Mary Fillmore is the author of An Address in Amsterdam, a novel set during WWII. She is neither Dutch nor Jewish and yet has written a story about the Holocaust and the resistance in the Netherlands. Let’s hear what she has to say about historical fiction.
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’?
Historical fiction sparkles and makes magic when it has the usual elements of a good story – the compelling narrative and characters – PLUS a setting that is lifted as completely and accurately as possible from the past. The best historical fiction writers attend to every detail: not just geography and architecture, but what people ate, drank and wore, their sanitary habits or the lack thereof, the kind of social relationships they engaged in.
Are historical novels inherently different from contemporary novels, and if so, in what ways?
One of the biggest challenges in writing historical fiction is to walk a line between the fallacy of believing that people and their motivations were fundamentally different in the past that they are now – and the fallacy of projecting our own world views backward. I expect contemporary fiction to be situated here and now, to present me with dilemmas I easily recognize from my daily life, to speak in a vernacular that is spoken around me. Historical fiction is much more challenging in that way, because we are trying to reconstruct another world, yet make it recognizable.
What aspects about the past do you specifically try to highlight in your novel(s)?
I tried to write a wonderful story that people can learn from, so that, if “the past is prologue,” we can gain courage and strength for our own times by reading about others. In the case of An Address in Amsterdam, I wanted to highlight both how fast a civilized society can deteriorate as it did under the Nazis, and the courage that ordinary people, especially women, showed in resisting that.
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 spent 13 years researching my novel. In addition to reading straight history and going to innumerable museum exhibits, I read many memoirs and had deep conversations with the person I knew who was closest to the experiences of my characters. I asked for feedback from the Dr. Laureen Nussbaum, a friend and contemporary of Margot Frank’s who is also a scholar of this period, and she generously reviewed the manuscript twice. In many long visits to Amsterdam, I wandered the canals and looked for addresses just as my heroine, Rachel Klein, does in her work as a messenger for the underground. I searched out all kinds of places – the headquarters of the bounty hunters who turned in hidden Jews for money, the original home of the Franks before they hid, the Diamond Workers’ Union Headquarters.
What aspects do you feel need to be included when you are building a past world for your readers?
First, the daily aspects of living the way humans always do: what we eat, what we wear, how we interact, the physical world around us, how we relate to the weather and the other great forces which are around us. But it has to start with the mundane and tangible things a reader can relate to, and identify with or contrast with her or his experience.
Do you see any particular trends in HF?
I see more and more excellent books which educate the reader about another time, but which also hold up as “novel novels.” There will always be a strong market for historical romance and other cross-genre books, but I think the more important trend is toward good novels that are also historical. I think of Sarah Waters’ The Night Watch, one of my favorites, about brave women working during the Blitz in London, and their lives after the war.
Please tell us a little about your latest novel.
An Address in Amsterdam is about a young Jewish woman who risks her life in the anti-Nazi underground. Initially, she is a naïve 18 year old who is falling in love with a Gentile university student. After a complex romance, he must disappear because of his political activities, and Rachel herself witnesses the first roundup of 425 Jewish men, and participates in a city-wide strike to protest it. That spark ignites her desire to “do something,” and for the next year and a half she delivers ever more dangerous papers all over the city. When the situation becomes too dangerous, she and her parents hide in a dank basement, where much is revealed.
Many people are interested in the book now because it depicts how swiftly a civilized society can change – and how an ordinary woman who is afraid can still resist.
Thank you for your thoughts on historical fiction, Mary. Wishing you great success with An Address in Amsterdam. As Mary Fillmore said in an email to me, she has always wondered whether she would have colluded passively, collaborated, or resisted. Food for thought on many counts!
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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.