Jacqueline Winspear on Writing Historical Fiction

journey-to-munich-pressAs one of readers’ favourite authors in the 2012 survey, Jacqueline Winspear was on the blog in 2013 and I’m delighted to say she’s here for a second time to talk about writing historical fiction. She is the author of the very popular series Maisie Dobbs and also wrote The Care and Management of Lies (an excellent novel) for the WWI centennial. Many thanks for being on the blog, Jacqueline.

MKT: 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’?

JW: I wish I knew something about magical ingredients! I think the best thing a writer of historical fiction can do is to remember that you are a storyteller first and foremost. Everything else there is to support the story – and by that I mean the research that one undertakes to give the novel a deep and broad sense of time and place. You have to trust that all your understanding of a given period will be absorbed into every word you write, so you don’t have to make an effort to load the narrative with historical detail. Don’t feel you have to use every single scrap of your research material – just trust the process, and that the knowledge you have garnered will inform your work. Write from that place.

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

A good novel is a good novel, no matter whether it is historical or contemporary. The aim is to the very best writer you can be, not specifically the very best writer of historical fiction.

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

I know this seems strange, but I don’t set out to specifically highlight anything. As I am writing I am “in” the time period, so I just write my story from that point.

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?

Here’s the thing that I must underline – the only difference in the way I undertake research for my work, and a writer of contemporary fiction might conduct research, is that the dates are different. I’m in 1930-something, not 2016. I think there must be so much that I do automatically, that is transparent to me, because this is a hard question to answer. I really do just write a story that’s in my head, and if I want to reflect on a section of dialogue, I ask myself, “How would my grandmother have said this?” I have been steeped in the period I write about for so long, that it is a very transparent process. My novels are character-driven, so everything springs from the development of each character and how they interact with each other – and having a deep understanding of how those relationships would have looked and felt in the early part of the twentieth century.

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

Go to the senses – how might a certain experience have felt during a given time period (whether that experience is getting out of bed on a cold morning, or going into a store, starting a car, or being stood up on a date) – expressions of physical experience anchor the story in its time. How does the environment look? What about language? Modes of address? And the important thing is to note that the past is often nowhere near as “stuffy” as we might imagine – it’s not all hoity-toity Downton Abbey. Surprisingly, the TV show Deadwood was closer to the truth of the American west than many other so-called westerns – for example, most cowboys wore bowler hats, and the language of the time and place was more akin to that of Shakespeare, because his works were readily available (many copies printed, and of the two books most likely to be carried, one was the Bible and the other Shakespeare’s works). There was more thee and thou to be heard heard than howdy! I think it’s important to have a knowledge of products used in a given time period – and never give an explanation, as that deflects the reader from the story, and the story is the most important thing. It’s not necessary to explain everything, and it just puts speed bumps in the narrative. Truly the best advice is to write as if you are in that time yourself, not as if you are dipping in and out with a reference book in your hand as you write.

Do you see any particular trends in HF?

I confess, I am not a trend-watcher. I just write what I write, and have never considered whether there is a trend or not. I understand historical fiction is becoming more and more popular with readers.

Please tell us a little about your latest novel.

Set in early 1938, JOURNEY TO MUNICH, sees Maisie Dobbs back in England following a period of time working as a nurse in civil war-torn Spain – however, she is soon approached by the Secret Service who want her to travel to Munich on a special assignment. At first she is loathe to accept, however, she takes on the case – which at the outset seems straightforward: British citizen Leon Donat, a successful engineer and entrepreneur, has been incarcerated in a prison in the small town of Dachau, just outside Munich. Following negotiations with the British government, his captors have agreed to release him, but only to a family member rather than an embassy official. Maisie Dobbs, it seems, has been pegged the perfect candidate to impersonate Donat’s ailing daughter and take custody of her “father.” Donat must be extracted at any cost, as the Secret Service believes his military inventions will become essential should Britain become embroiled in war. But someone else is also interested in Maisie’s journey – and it’s then that more complications arise. Maisie’s successful completion of her remit – and her escape from Munich as Austria is annexed by Germany – rest on a knife-edge.

Journey to Munich releases in March 2016.

It’s great to have your insights, Jacqueline. I wish you every success with Journey to Munich.

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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3 Responses

  1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Jacqueline. So many things you say resonated with me. Story teller first and foremost. Writing in the time. The past is not as stuffy as we think. That last point in particular is something I’ve thought a lot about. Each of us lives in the most modern time there ever was. We only attach ‘stuffy’ looking back. It wasn’t that at all to the people living in that moment. “Journey to Munich” sounds terrific. Looking forward to seeing what happens next with Maisie.

    Thanks, Mary, for bringing Jacqueline to us again.

  2. Historical fiction is a fantastic genre and while it obviously need a little more basis in fact, Jacqueline is right – it is still fiction at the end of the day!

    And that is a gorgeous book cover.

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