Author Nicole Evelina on Writing Historical Fiction

Daughter-of-Destiny-CoverIn December, Nicole Evelina responded to my open request for thoughts on the topic ‘inside historical fiction’. After a few email exchanges, I invited her to bring her ideas together for a post. Nicole is the author of Daughter of Destiny and three – not one, not two, but three – soon to release novels. Now that’s productivity!

MKT: What are the ‘magic ingredients’ that make historical fiction unforgettable and irresistible?

Nicole Evelina: The most magical thing a historical fiction writer can do is transport me to their time period and location. I’m reading a book right now that takes place in Manhattan in the 1930s and I feel like I’m there with the corrupt politicians and cops, the dizzy Broadway chorus girls who double as molls and the menacing gangsters. But that’s not just a matter of saying your book takes place in the past and throwing in some pretty dresses and a few words of slang. You have to make the reader feel like the slang is on the tip of their tongue, too, the stench of the streets is something they can actually smell, and the political or cultural views are their own. You have to take them back in time in as many ways as possible.

In your opinion, what do the best historical fiction writers do to ‘get it right’?

For me, it’s a combination of things: a transporting setting as I mentioned above, characters that I care about and a plot that I can’t wait to see how it ends. Now, that is probably the same answer I’d give for the best contemporary fiction, but historicals are special because they are showing you a different viewpoint on life. If the author does his or her job, you’re seeing what it was like to live when kingdoms were constantly at war, slavery was accepted, women couldn’t vote or hold a job, or people didn’t know where their next meal would come from. The best authors help you live the lives of the characters in their novels.

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

Yes, because, like fantasy, they put their readers in another world. Having written both historical (four novels) and contemporary (one), I can state firsthand that there is so much as both a writer and a reader that you take for granted when reading/writing contemporary. It can be as simple as having a character text someone or speaking current slang – you do it without thinking. When you write historical, you may want your character to have the same communication or say the same basic thing, but you have to stop and think (and maybe research) how they would have done so. No texting, so would they have written a letter/telegram and how was it delivered – bike messenger, pony express, carrier pigeon, by a trusted friend? Or would they have had to find the person and tell them face to face? What would that have entailed? As for slang, you have to consider what it is you are really trying to say and then find out how they would have said it during your time period. Some periods are rife with slang (like 19th century America) and others we just don’t know (like pre-Conquest Britain). If we don’t know, what’s the plainest way you can have your character say it and still get your message across? And those are just two examples of the extra considerations that come with writing historicals.

As a reader, I’ve found that those same details make me stop and think (and sometimes marvel) at how much life has changed (or how much it hasn’t.) There’s a certain introspection that comes with reading a historical because you find yourself wondering how you would have reacted in that situation or if you could have survived in that time, things you can’t do with contemporary novels – at least not to the same extent.

Do you see any particular trends in historical fiction?

Well, the traditional publishing industry still seems to like Tudors and WWII, and books mostly set in Europe (especially England). Interestingly, I’m seeing the indie market turn those on their ears by publishing a lot more ancient and early medieval history and exploring new geographic areas like Asia and Africa. Indies are also not afraid of American history, which I’ve heard some agents and editors say they don’t think sells.

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

I always immerse myself in the culture by doing copious research before I write. I examine the political atmosphere, the way law worked (and who was oppressed and privileged by it and how), the familial dynamic, transportation, food, clothing, daily life, geography and weather patterns, religious beliefs, technology, etc. Because I write primarily about women, I pay special attention to their rights under law, family responsibilities and expectations, and what those who were considered subversive were doing. Most of that ends up on my blog because it’s just too much to put in the story, but it’s important for me to know, because my character would know it.

As for what makes it into the final novel, I try to give a flavor of the location and time and an accurate picture of daily life no matter what the story is. The rest depends on particular characters and plot. Using the five senses to build your world is a must, as is showing the beliefs (cultural, religious, political, scientific, philosophic, what have you) that motivate your characters’ actions.

It’s interesting to me that basic human relationships (the need for love, the importance of family and friends) don’t change over time even if what is socially acceptable does (i.e. the acceptance of spousal abuse, marriages of convenience, the warmth between parents and children, etc.)

What research sources and techniques do you use to ensure that conflict, plot, setting, dialogue, and characters are true to the time period?

If I can afford it, I love to travel to the place where my books take place. I was lucky enough to do that twice for my Guinevere trilogy. There’s an energy that you can’t get any other way. The light looks a certain way, the water tastes a certain way, etc. Being there even in contemporary times is helpful because you can stand in the place your character was and peel back the layers of time. Imagining the car park when it was a forest or the ruins of a castle in its heyday is so much easier when you’re there than if you’re just looking at a photo. Talking to locals is priceless as well (which you can do on the internet if you can’t be in your setting).

