What makes historical fiction tick with author Rhys Bowen

Author Rhys Bowen’s latest novel, In Farleigh Field, was inspired by WWII code-breaking centre Bletchley Park. Today she gives her thoughts on what makes historical fiction tick.

Q: What are the magic ingredients that make historical fiction so unforgettable and irresistible? And in your opinion, what do the best historical fiction writers do to “get it right”?

A: My aim, when I write historical fiction is to take the readers there and let them experience the time and place for themselves, not just to tell them about it. No quoting of a lot of facts to show I’ve done my research. One mother, fighting to hold back tears when she receives a telegram about her son being lost at sea tells the reader more about U-boat casualties than any statistic.

I want my characters to be true creatures of their time, not just Miss Marple in long skirts. How they think and act may not be how we would see things.

Among the best writers, I think of Steven Saylor taking us to a galley in Ancient Rome, rowed by slaves. The boy on the end of the great oar is so small that when the oar is rotated he is lifted clean off the ground. A powerful visual picture. I love learning small but salient facts of everyday life. That they used urine to bleach togas in Rome.

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

A: Basic human emotions are always the same. A story of good and evil is always the same. The historical writer has to juggle with making sensibilities and prejudices true to the time while not overly offending the reader. I get letters from time to time criticizing me for the things I say about a certain race. I write back, “I didn’t say that. A person who lived 100 years ago said it.” 

Q: Most of your novels are set in time periods other than the present era. What aspects about the past do you specifically try to highlight in your books?

A: I suppose it is always the social history: the relationship between the classes, between men and women, rich and poor. How life really was. That is what I want to achieve.

The Molly Murphy series is set in New York in the early 1900s. I try to portray the immigrant experience, the sights, sounds, smells of a crowded city, the contrast between haves and have nots. The Royal Spyness books are set in the 1930s, and in those books, in addition to entertaining my reader, I focus on the British class system as well as the underlying tensions in Europe that will one day lead to war.

And in In Farleigh Field, my new standalone novel, I want to show the impact of war on life in rural England. Also the strain on those who worked in secret occupations who could share their work with nobody. 

Q: 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? Do you have any fun anecdotes from the research you did for In Farleigh Field?

A: Obviously it is important that dialogue and social behavior ring true to the time. It annoys me when I read a historical novel and find characters casually calling each other by their first name. Such rules were so strict in the past. My grandmother lived next door to a woman for 20 years and they addressed each other as Mrs, even though they were good friends.

I read biographies of characters who might appear in my books. I read novels set in the time period. A good novel gives me the feel for the dialogue of the time. I go to the scene of my book. I spent time at Bletchley Park, Churchill’s war rooms, the Imperial War museum that had recreations of war time living rooms, ration books, fashion.

And for In Farleigh Field, I came with a lot of knowledge. I was born toward the end of the war. I had personal stories from my family. Also I lived with my grandmother and great aunt and remember the way that they spoke and their manners. My husband comes from an aristocratic family who once owned houses like Farleigh. I know the manners and opinions of the upper class well. A fun piece of research? Seeing Alan Turing’s teddy bear. He kept it on his desk while he invented the computer at Bletchley. I thought that was lovely. And so many good personal stories about the women who worked there.

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

A: The physical description, both of character and place. Accurate dialogue, faithful character interaction and thought—in short, you need to build a complete world.

Q: Do you see any particular trends in historical fiction?

A: Apart from Tudor, Tudor, and more Tudor, you mean? I think that both World Wars have become really popular. The first half of the 20th century is fascinating for many people, because in some ways it was so similar to our lives and in other ways it is so different. I think we want to make sense of our own world by reading about theirs.

Q: Can you tell us a little about In Farleigh Field and what you find so compelling about the WWII era? 

A: In Farleigh Field is a thriller set at the home of an English lord and his family during the early days of WWII. It starts with a man who literally falls from the sky when his parachute fails to open and lands in Lord Westerham’s field. So the thriller aspect of the story is “Who he was and why he had been sent?” But the plot follows Lord Westerham’s five daughters as they are all caught up in various aspects of the war. One is spying in France, another working at Bletchley Park. We see what living in wartime means to a country village and its inhabitants. We see what it means when someone is not allowed to divulge what they are doing for the war effort. Oh, and there is an undercurrent of romantic interest going on!

I find the period so fascinating because I think it was the last time we had a real concept of good and evil. Evil had to be stopped or it would swallow the world. Everyone was dedicated to “doing their bit” even if it meant sacrifice. This noble feeling of joint purpose was wonderful.

Many thanks, Rhys for adding your thoughts to the topic. Urine to bleach togas in Rome – how intriguing. Best wishes for In Farleigh Field. 

IN FARLEIGH FIELD by Rhys Bowen – World War II comes to Farleigh Place, the ancestral home of Lord Westerham and his five daughters, when a soldier with a failed parachute falls to his death on the estate. After his uniform and possessions raise suspicions, MI5 operative and family friend Ben Cresswell is covertly tasked with determining if the man is a German spy. The assignment also offers Ben the chance to be near Lord Westerham’s middle daughter, Pamela, whom he furtively loves. But Pamela has her own secret: she has taken a job at Bletchley Park, the British code-breaking facility.

As Ben follows a trail of spies and traitors, which may include another member of Pamela’s family, he discovers that some within the realm have an appalling, history-altering agenda. Can he, with Pamela’s help, stop them before England falls?

Inspired by the events and people of World War II, writer Rhys Bowen crafts a sweeping and riveting saga of class, family, love, and betrayal.

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 www.mktod.com.

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4 Responses

  1. “I didn’t say that; a person from 100 Years ago said that.” This is so true. The diffrence between a racist book and a realistic book is if you make your characters exhibit the prejudices that were rampant at the time while looking at those prejudices critically.

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