David Blixt is an actor, author, director and swordsman – yes, you read that correctly, he instructs and demonstrates the art of sword fighting and did so to great effect at the Historical Novel Society conference last June. David was also kind enough to answer some questions for me as I prepared for a panel presentation at that same conference. Today, he’s answering questions about the unique ingredients and challenges of historical fiction.
What are the ‘magic ingredients’ that make historical fiction unforgettable or irresistible to readers?
The first is Character. Any story worth telling begins and ends with the people, how they live and breathe and react. Characters in a historical setting give us a sense of continuity, a link to past times. They’re also a Memento Mori, a reminder that the dry pages of history are filled with the deeds of real living people, and that someday we, too, will be the minor details in some text – unless someone chooses to bring us to life in fiction.
The second is Detail. The small things, the pieces of history that either are utterly foreign to us, or else something that we take for granted today that was new and innovative a thousand years ago.
What techniques do you employ to create that magic?
Detail is easiest – research. The little snippets excite and intrigue me. Where does the phrase “at Death’s door” come from? Oh, in Italy in the Middle Ages, the living and the dead were not allowed to use the same portals, so there was a literal death-door, just waist high, in every home for when someone died. Things like that.
Character is really at the core of all fiction. I’m lucky to come at it from a theatrical world. In Shakespeare, motive matters, but actions define a character. They are what they do, regardless of their intent. Characters should also be conflicted, a mass of contradictions. And they’re each the heroes of their own story. No one considers himself to be a side-plot or a villain. Every man and woman in my work is the most important player in their own story. It’s just that their stories are not always mine.
How are historical novels inherently different from contemporary novels?
Because we already know the signposts of history, we get to focus more on the journey than the destination.
What aspects about the past do you specifically try to highlight in your novels?
Philosophy, food, clothes, religion, literature – but mostly the changing mores. I am attracted to small revolutions, the moments where history shifted seismically, even if those alive in the moment couldn’t feel more than a tremor.
In writing historical fiction, what techniques do you use to ensure that conflict, plot, setting, dialogue, and characters are true to the time period?
Dialogue is toughest. I try not to be too modern, but I eschew “old-timey” speak. I focus on class and setting. I’ve been hit for sounding a little too modern, but only when writing for characters who were “modern” for their era. Conflict, plot, and setting all feel natural when steeped in the research.
As for characters – you have to keep reminding yourself that these are not modern people. They cannot have cosmopolitan, enlightened reactions. And then you look around today and see some folks behaving as badly as can be imagined, and you realize there’s room for both enlightenment and ignorance in the past as well.
Most important, they have to be genuine, they must have all the humanness we see today. Faults are wonderful attributes, much more defining than strengths. So I give them faults, and then let them struggle against those faults. Sometimes they succeed. Most often not.
Can you share any of the unique sources or challenges for the time period(s) you write about?
For the Verona books, there aren’t many sources, and most what there are is in a medieval Italian I cannot parse. So I’m constantly finding information sideways – who was near Verona that might mention Cangrande, or Dante, or Mastino? When was this building erected, and why? There was nearly as much in the history of Padua as there is in the history of Verona.
But the best sources are the locals. I was honored to meet Dante’s descendent, the Count Serego-Alighieri, on my second visit to Verona, and he gave me a wealth of information about the family. I was able to tour the Roman ruins beneath the city. I was given a tour of mostly unknown historical sites by the film-maker Anna Lerario, places I’d never imagined, but that instantly because the settings for scenes. The joy is in the research, and the research cannot be limited to the page. Smells, sounds, tastes, sights, and the grit beneath your fingers all bring a story to life.
What do you do to ensure your characters are fully imagined in the historical context?
I try and throw as many historical obstacles in their paths, both literal and metaphorical. I want strictures, I want rules, I want something to either conform to or rebel against. Laws are marvelous, the more arcane the better.
Have other writers of historical fiction influenced you and, if so, how?
Dorothy Dunnett more than any other. I didn’t know I wanted to write historical fiction until I read the Lymond books. It was as though she gave me permission. “Oh! You mean a story can be smart, deep, awful, infuriating, rich, and wonderful, all without pandering or talking down to your audience? Sign me up!”
The first historical novels I ever read were Colleen McCullough’s MASTERS OF ROME books, and they have shaped my life in so many ways. I was later introduced to Sharpe, then Aubrey and Maturin, and more. I’m honored to call Sharon Kay Penman my friend, and I love rubbing shoulders with Chris Gortner, Margaret George, Diana Gabaldon and so many others. The sad thing for me is that I read far less today than I used to – too busy writing.
Many thanks, David. Your responses are unique and enlightening.
Finalist for the 2015 M.M. Bennetts Award for Historical Fiction
The explosive fourth novel in the Star-Cross’d series! Verona has won its war with Padua, but lost its war with the stars. The young prodigy Cesco now turns his troubled brilliance to darker purposes, embracing a riotous life, challenging not only the lord of Verona and the Church, but the stars themselves.
Trying desperately to salvage what’s left of Cesco’s spirit, Ser Pietro Alaghieri for once welcomes the many plots and intrigues of the Veronese court, hoping they will shake the young man back to his senses.
But when the first body falls, it becomes clear that this new game is deadly, and will lead only to doom them all.
FOR MORE ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION follow A WRITER OF HISTORY (using the widget on the left sidebar)
M.K. Tod writes historical fiction and blogs about all aspects of the genre at A Writer of History. Her latest novel, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE is set in WWI France and is available from Amazon, Nook, Kobo, Google Play and iTunes. Her debut novel, UNRAVELLED: Two wars. Two affairs. One marriage. is also available from these retailers.