Anna Belfrage and I met in Denver at the Historical Novel Society conference. According to Anna, had she been allowed to choose, she’d have become a professional time-traveller. As such a profession does not exists, she settled for second best and became a financial professional with two absorbing interests, namely history and writing. Today she’s answering questions on historical fiction.
What are the ‘magic ingredients’ that make historical fiction unforgettable/irresistible? And in your opinion, what do the best historical fiction writers do to ‘get it right’?
The one word answer is immersion. As a reader, I open the book, and within pages, I am no longer in my armchair or my bed or wherever I may be reading. I am elsewhere, in another time, another place.
To achieve this requires that the author paints the scene for us – not in too much detail, as us humans are gifted with vivid imagination and rather enjoy filling in the blanks. But there must be pointers – the sooty light of a torch, the rustling of starched linens, the complex buttoning of a lady’s half-boot – little things that add up to an image.
The same lightness of touch should be applied when depicting the political scene – add one bit here, another there, discreetly placed building blocks that allow the reader to participate in the world building. Great historical fiction writers know their period and the political complexity, but they don’t shove it in the reader’s face.
However, no matter how elegantly imparted the setting, it all falls flat on its face if the characters lack appeal and credibility. In this case, appeal does not necessarily mean a likeable character – but he/she must somehow sink hooks into the reader, wrest an emotional response from them.
Are historical novels inherently different from contemporary novels, and if so, in what ways?
No, I don’t think so. In essence all novels are about story and character, historical novels just happen to take place in a setting somewhat distant from our contemporary lives – which, for some readers, adds to the allure.
Ultimately, any good novel is about relationships and the consequences actions may have on these relationships. People haven’t changed all that much over the last few thousand years or so, which is why the seven cardinal sins play as much a part in our world as they did in the medieval cosmos. Lust, Pride, Greed, Gluttony, Envy, Sloth and Wrath – all of us are afflicted by them, for the simple reason that they are the common human flaws. The novels that resonate with most readers, no matter in what period they’re set, are essentially about people combatting these flaws – or embracing them, which is a just as interesting, if somewhat darker, scenario.
What aspects about the past do you specifically try to highlight in your novel(s)?
The Graham Saga is very much about depicting the religious divisions of the 17th century, and how difficult it was to bridge the distrust between Protestants and Catholics. I find the issue of beliefs fascinating – and somewhat depressing. The number of people who died due to the religious wars in Europe in the 17th century is staggering – but then religion is very much a hot potato in our world as well, isn’t it? Which, I guess, just goes to show that the contemporary world and that of the past bleed into each other.
Seeing as I am somewhat of a romantic (an understatement as per those who know me) I rarely write anything without there being a liberal dose of love in the mixture. Love, however, is not always pink and fluffy. At times, it is a harsh taskmaster, requiring substantial sacrifices along the way – a timeless aspect of this rather draining emotion.
Other than that, I enjoy writing about major political events at once removed. In my upcoming series, my protagonists become embroiled in the rebellion against Edward II – they’re swept along, so to say. Yes, the major players of the time are very much present, but it is through the eyes of the less powerful that the events are presented.
In general, I prefer writing about “ordinary” people as opposed to the rich and famous. I admire these our forebears for their tenacity, their quiet courage – the prime example being all those thousands upon thousands who tore themselves up by the roots and immigrated to the New World in search of a better future, if not for them, at least for their children.
In writing historical fiction, what research and techniques do you use to ensure that conflict, plot, setting, dialogue, and characters are true to the time period?
Any writer who decides to set their book in the past must of course research their period, just as an author who sets his/her work in a specific geographic location has to be familiar with the setting. I spend a lot of time reading broadly about the period I am presently writing in, but I also look at art, at surviving artefacts, listen to music (if possible). When I can, I visit locations. I read up on fauna and flora. If my plot has real-life events and people, I read up on them.
The plot generally revolves round the human condition as such, so whatever world-shattering events may be happening in the background, they are often just that: background. However, in my new series, real-life events play a crucial part, and I’ve spent a lot of effort getting the time-line right, which causes the original plot to be tweaked repeatedly.
My characters are first and foremost people. No, I do not have my 14th century leading lady saying “Bloody hell”, nor do I have her initiating an agitated discussion with her husband about who should do what in the household. Kit knows her place, works within the restrictions imposed by her gender and time-period – but when so required, she may step outside the norms, no matter how uncomfortable that makes her.
As to dialogue, I am not a fan of period dialogue. Leaving aside the fact that I couldn’t recreate the language of the 1300s, I seriously doubt any of my readers would understand it. Dialogue to me must be immediate, it must carry the reader with it, bring pace and nerve to the narrative. I therefore tend to write a relatively “modern” dialogue, while avoiding expressions that would jolt the reader out of the story. (Ergo, Kit doesn’t say “No way!” even when that is exactly what she means)
What aspects do you feel need to be included when you are building a past world for your readers?
I try to activate all senses. What do things feel like, how do they smell, is there light or shadow? What are the sources of light? Glowing embers, reeking tallow candles, lanterns or moonlight? Do the fabrics rustle, is there a squeak as the rope frame gives under the combined weight of two? A whiff of cabbage, the sour smell of spilled, dried milk, the freshness of an autumn morning. Spurs jangling, hooves clattering over stone cobbles, the soft voice of a woman singing her child to sleep. A shutter slams in the wind. An overturned goblet spills wine over the lady’s new damask silk. A stifled sob. The smell of putrefaction emanating from a gibbet.
All these impressions combine – I hope – to build a whole.
Do you see any particular trends in HF?
We seem to be moving into a broader approach when it comes to periods and geographies. Lisa J. Yarde has written excellent books set in Moorish Spain, as has David Penny, the 19th century is expanding beyond Regency, the Ottoman Empire is receiving due attention as are Vikings and the truly ancient people of the Middle East – Richard Abbott has written a wonderful novel set here, just as the Hebrew tribes invade Canaan. Plus I note an upsurge in books set in the 17th century – about time, if you ask me!
Please tell us a little about your latest novel.
On November 1, the first book in my next series, The King’s Greatest Enemy, will be published. In the Shadow of the Storm is the story of Adam de Guirande and his wife Kit. As per the blurb: “Adam de Guirande owes his lord, Sir Roger Mortimer, much more than loyalty. He owes Sir Roger for his life and all his worldly goods, he owes him for his beautiful wife – even if Kit is not quite the woman Sir Roger thinks she is. So when Sir Roger rises in rebellion against the king, Adam has no choice but to ride with him – no matter what the ultimate cost may be.”
When I’m not stuck in the 14th century, chances are I’ll be visiting in the 17th century, more specifically with Alex and Matthew Graham, the protagonists of the acclaimed The Graham Saga. This series is the story of two people who should never have met – not when she was born three centuries after him.
Many thanks for talking about inside historical fiction, Anna.
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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.
Reblogged this on Pearls Before Swine and commented:
Anna Belfrage provides insightful advice for Historical Fiction writers. I also find this information relevant for all authors in general.
Excellent interview and insights by the author. And I appreciate the comment: “…I note an upsurge in books set in the 17th century – about time, if you ask me!”. Indeed. Indeed.
Always so interesting to read your blogs, Mary. I’m anxious to read Anna Belfrage. And you inspire me to finish my own novel.
This is very helpful. Great pointers for those of us struggling to write this genre. Thanks.