Greg Taylor’s novel Lusitania R.E.X won the first M.M. Bennetts Award for historical fiction. The award was presented at last June’s Historical Novel Society conference in Denver and I had the pleasure of meeting Greg briefly after his award was announced. Today he talks about historical fiction – what makes it unique and what makes it tick.
MKTod: 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’?
Greg Taylor: What sets historical fiction apart from other fiction is its ability to educate the reader. The lure of historical fiction for me is not only the prospect of enjoying a good tale but also the more lasting satisfaction of knowing that I have learned something.
The base material on which a work of historical fiction is built may be widely known, but the author can still discover and bring to light additional facts that expand and enliven the story. The craft is in making the reader hunger for more knowledge.
The writers I have most enjoyed also develop parallel stories that initially bear no obvious relation to the core subject. By weaving the stories together, the author leads the reader to discover similarities and make connections that deepen the reader’s understanding of the base material.
Are historical novels inherently different from contemporary novels, and if so, in what ways?
Yes, in the same way that remodeling an existing house is very different from designing and constructing a new one. While a newly built residence has unfettered freedom to achieve the spectacular, the remodel project may showcase the architect’s skill more effectively by working within the constraints imposed by existing features.
The historical novels I have enjoyed operate within the framework of the known historical facts but deliver all the drama we expect of a contemporary novel.
What aspects about the past do you specifically try to highlight in your novel(s)?
The commonality of man: so much of what we experience has been felt by others in circumstances that seem so divorced from our own. Across time and space, the passions, the fears and the ecstasies we experience are constant because they are human nature.
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 research extensively, reading every book I can get my hands on until I am forced to expand the circle to include related topics. Like a network of tunnels, these disparate paths yield surprising results, running into one another and ultimately leading me back to the central thesis with a better understanding.
While working on Lusitania R.E.X, I wrote on scraps of paper the most interesting aspects and stories related to my subject and spread them out on large wooden table. I arranged and rearranged them, discarding some, reordering them all many times, until a basic outline began to take form. I was able to set into place the factual elements that underpin the story and then create my fictional tale around that framework.
What aspects do you feel need to be included when you are building a past world for your readers?
I like to surprise readers with something of genius from a past world that has been lost or forgotten. The progress of man is not necessarily linear and there are extraordinary discoveries that are subsequently lost. Concrete, for example, was developed by the Romans but lost for centuries until its rediscovery with the Renaissance.
Do you see any particular trends in HF?
I believe there is an increasing complexity in historical novels, with authors employing such devices as the supernatural, the spanning of time or simply resorting to layers of intrigue that compound one another until they become dizzying.
Please tell us a little about your latest novel.
Lusitania R.E.X weaves a tale around the sinking of a great ocean liner in May 1915 by focusing on the lives of a few real people. One of the main characters, however, is a composite of several actual persons, and it is she who binds the story together. The main character, Alfred Vanderbilt, has a secret mission that takes him on the doomed ship.
After being struck by a German torpedo, the Lusitania sank in only eighteen minutes so the bare facts already contain a great deal of drama. Add to that spies, secret societies, millionaires and martyrs and you have the beginnings of the novel. The surprise for many readers will come at the end, when they learn how little of the novel is actually fiction.
Lusitania R.E.X is available on Amazon. More about the book can be found at this Website. Information about the award can be found here: Greg wins M.M. Bennett’s Award. Lusitania R.E.X is also a finalist for the People’s Book Prize.
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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.