Inside Historical Fiction with Dana Chamblee Carpenter

Bohemian Gospel by Dana Chamblee CarpenterDana Chamblee Carpenter teaches creative writing at a university in Nashville, TN. Her short fiction has appeared in The Arkansas Review, Jersey Devil Press, and Maypop and her debut novel, Bohemian Gospel, won Killer Nashville’s 2014 Claymore Award. Today Dana is giving her perspective on ‘inside 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’?

For me, the fun of historical fiction is the same thing that draws me to fantasy—I like to go to places I’ve never been and could never go. Travelling back in time so I can see the world through old eyes or exploring the unfamiliar in familiar ways is like zipping off with the Doctor in the TARDIS. The best historical fiction immerses the reader in the period, in all the details and the contexts, but in seamless ways that don’t interrupt the story. I love it when a novel teaches me about place and time and custom, but I want to feel like I’m living the experience through the characters not just learning about them.

I also think that the best historical fiction offers the reader something unexpected. That’s the tricky bit—to ground the story in factual history, which is often familiar to readers, and yet to also surprise them.

Are historical novels inherently different from contemporary novels, and if so, in what ways?

Inherently different? No. I think human story is much the same throughout history. We want what we want—money, power, love, understanding, acceptance—and we struggle over countless obstacles as we try to obtain those things. Sometimes we succeed. Often, we don’t. Sometimes we get what we thought we wanted and it makes us happy. Frequently, we get it and it breaks our hearts. And, at some point, we all fail. Variations of these human journeys drive historical novels and contemporary novels and thrillers and science fiction and, well, pretty much all of literature.

But if story is the mirror we use to study who we are, who we want to be, who we’re afraid to be, then historical novels offer a clarity of perspective and the liberty of staring long into the looking glass. Contemporary novels sometimes trap us in the noise of the present—all the things we’re concerned with or distracted by in our normal, daily lives are also there in the story. Historical fiction takes us out of our lives and transports us to elsewhere. It’s like trying on something different. If you wear the same jeans and t-shirt day after day, you see what you expect to see. But when you slip into something less conventional, you see yourself very differently. You see things you normally overlook. That’s what historical fiction offers the reader—a chance to see ourselves in a new light, free from the mundane of the present day.

What aspects about the past do you specifically try to highlight in your novel(s)?

I like to lay the groundwork of the conventions of the time in terms of expected behaviors or the professions and social roles that would have been common based on gender or class or education. And then I highlight the exceptions to those rules. I love a rebel!

We think we know the ins and outs of a time period. We’ve studied what’s been written by the scholars. We’ve read the letters or journals that have survived the years. And we paint a picture based on these pieces that are available to us. But these pieces most often belong to the victors, to men, to ethnic majorities, to people who have a vested interest in crafting a very particular picture that maintains the illusion of their power or rightness.

I put those traditional pieces into place in my novels, but then I go play in the gaps. We may not have the actual stories of many of the people on the margins of history, but, if we listen hard enough, we can hear them whispering to us from the shadows of time. They sound very much like the people living on the margins today, and they are anything but silent.

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?

I did about a year’s worth of research for Bohemian Gospel because I knew very little about Bohemia or the thirteenth century. At first, the research was either very general—what did people eat and wear, what was medieval warfare like—or it was focused on the places and geography of Bohemia and the historical figures I intended to include in the book. But during the revision process, the hunt got harder as I went looking for specifics. I used the Oxford English Dictionary to track down the etymology of particular words to be sure they were accurate to the period. I poured over dusty books and digitalized copies of ancient texts in archives thousands of miles away as I searched for the layout of Prague castle in the thirteenth century or the lyrics of a minnesinger’s song.

I also had to navigate both ancient and modern politics as I read texts about the historical figures and the battles. Each source was colored by the lenses of the writers and their nationalities and allegiances, so I sometimes had to backtrack in order to understand why one text lauded Ottakar and another vilified him.

What aspects do you feel need to be included when you are building a past world for your readers?

I love to weave folklore and myth and song and art into my novels. As a writer, these offer me a window into the period in a more intimate way than conventional research.

