Inside Historical Fiction with J.B. Rivard

illusions-of-magic-jbrivardJ. B. Rivard, author of Illusions of Magic, is a creative man. He’s written songs as well as orchestral works, exhibited award-winning paintings and etchings, worked as a reporter and journalist, published cartoons and illustrations, written novels and short stories. Today he talks about 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’?

JB: Historical fiction has the potential to relate more closely to readers’ actual experience by transforming the often dull, complex, or mundane events and conditions of history into exciting, dramatic reading. To make this successful, good historical fiction writers bring honed skills of storytelling together with a judicious infusion of authentic history to forge a creative and exciting combination. And a little humor never hurts:

Connie said, “…Hizzonor has given his ‘enforcers’ orders to take out the Mob.” She stood before the oval mirror in the Horn front parlor, teasing at her hair with a fountain pen. “They’re [the Mob] not going to rest easy with that.”

Noddy stopped, her crochet hooks poised above the ball of blue yarn. “You mean to clean up Al Capone’s old gang?”

Liver Jack stuck his cigar into the side of his mouth. “Well, the Chicago Times says—”

“You mean the Chicago Daily Times,” Noddy said, correcting him.

“Yes, yes, Noddy. The Chicago Daily Times says Zangara—the shooter—was trying to assassinate this guy Roosevelt. That he’s some kind of socialist nut.”

Connie said, “You mean Zangara is some kind of socialist nut.”

Liver Jack frowned at her. “For crying out loud, isn’t that what I just said?”

“No. It sounded like Mr. Roosevelt was the socialist nut. And Mr. Roosevelt is not just a guy, Jack. He’s the President-elect.” – from Chapter 6, Illusions of Magic

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

Most historical novels are more restrictive than contemporary novels. The HF writer often portrays a true-life event or situation during its time, either as background for a fictional story, or as a fictional re-creation of that historical event or situation. This contrasts with contemporary novels, which suffer no such restriction. I grew up spending time as a youth in Chicago, and was drawn to its fascinating stories. When I came across the events surrounding Mayor Cermak’s wounding and death, I knew I had three weeks of drama to explore in the form of a novel.

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

For me, the aspects to be highlighted depend on the nature of the story line. Because Illusions of Magic is set in Chicago during the Great Depression year of 1933, I highlighted the city’s desperate financial condition and its legions of unemployed. The novel’s protagonist is a magician, so I emphasized conjuring as practiced by magicians of the day. Finally, it was crucially important to highlight the turmoil that beset the City Council: They faced the death of Chicago’s mayor without a legal way to replace him.

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 use two techniques. First, I try to read as much actual history of the period and location as allows me to understand its milieu, appearances, culture and language. Second, I locate and study as many photo, illustration, map and other visual resources as are available from the period and location. Combined in my imagination, these components help me create the elements needed for the story.

For example, before its demolition in the 1980s, the Chicago and NorthWestern Railway Terminal occupied the block on Madison from Canal Street to Clinton Street. Easily the most monumental structure on the city’s Near West Side, its waiting room served as many as 50,000 passengers a day. Old photographs enabled me to determine its appearance and understand its layout and functions. This equipped me, in the final chapter of my novel, to describe how a character, “…seeing his mother coming into Northwestern depot’s street-level lobby from the Canal Street side, leaped from the steps, raced across to where she’d stopped—unbelieving, tears coming—while Liver Jack stood by confused, holding the travel bag…”

This knowledge also allowed me to imagine and create a drawing of the interior of the immense 12-track train shed that stretched for the length of three football fields to the north of the terminal.

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

For me, the paramount aspect is creating an authentic setting through description, dialogue, and nuance. For the fiction to be convincing, readers must feel they are actually living in that historic time and place.

For Liver Jack’s house, built after World War I, I envisioned “a snug one-and-a-half story with wide overhanging roof, deep front porch, and three small windows peeking from a front dormer.”

To describe a passing man, I wrote “…a felt hat pulled low over his big nose. Under his arm was a package, perhaps tonight’s sausage or bread in a rolled newspaper tied with a string.”

Finally, to visualize conditions in Cicero, Illinois in 1933: “Mud still seemed to be the main paving material, and where blacktop existed, it cracked and flaked soon after installation.”

Please tell us a little about your latest novel.

Illusions of Magic centers on a true-life, yet little-known historical incident: the attempted assassination of Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1933. The shooter, Giuseppe Zangara, fired five shots but missed Roosevelt. One of several people wounded was Chicago Mayor Anton Cermak. Cermak was hospitalized for nineteen days before dying.

This incident forms the backdrop of the novel featuring struggling professional stage magician Nick Zetner. The story mixes Nick’s love life with a challenging case he takes on for a devious banker. His adventures propel the reader through highs and lows with punchy dialogue and easy humor.

After writing the novel my partner Anya and I discussed a tangent that would, we hoped, make this novel more memorable. Having lived with its fictional characters for a span of years, I knew each like a close friend; over the next several months I created pen and ink illustrations of each of the main characters. To these I added illustrations of particular events. These became the fifteen illustrations in the eBook, including the drawing of Nick that appears on its cover. It’s our attempt to return the illustrated (adult) novel to the popularity it once enjoyed with readers the world over.

A novel with illustrations – how novel! Many thanks for being on A Writer of History, J.B. I wish you great success with Illusions of Magic.

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, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union on August 16, 2016. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website

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4 Responses

  1. This novel sounds great and I will definitely read it. I have followed your blog for a long time now, but never commented before. I began to read a newly published historical novel yesterday and was enjoying it a lot until I reached a sentence that I knew to be incorrect because I live in the city the author was referring to. This has made me now question other historical statements she makes in the novel. I will continue with my reading, because I rarely stop reading a book once I am into it, but some of the pleasure and trust has disappeared. Am I being too picky? I am a voracious reader of historical fiction, even when it was not as popular as it is now. I would love to hear some feed-back from other readers on this. Keep up the good work. By the way, I have read and enjoyed your novels; you are not the author in question!

    1. So glad you enjoy the blog, Cathy and my novels! An interesting point you make about jarring details that you know aren’t true to history. One of the critical things readers look for is historical accuracy – and many of them know a lot about their favourite time periods. You are not too picky at all – historical fiction is a promise to immerse the reader in time and place, a commitment to be as historically accurate as possible. Language is one of the key elements. I saw someone on Facebook complain about a novel set in the 1970s where the author spoke about Advil – not a brand until the 1980s. The reader immediately stopped reading the novel!! All best, Mary

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