Author Melissa Lenhardt on Writing Historical Fiction

Sawbones_Quote[18][3]For the past year, I’ve been using the theme Inside Historical Fiction to explore what makes historical fiction unique – any many authors have obliged by answering a series of questions. Today, Melissa Lenhardt who writes mystery, historical fiction, and women’s fiction offers her take. Melissa’s latest novel, Sawbones, has just released.

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’?

Melissa Lenhardt: All fiction needs to have complex characters and an engaging story, but historical fiction that shines has an exceptional sense of time and place. It’s a difficult thing to balance. Too much detail and you’ll be dinged with, “your research is showing.” Too little and the story is generic, happening outside reality.

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

I don’t think so. To paraphrase Tolstoy: “All good novels are inherently alike; all bad novels are bad in their own way.”

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?

Besides standard research, I think one way to keep the characters and dialogue from being anachronistic is to read fiction written during the period your novel is set. Another good source of character and dialogue is reading diaries from the time. Not only will you hear the language through their letters, you also get a sense of the mores of the time, direct from the people living then. Going to the source will also alleviate any worry about history changing over time, that historians have interpreted and/or highlighted different aspects of events.

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

There is a tendency, especially with new writers, to over describe the setting. We’re so excited for the reader to know what we know, to fall in love with the world we’re creating that we vomit useless information on the page. I know I was guilty of it when I started writing SAWBONES. The reality is, most readers have images of past settings in their minds, either through reading, research or old photos. NYC in the Gilded Age, Henry VIII’s court, Nazi Germany, the American West. Our job as a writer isn’t to describe everything, but to highlight the details that relate directly to the character, or highlight a facet of their character, or move the story forward. Less is more seems counterintuitive, I know. But, describing fewer details allows the reader to come up with their own image and that, in turn, will invest them more fully in the world.

Do you see any particular trends in HF?

I love World War Two as a setting as much as the next reader, but I hope we’re moving away from it. I would like to see writers find different World War II stories to tell besides Vichy France, England during the Blitz, the D-Day invasion and the Holocaust. There were other fronts, and other stories to tell. 

Please tell us a little about your latest novel.

SAWBONES: When Dr. Catherine Bennett is wrongfully accused of murder, she knows her fate likely lies with a noose unless she can disappear. Fleeing with a bounty on her head, she escapes with her maid to the uncharted territories of Colorado to build a new life with a new name. Although the story of the murderess in New York is common gossip, Catherin’s false identity serves her well as she fills in as a temporary army doctor. But in a land unknown, so large yet so small, a female doctor can only hide for so long.

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

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