It’s like when I was a kid and was fascinated with listening to the music that my parents listened to as teenagers. My mom had a little green box full of 45s that she used to take to high school dances. I’d play the songs and stare at a couple of pictures of her—a senior portrait and, my favorite, a candid of her in her room when she was about sixteen; she was getting ready to go out. I studied that picture to see what posters she had on her walls, what knick-knacks were on the shelves. I’d listen to the songs and imagine what made her smirk in the photo or where she was going that night. She wasn’t one for telling stories so listening to the music and looking at the pictures were the only ways I had to get to know who she was back then.

So I try to do the same in my novels. I use the music and the art and the folklore as a way to bring the reader into the intimate space of a historical period. Music and art and story capture the collective soul of a people and a time. To me, these are essential elements to making a past world come alive for a contemporary reader.

Do you see any particular trends in HF?

I think maybe we’re looking for rich historical terrain in different times and places these days. There seems to be more focus on World War I and II than Tudor England, for example. There also seems to be less focus on actual historic figures as writers seem to be opting instead to play with totally fictional characters set in the historical period. But I think in the publishing world, by the time we identify a trend, it’s pretty much gone, isn’t it? I’d rather see writers just focus on seeking out good stories.

Please tell us a little about your latest novel.

Bohemian Gospel tells the story of Mouse, a young woman in thirteenth century Bohemia (what we could call the Czech Republic today), who is trying to find her place in the world. When the Younger King, Ottakar, shows up wounded, it’s up to Mouse to save him, and she thinks she’s found her purpose. But court politics at Prague prove deadlier than she imagines and her own unnatural abilities take a dark turn that send her searching for the secrets of her past.

Dana Chamblee Carpenter is the author of Bohemian Gospel, out now from Pegasus Books.

Many thanks for these insights on historical fiction, Dana. Readers will definitely appreciate your perspective – I’ve highlighted several items that intrigue me. Bohemian Gospel sounds like a wonderful story about an area of the world we don’t often hear about. Congratulations on your debut.

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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7 Responses

  1. A really nice conversation about historical fiction. I’m also always interested in laying the groundwork of the social conventions of the historical timeframe I’m writing in and then how the story/characters that I write about go against them.


    1. Good point about social conventions – and, of course, setting your characters up in conflict with those conventions creates the beginnings of drama. Good luck with your writing.

  2. Really interesting interview.

    On conventions and conflict: I think Dana does a great job of describing one of the key ways of both explaining conventions and then showing the counterpoint to them through taking a rebel as a main character. That’s one of the things that makes Bernard Cornwell’s long-running Sharpe series so appealing. Sharpe is an enlisted man who becomes an officer in a Napoleonic era British army in which that almost never happened. This friction between convention and expectation drives conflict in all the books and it makes us root for the underdog character.

    Another way of exploring conventions is to find a period conflict and put your character in the middle of it. For instance, in Patrick O’Brien’s Aubrey/Maturin novels, Jack Aubrey is a naval officer who dislikes the flogging which was so common in the British Navy of the time, and this often drives conflict between him and other captains who run much more brutal ships.

    I think it can be especially interesting to do this kind of side-taking with your characters in conflicts which seem really alien to us today. So for instance, when I was researching the French army in WW1, one of the things that struck me was that at the beginning of the war the army was very politicized and divided over the issues that had come up in the Dreyfus Affair. Officers like General Joffre were advanced in part because they were seen as secular and republican, while traditionalist or clericalist officers such as Petain were sidelined. It took several months’ hard fighting for the army to start promoting based strictly on ability and not politics. I immediately wanted to have my French officer character be affected by this divide, so I ended up with a republican officer whose wife is from a very traditional family, which immediately gave me conflict to work with. How has his marriage affected his career? How has his connection with secularist politics affected his marriage?

    The novel isn’t about that conflict, just as the Aubrey/Maturin novels aren’t about whether there should be flogging in the navy, but having your character enmeshed in these cultural conflicts that are going on in the background of the story is one of those things which helps it seem like the world keeps on going beyond edges of the page.

    1. A great response, Brendan. Many thanks for adding to the conversation. I have also written about WWI France – fascinating to look at it from another country’s perspective.

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