author Fiona Vetch Smith, building a historical world for readers, creating historical fiction characters, Fiona Vetch Smith author of Pilate's daughter, novels based on biblical stories, novels set in biblical times, what differentiates historical and contemporary fiction, what makes historical fiction unique, writing historical fiction
Formerly a journalist, Fiona Veitch Smith now writes novels, theatre plays, and screenplays. Her mystery series, Poppy Denby Investigates, is set in the 1920s. Fiona has recently written Pilate’s Daughter, a tale of star-crossed lovers. Welcome to A Writer of History, Fiona.
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’?
I know it’s a cliché, but historical fiction ‘brings the past to life’. I remember reading it as a teenager and discovering that history – the often dry stuff we learned at school – was about real people who really lived. They were people I could identify with, and, through my imagination, was able to travel back in time and live their stories with them. As I grew up I discovered that some of my favourite authors were criticized for historical inaccuracies. But, and don’t shoot me here, ‘accuracy’ of fact is not as important to me as ‘authenticity’ of experience. A book that draws me in and gets a few facts wrong, is far better in my opinion than one that gets everything ‘right’ but does not connect with me emotionally.
So I think what the best authors do is create characters we can identify with. That we can feel what it’s like to be them … and then put them in a richly evoked – through sights, sounds, smells and tastes – ‘alien’ world. The characters should be brought to life emotionally, and their world sensually. Add to this an understanding of the social, economic, political and cultural context in which they live – without allowing it to overpower the story – then I think you’ve got a winner.
Are historical novels inherently different from contemporary novels, and if so, in what ways?
People read historical novels to immerse themselves in a bygone age. We have a fascination with our past and instinctively don’t want to be cut off from it. That’s why all pre-literate cultures have an oral storytelling tradition that keeps each generation connected to those who have gone before. Historical fiction – and creative non-fiction – performs the same function. So yes, we read these books to enjoy a good yarn, but I believe they perform a much deeper function than that. That’s what makes them different to contemporary novels.
What aspects about the past do you specifically try to highlight in your novel(s)?
Your readers might be surprised to hear that I always consider the present – the contemporary world around me – when deciding what to highlight in my historical novels. When doing general reading into a historical period, I look for issues and situations that have a modern, contemporary resonance. I look for things that can contrast with the way they are today; perhaps that readers can say: ‘Gosh! Look how far we’ve come!’ Or the opposite: ‘Oh dear, the more things change the more they stay the same.’ All of my historical books – four published so far, one due out later this year – have all focused on the issue of outsiders in society and how they are able to overcome societal and inter-personal opposition to achieve their potential. I have looked at this issue in Apartheid South Africa (The Peace Garden), Edwardian and 1920s Britain (The Jazz Files and The Kill Fee), and now, in my latest book, first century Palestine (Pilate’s Daughter).
Women play a large part in the stories I choose to write. Apart from the one set in Apartheid South Africa, the primary ‘outsiders’ in all my books are women. The connection with today is of course the continued journey towards equality of opportunity that is sadly still very variable. In a similar vein, ‘class’ is something that attracts me too, and how the accident of one’s birth will affect the opportunities available to you.
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?
As I also write for stage and screen, my writing tends to be very visual. One reviewer said she could almost ‘see’ the story as if it were being acted out on stage. Just as I create the mis en scene in a play or film, by selecting representative costumes, props, music and actions to evoke a sense of period, I do the same in my novels. I absorb myself in the music, fashion, art, architecture, cuisine, theatre etc of the period. There are lots of collections online, plus books to read and museum exhibits to visit. In addition I like to ‘hear’ the voices of people who actually lived in the period I’m writing about. I read books and memoirs written by those who lived at the same time. In terms of my new Roman / Jewish book, I have read Josephus and Herodotus as well as letters and ‘writings’ by women of the period (in translation, obviously!) – as well as the Gospel stories. This helps me with dialogue – but, more importantly, my understanding of the mindset of the real people who lived in the time I am writing about.
Conflict and plotting are something that all good writers should be able to turn their hands to, not just historical novelists. Again though, my experience in scriptwriting is most useful, as scripts are structured primarily around conflict and plot. Hence I draw on scriptwriting technique – particularly three-act-structure – in my novel writing too.
What aspects do you feel need to be included when you are building a past world for your readers?
I build my worlds in concentric circles. The outer circle is the social, political, religious, economic and historical backdrop within which my story takes place. This needs to be dealt with lightly as it can easily overpower a story. The trick is to provide enough for readers who really like to get their teeth into the ‘history’ of the period, but not enough to weigh down readers who are more interested in the genre element: ie the romance or the mystery. But you can’t please all the people all the time. I also try to use recognisable historical events and – at times – real historical characters that can help set the scene for the reader. This allows them to bring their existing understanding of what happened in the period as a foundation on which I can build.
The next circle in will include the ‘props’ that the characters interact with – the vehicles, the food, the clothing etc, as well as the social mores and style of dialogue.
Finally, the innermost circle is the emotional core of the characters. This is the most speculative of the three circles as no one really knows what it felt like to live in a particular period. We can get glimpses of it through diaries and memoirs, but these still need to be filtered through our own emotional experience of what it is like to be a human being today.
Do you see any particular trends in HF?
I think we are seeing more novels about women in history that are not just ‘simple romances’. For too long women featured in historical novels either as the love interest or the pursuer of love. Although my book Pilate’s Daughter is a romance – and the success or failure of the key relationships is the structural core of the book – it is more about women as real people in history and the active role they played in shaping it. The book is about far more than whether or not the girl and boy live happily ever after. I see this as a welcome trend in historical fiction with books such as Paula Maclain’s Circling the Sun and Emily Holleman’s Cleopatra’s Shadow, as well as Michelle Moran’s books, being very good examples. Like Pilate’s Daughter, they mix real historical women and fictional ones and show them as more than just the object or pursuer of love.
Please tell us a little about your latest novel.
Pilate’s Daughter (Endeavour Press, 2017) is set against the Roman occupation of Palestine in the first century. Claudia Lucretia Pilate, the daughter of the governor of Judea, falls in love with Judah ben Hillel, a young Jewish Zealot who has been tasked to kill her. But Claudia is promised to a dashing young Tribune whose job it is to rid Palestine of the Zealot problem, and to complicate matters further, is having an affair with a conniving slave who is set on getting rid of Claudia. In the meantime a Jewish prophet from Galilee has been stirring up trouble, claiming to be the long-awaited Messiah. Judah is torn between following the prophet and eloping with Claudia, and as the last days of Jesus come to a head in Jerusalem, so does the destiny of the four lovers. The lives of the lesser-known characters of the gospels rub shoulders with fictional characters in this historical Roman romance. The Pilates, the Herods, Barabbas, Caiphas and Judas Iscariot are shown not just as walk-on parts in the Jesus story, but as real people struggling to reconcile love and duty in one of the most volatile periods of history.
Many thanks, Fiona. You’ve given us many interesting ideas on the craft of historical fiction. One perspective I particularly like your notion of concentric circles! Good luck with Pilate’s Daughter. It sounds like just the kind of novel I enjoy.
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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.