The Appeal of Historical Fiction for author Mike Torreano

author Mike TorreanoMike Torreano is a relatively new author with two novels in the works. Like many others, he trolled the halls and workshops at this June’s Historical Novel Society conference and we chatted about our writing and the challenges of breaking into the market. Recently, I asked Mike to add his thoughts to the Inside Historical Fiction discussion.

What makes HF unforgettable/irresistible?

For authors, the irresistible part is easy. For whatever reason, history resonates with us. Perhaps it was a childhood experience where we were first exposed to signature events, or a family history which opened up a peek at the past.

For me, it was a fifth grade teacher who made us read a book a week and make a written report. We never knew who she was going to call on to give the report, so we had to be ready. I read every Zane Gray novel I could get my hands on, which started my fascination with the American West and history in general.

As for unforgettable, the characters we write about tend to be the lions of their age. They are people who rose to prominence in circumstances that we can relate to. Even stories without a famous figure bring to life events we’re familiar with-captivated by. Who doesn’t want to know about the intrigue that led to this or that royal’s demise?

As we read, we can relate to their motivations, worries, and lives in many ways. We’re reminded that what we are experiencing today has been played out so many times before. Sometimes that’s a comfort, sometimes it’s alarming, but it’s always interesting.

What do the best writers do to get it right?

Simply put, they put us in the scene. Whether it’s a tryst, a trial or a tribulation, the great authors invite us in to witness what’s happening. We’re the mouse in the corner, the barkeep washing up, the lady-in-waiting with the frown on her face. We can SEE what’s going on. The character’s emotions become our emotions. The story’s tension is our tension.

Are historicals inherently different than contemporary novels? If so, how so?

Certainly there are many stylistic differences between the two, but I think those are trumped by the overriding similarities. In historical fiction, we write about the problems that our ancestors faced, but grief, romance, greed, and pride know no era. The human condition has remained basically the same over the centuries. History bears that out. The everyday struggles and triumphs we experience today are the same things our historical characters experienced.

Even so, there’s a tendency to think that today’s issues are somehow new, or unique. Granted, technology today is light years different than the past, but we imperfect humans remain much the same.

What aspects do you specifically try to highlight in your novel/s?

Every historical author wants to be accurate, wants to describe the times and the surroundings vividly. What I enjoy crafting in particular though, are tightly drawn dialogue and physical descriptions. Revealing motivation through what my characters say-and sometimes don’t say-intrigues me. Often, with dialogue, less is more.

I also like to emphasize my character’s physical actions and reactions-like a throaty voice, a turn of the head, a shaking hand, a brush at an eye, all accompanied by silence for impact.

In HF, what resources do you use in researching conflict, plot, etc, so they are true to the time period?

I almost feel guilty in confessing that I have a researcher who uncovers many wonderful historical nuggets for me. I give her general guidance about what I’m looking for and the time period involved and she comes up with reams of material that I then pick and choose from.

I also do my own research, mostly electronically. What I find though is that my research tends to be more laser-like, which is fine to a point, but sometimes I miss broader aspects of the period which my researcher brings to light. So it’s a complementary relationship.

What aspects need to be included when building a past world for your readers?

Perhaps the most important aspect is to give the reader a vibrant sense of the times. What did a typical day look like? Who did what? What was acceptable in society then, and what wasn’t? We do that through our characters’ actions and reactions.

In today’s culture, it can feel uncomfortable at times to paint historically accurate, but politically incorrect scenes. But to change history, to change our writing to reflect today’s mores distorts the mirror we see the past through.

Do you see any particular trends in HF?

One trend I see is a gradual movement toward less dialogue and greater description, particularly in the Royal novels, where narrative about motivations and desires dominates storytelling. It’s very effective.

As far as the marketplace, HF remains a healthy genre and will always have a solid core of readers. Not as big perhaps as YA or fantasy, but large and stable nonetheless, always ready to devour the next well-crafted, well-researched HF novel, regardless of period or place.