I am a big fan of books in research because they are vetted much more strongly than web pages are. I use Amazon as a way of seeing what all is out there, then I get what I can from my local library or through inter-library loan. If I know I’ll need to use a book over and over, I’ll buy it, used if possible, to keep expenses down. Also, the bibliographies of book are goldmines that lead to others or to expert authors I can talk with. For me, web pages are a last ditch effort, fine to get a basic overview or do a quick fact check (but only if it appears in multiple sources). For anything more in-depth, I refer to books and experts.

If my characters have a skill or expertise I don’t possess, I talk to the experts, either by email, online message boards/Facebook groups or in person. Never underestimate the power of re-enactment groups. Those people take their detail and accuracy VERY seriously. Taking lessons (even if only once) gives you a first-hand experience of what shooting a gun or an arrow or riding a horse is really like. There is no substitute for experience.

For language and dialogue, talking to actors and voice coaches (in addition to people who have the accent) can be very enlightening. I honestly think every writer should have to take acting classes because they teach you a lot about what’s realistic in dialogue and blocking, not to mention bolstering your self-confidence for readings and workshops.

Please tell us a little about your latest novel.

Daughter of Destiny is the first book in a trilogy that tells Arthurian legend from Guinevere’s point of view. Set in the war-torn world of fifth century Britain, it’s basically her life story beginning when she is 11 and going into her 50s.

The first book deals with her early life from the ages of 11 to 15, the “hidden” time before she married King Arthur. Though raised to govern and wield a sword, Guinevere had no idea she’d become queen. She had other plans, other dreams for her life, and a love before Arthur that he can never replace. As a priestess of Avalon, she has the sight, but cannot foretell her own future, one in which both the love and rivalry that began in Avalon will haunt her future and spell her doom…and possibly that of all of Camelot. Here’s the back cover copy:

Before queenship and Camelot, Guinevere was a priestess of Avalon. She loved another before Arthur, a warrior who would one day betray her.

In the war-torn world of late fifth century Britain, young Guinevere faces a choice: stay with her family to defend her home at Northgallis from the Irish, or go to Avalon to seek help for the horrific visions that haunt her. The Sight calls her to Avalon, where she meets Morgan, a woman of questionable parentage who is destined to become her rival. As Guinevere matures to womanhood, she gains the powers of a priestess, and falls in love with a man who will be both her deepest love and her greatest mistake.

Just when Guinevere is able to envision a future in Avalon, tragedy forces her back home, into a world she barely recognizes, one in which her pagan faith, outspokenness, and proficiency in the magical and military arts are liabilities. When a chance reunion with her lover leads to disaster, she is cast out of Northgallis and into an uncertain future. As a new High King comes to power, Guinevere must navigate a world of political intrigue where unmarried women are valuable commodities and seemingly innocent actions can have life-altering consequences.

You may think you know the story of Guinevere, but you’ve never heard it like this: in her own words. Listen and you will hear the true story of Camelot and its queen.

Fans of Arthurian legend and The Mists of Avalon will love Daughter of Destiny, the first book in a historical fantasy trilogy that gives Guinevere back her voice and traces her life from an uncertain eleven year old girl to a wise queen in her fifth decade of life.

This book has been short-listed for the 2015 Chaucer Award for Historical Fiction.

The second book in the series, Camelot’s Queen (available April 12), covers Guinevere’s time as Queen, as well as her affair with Lancelot and the finding of the Holy Grail. Book three, Mistress of Legend (early 2017), encompasses the fall of Camelot and Guinevere’s life after Arthur, which most certainly did not end in a convent!

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The historical fiction author behind A Writer of History...

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6 Responses

  1. I wonder why agents (and possibly readers) are opposed to American stories. I would think if the story was good it wouldn’t matter who’s history it was. I’m going to stick with good old American tales. 🙂

    1. This is an interesting question, Adrienne. I wonder if there is a desire for something that seems ‘more exotic’ on the part of readers. In the 2012 reader survey 39% of readers chose US as one of three preferred geographies to read about. Most popular choices were Britain and Europe. And that survey had 59% US participation. Do you have any theories?

      1. Maybe Americans feel some ambivalence toward their history after a century of revisionist teaching. I don’t think Americans want to be constantly lectured to about racism which is a worldwide phenomenon. Since the US was founded on principals more than military conquests, maybe we all hold the US to a higher standard of morality and rights, but that sometimes makes for depressing stories. We’ve taken American heroes out of the picture, sadly.

        Maybe non-Americans feel we don’t have enough history 🙂

  2. Really good tips about researching from Nicole. I especially liked her thought to talk to actors and I agree with Nicole that the internet probably comes last in research for accuracy.
    I wish Nicole well with Daughter of Destiny her new book.

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