depends on the time period. The Doctor’s Daughter is set in Vienna in the late 1920s, an era that still feels quite fresh to me. Many of the things we associate with that time are still relevant today or have advanced from early editions – technology, fashion, décor and lifestyle. By contrast, a novel set pre-1800s offers a different experience for writer and reader. There are more restrictions on how characters can move around the story, navigate their daily lives and communicate with one another. To compare historical and contemporary fiction is a little tricky because there is huge amount of diversity out there. You can find cosy romance stories in both; you can find brutal gritty thrillers in both. Again it comes back to structure; all good novels should have sound plotting, strong characterisation and good writing.
What aspects about the past do you specifically try to highlight in your novel(s)?
My writing tends to focus on character, on what it means to be human and how our personal stories shape who we are. However, when placing them into a historical setting I like to capture the mood of the time, the subtle nuances of language, décor, clothing and social boundaries.
In writing historical fiction, what techniques do you use to ensure that conflict, plot, setting, dialogue, and characters are true to the time period?
Research, research and more research! When writing The Doctor’s Daughter I spent a lot of time teasing out very specific details, from the telephone on the wall, to the medical journals and medicines of the time, and even things as finite as a brand of watch or workings of a syringe. I also explored the broader issues of the era, political motivations, topical news stories, language, slang terms and more. I try my best to be as accurate as possible to ensure I am offering readers an authentic experience.
What aspects do you feel need to be included when you are building a past world for your readers?
There is a slight difference between what you include in the finished book and what you include in your research. At the research stage I like to know as much as I can about the time and place. The minutiae of everyday life relevant to my characters. Where they go to meet friends, who else might frequent the places they visit, where they get their clothes, where they studied. I want to know what kind of wall paper is on the walls, what kind of food and drink was being served, even what kind of underwear people wore! Having taken the time to do all of that research it would be tempting to stuff all of it in to the story just to show off what I know, but that would be a mistake. Only certain elements are actually interesting or useful to the advancement of the story so I may only ever use a handful of them in the novel, but they are in my mind as I write. It helps me get a real sense of who my characters are and the time and place they are living in, and I hope that comes across for my readers without being dull and slowing the pace. Historical fiction, like any other, should be gripping and fast paced rather than weighed down with unnecessary information.
THE DOCTOR’S DAUGHTER. A prominent psychiatrist’s daughter realises insanity can be found much closer to home when she unlocks secrets from the past that threaten to destroy her future.
It’s 1927, women have the right to vote and morals are slackening, but 23 year old Marta Rosenblit is not a typical woman of her time. She has little connection with her elder sisters, her mother has been detained in an asylum since Marta was born and she has spent her life being shaped as her father Arnold’s protégé. She is lost, unsure of who she is and who she wants to be. Primarily set in Vienna, this dark tale follows her journey of self-discovery as she tries to step out of her father’s shadow and find her identity in a man’s world. Her father’s friend Dr Leopold Kaposi is keen to help her make her name, but his interest is not purely professional and his motivations pose greater risks that she could possibly know. Marta’s chance encounter in a café leads to a new friendship with young medical graduate Elise Saloman, but it soon turns out that Elise has some secrets of her own. When Marta’s shock discovery about her family story coincides with her mother’s apparent suicide, Marta can’t take anymore. None of the people she has grown to love and trust are who they seem. Her professional plans unravel, her relationships are in tatters and her sanity is on the line – and one person is behind it all.