S.M. (Stuart) Harris is the author of The Northeast Quarter. He began writing professionally for the theater in 1991 when he was invited by the Ensemble Studio Theatre in New York to attend a summer conference. Several of his plays have been produced Off Broadway and around the country. Stuart put playwriting on hold in order to weave the story of generations of Iowan farmers into his new historical novel.
M.K. Tod: 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’?
S.M. Harris: One of the ‘magic ingredients’ is to find an identifiably human element in the characters or the issues of the conflict which resonate today. It’s easy to view the past from the outside and forget what it meant to the people involved. It’s the job of the author to put a quiet emphasis on these human elements without calling attention to it. Not an easy task because sometimes the author will go too far and place a contemporary interpretation over past events and turn the characters into mouthpieces for today’s issues.
Are historical novels inherently different from contemporary novels, and if so, in what ways?
Historical novels are definitely different because, like it or not, they do have to follow a script of events. Like building a ship in a bottle, the author still has freedom to develop and create, but within limits.
What aspects about the past do you specifically try to highlight in your novel(s)?
The Northeast Quarter is set between 1918 and 1929. A period of economic change and turmoil. What interested me was the Great Depression slowly began in the rural areas before anyone in the big cities was aware of it. Since my novel is set in the rural areas, I tried to highlight the quiet encroachment of disaster. For example the scene of the first foreclosure is not described as a dramatic thunderclap. Some farmers visit a neighbor and simply discover a vacant farmhouse with a foreclosure notice in the front yard. The furniture is gone and the keys have been tossed on the floor a short distance from the doorway. As the story progresses, we see more and more foreclosure notices dotting the countryside. My interest is on how the other characters react to this. There’s a lot of financial chicanery and backstabbing, but all the while, we know the historical catastrophe which lies ahead. A little like watching a high stakes poker game on the Titanic.
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?
In the case of The Northeast Quarter, I had family papers and journals. I also had first person testimonials from many of the people who lived through these times. For technical data I had history books and on-line research. The challenge was to keep the dialogue balanced between the more formal speech patterns of the period and the more relaxed speech of today. Fortunately, The Northeast Quarter began as a three-act play in The Works-In-Progress Playwrights Lab at Manhattan Theatre Club Studios in New York. We had several readings in the workshop and I was able to hear my lines spoken by actors.
What aspects do you feel need to be included when you are building a past world for your readers?
You have to get back to that human link which makes the past identifiable (and therefore live) for the modern reader. I kept my (fictional) protagonist’s situation pretty basic. She has a mission: to keep a promise to her grandfather. To do that, she gets run through the mill before finally succeeding. Betrayal, banishment, physical violence before eventual triumph. These are identifiable to readers of any time period.
Do you see any particular trends in HF?
I like historical fiction. One trend I find questionable is the temptation to relate a past event through a modern prism. To me it doesn’t work. For example, having Davy Crocket as an incipient peace activist at The Alamo doesn’t work. Reinterpreting the past in such a way usually dilutes the narrative, where in the end, both history and fiction lose.
Please tell us a little about your latest novel.
I have always like the works of Edna Ferber, particularly her multi-generational family sagas like Giant or Ice Palace. A typical Ferber narrative would begin with a trapper discovering a gold nugget and end 50 years later, with the man a grandfather and the newly elected senator of the district. I decided to write a Ferber-type novel set in Iowa. To make it different, I turned the traditional Ferber narrative upside down. I begin with the empire and end with the few survivors recovering and starting to build again.
The Northeast Quarter by S.M. Harris
Do you want revenge or do you want your land back?”
Winfield, Iowa. 1918. Colonel Wallace Carson, the ruler of a vast agricultural empire, asks Ann Hardy, his ten year old granddaughter and eventual heir, to promise she will safeguard The Northeast Quarter, the choice piece of land from which the empire was founded. Ann readily accepts – little knowing what awaits her. When The Colonel is killed unexpectedly the same afternoon, the world around Ann and her family begins to fall apart.
Against the background of America sliding from a post-war boom into The Great Depression, The Northeast Quarter tells the story of Ann’s struggle to keep a promise no matter what. She witnesses the remarriage of her grandmother to Royce Chamberlin, the seemingly humble banker who institutes a reign of terror over the household and proceeds to corrupt the entire town.
Many thanks for being on the blog today, Stuart, and best wishes for the success of your novel.
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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, 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, Nook, Kobo, Google Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.