My latest novel.

I have a short story set during the Yukon Gold Rush, titled The Trade, recently published in an anthology. I also have two novels currently under consideration, one by a publisher, and one by an editor.

Fireflies at Dusk is a coming of age tale set against the backdrop of the Civil War. A young man rejects his family’s pacifism and joins the Union Army after college. In his desire to separate from his father, he drives everyone he ever cared for away. As the War unfolds, he’s faced with a gritty journey to reclaim his self-respect.

The Reckoning is a western, set in Colorado in 1868. It’s a story of how revenge can have unintended consequences. After his folks are killed by Quantrill’s Raiders during the Civil War, a former soldier tracks the culprits to Colorado. Just as he’s about to spring a deadly trap on the murderers, his sister suddenly disappears. Now, he has to choose between running the killers to ground or finding out what happened to her.

Many thanks for contributing, Mike. Wishing you good luck with your novels!

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, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. Her debut novel, UNRAVELLED: Two wars. Two affairs. One marriage. is also available from these retailers.

Mary can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads.

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12 Responses

  1. Hi Mike,
    Thanks for your insights. This really resonated with me: “In today’s culture, it can feel uncomfortable at times to paint historically accurate, but politically incorrect scenes. But to change history, to change our writing to reflect today’s mores distorts the mirror we see the past through.”

    I’m writing a historical book (not a novel) right now and this is true even for that! Perhaps because I am writing about my own city’s history. On the other hand, I am finding that it is popular to describe things from a politically correct standpoint that maybe could be presented more fairly in terms of the historical culture and mores of the time.Truth is not simply defined and, strangely, the more you know the murkier seems to be.

    1. Hi T.K., thanks for commenting. This is a delicate issue for us today, isn’t it? Perhaps the way to look at it is there are many lenses through which to view the past. The one I look through is not necessarily going to be the one you look through, and both could still be accurate, and probably are.
      As writers, we have to be comfortable with our stories, our approaches, so I would say to you write what resonates with you regarding that particular period, in a way you can feel good about it.
      There’s no one right lens to see things through. Hope that helps.
      Other thoughts?

  2. Hi Mike
    You have some very pertinent points. One thing surprised me, however. You say
    “One trend I see is a gradual movement toward less dialogue and greater description,… where narrative about motivations and desires dominates storytelling.”
    Everyone else seems to be saying: “Show, don’t tell!” How does that add up?

    1. Vince, you raise an important point. I think what agents/editors are looking for is a proper balance between showing and telling. It’s not an either/or, because you can’t tell a story well without both. Especially in historicals, you’ll never get away from great narrative description (telling) in your story.
      For example, in Bernard Corwell’s The Last Kingdom, he weaves both wonderful description and spot-on dialogue together to produce a well-paced, interesting story.
      I’d welcome other thoughts on this as well.

      1. We often misinterpret what “show; don’t tell” actually means. If the narrator talks about the photo on the table of a young man and his father, even though it is a “description,” it can very well be “showing” an important fact. It could, for example, be showing that the current dysfunctional relationship between the two did not always exist, rather than the narrator or even a character (dialogue) explaining that. Of course if a character picks up that photo and smashes it into the wall, then we have a double whammy of show. 🙂

  3. Your point, “Perhaps it was a childhood experience where we were first exposed to signature events, or a family history which opened up a peek at the past.”, is certainly true for me. We chatted a little about our northern Italian ancestors when we shared a table at the recent HNS conference so I was thrilled when I saw that M.K. was going to interview you for her blog! Here’s hoping both the publisher and editor snap up your work. Ci vediamo!

  4. Reblogged this on living by chapters and commented:
    M.K. Tod hosts Mike Torreano, a writer of historical fiction. This post looks at the genre’s classic place in literature. This post and the previous one on M.K. Tod’s site, “Why Write Westerns” imply an understanding of the market.

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