From Melbourne, Australia, Elise McCune, author of Castle of Dreams and a memoir called From the Heart, gives us her take on writing historical fiction.
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’?
EM: The best historical fiction writers write stories that make you want to turn the next page just like writers of stories set in contemporary times. But they can also choose to write a story set in Ancient Rome or Egypt or one that has a backdrop of war or any other event in history which makes for exciting research and informs the narrative with that same sense of excitement. Like many people I enjoy learning about new places and how people lived in past times. I consider Geraldine Brooks writes perfect historical fiction.
Are historical novels inherently different from contemporary novels, and if so, in what ways?
Historical and contemporary novels are different only in the social and historical mores that are accepted by a particular culture or group of people. People are the same no matter which period of history they lived in. To me the best novels are character driven and I hope my characters in both the historical thread and the contemporary thread of Castle of Dreams are memorable and that the reader can relate to them. I guess I spend more time in researching the past not only for the historical backdrop of my story but also for any particular theme, profession, industry or artistic pursuit that is pertinent to my characters. I also research the contemporary thread carefully because of the advances in technology in the last few decades.
What aspects about the past do you specifically try to highlight in your novel(s)?
I try to blend the history of the era into the background so that it becomes part of the everyday life. People in historical fiction take no special notice of what is familiar to them (as we don’t in our contemporary lives) except if their circumstances suddenly change in some way. In Castle of Dreams after the first shock of knowing Australia was at war people understood that life had to go on and return to a semblance of normal.
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?
For my research I read primary sources like diaries, letters and newspaper reports. I read books written about and of the period I am researching. Trove and Ask a Librarian at the National Library of Australia’s online resources are a valuable source of information. I use Google but online information can be inaccurate so be careful and check more than one source. I use my wonderful local library and inter-library loans for books I don’t necessarily want to keep on my bookshelf or cannot find, and also, I always read bibliographies carefully in each book as they are a source of more information on the subject you are researching and this is something I’m sure most writers would do.
I talk to experts in the area I am writing about. I have a military friend who is also a writer of novels and as one period of Castle of Dreams was set in WW2 during the Pacific War, I asked him many questions and most importantly I know his answers will be correct.
In the end I write the type of book I love to read: complex plot with many layers and two narratives set in two different periods. That way I can show how the past impacts on the present. Passion, intrigue and a family secret at the heart of my story is what I aim for.
I enjoy research so much that I could happily do nothing else!
What aspects do you feel need to be included when you are building a past world for your readers?
I try to see through the eyes of my protagonist and make sure the small, everyday details of her/his surroundings are not made to stand out in anyway. And words to describe things will be different from country to country. For example in the forties a car in England or Australia would have a bumper and in America it would be a fender.
Do you see any particular trends in HF?
YA historical fantasy is very popular with younger (and older) readers and seems to be a growing area of literature.
Please tell us a little about your latest novel.
The seed of the idea for Castle of Dreams came to me when I visited the castle ruins in the far north Queensland rainforest. My daughter had visited Paronella Park where the ruins are once before and she wanted to show it to me and I’m so glad she did. It’s a beautiful place and the little ones in our family loved it as much as we did.
If you click on the link below, you can read the story of how Catalonian immigrant, Jose Paronella came to build the castle in the rainforest in the early 19th century.
Many thanks for being on the blog today, Elise. I wish you every success with Castle of Dreams.
Castle of Dreams
Growing up together in a mysterious castle in northern Queensland, Rose and Vivien Blake are very close sisters. But during World War II their relationship becomes strained when they each fall in love with the same dashing but enigmatic American soldier.
Rose’s daughter, Linda, has long sensed a secret in her mother’s past, but Rose has always resisted Linda’s questions, preferring to focus on the present. Years later Rose’s granddaughter, Stella, also becomes fascinated by the shroud of secrecy surrounding her grandmother’s life. Intent on unraveling the truth, she visits the now-ruined castle where Rose and Vivien grew up to see if she can find out more.
Castle of Dreams is about love, secrets, lies—and the perils of delving into the past.
Mary, thanks for letting me share some of my thoughts on historical fiction.
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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.