We have an interview today with award-winning historical fiction author Michelle Cox whose latest novel, A RING OF TRUTH, published on Tuesday, April 4, 2017. Michelle calls the interview History Imagined – a great title for the series on what makes historical fiction tick.
Welcome to A Writer of History, Michelle.
Q: What are the “magic ingredients” that make historical fiction unforgettable/irresistible?
A: I think the magic ingredients are the details. People who like to read historical fiction want to be transported to another time and place, and the way to really make that happen for them is to employ all of their senses. It’s almost like building a movie set. Little things placed in just the right place make it convincing: the smell of bread baking, the crackling of the kindling in the fireplace, the feel of the glass doorknob, the sound of a horse pawing the ground. This is what makes a good story better and certainly more memorable.
And in your opinion, what do the best historical fiction writers do to “get it right”?
Well, along those same lines . . . planting detail and description isn’t just a matter of sprinkling them around and hoping it works. It has to be done carefully. Details have to be woven in seamlessly, so that it doesn’t come off as a contemporary novel dressed up in historical costume. Also, an author needs to give just enough description, but not so much that it weighs the reader down and interrupts the flow. This is quickly a turn-off to most readers, who end up just skimming over this part anyway.
While it’s true that Dickens or his contemporaries might have taken a whole paragraph (or even a page!) to describe a chair or a tree or a landscape, none of that is really needed for the modern reader. Perhaps it was welcome reading in the Victorian age because there were so few visuals. The modern person, however, has probably cataloged thousands and thousands and thousands of images of a chair, so when we read “the straight-backed wobbly chair,” that’s enough for us to get the picture and go. Popular historical fiction writers understand this and use it accordingly.
Are historical novels inherently different from contemporary novels, and if so, in what ways?
Certainly! The most obvious difference is the frame-of-mind of the characters, especially women. I think it’s the main challenge in writing historical fiction. Obviously, you have to also keep a close eye on the language used, i.e. no modern slang or phrasing, but you also have to keep in front of you what a realistic world view would have been for your characters.
This is a bit tricky because readers have to also connect to the characters in some way. So a medieval peasant woman who longs for an education, independence and fair treatment from the opposite sex isn’t all that convincing, and yet it might be hard for readers to connect with her if she’s just a mindless drone, making stew and sheering the sheep day after day with no thoughts on her mind besides concern for her gangrenous toe . . . . There’s a delicate balance there!
What aspects about the past do you specifically try to highlight in your novel(s)?
My novels are more about ordinary people than historical figures or specific events. In book one of the series, A Girl Like You, I try to highlight what it would have been like for a poor urban family during the Great Depression. This era is usually dominated by gangster and noir stories, but I wanted to show another aspect of this time period as well as another setting. So many books which involve the Great Depression tend to center on the Dust Bowl region and what was happening there. This, I hope, is a different take.
Meanwhile, the second book in the series, A Ring of Truth, explores the exact opposite. What would it have been like to be part of the wealthy, gilded set during this age, clinging to a past that was fast disappearing?
A lot of what I write about is that contrast between rich and poor, the haves and the have-nots, all the while illustrating, I hope, that not everything was so black and white.
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?
Er . . . read a lot! I think I spent from roughly age ten to age forty reading mostly classic literature. I stopped after giving birth to my third child, when my brain officially turned to utter mush. Somewhat reluctantly, I turned to contemporary fiction, taking solace in historical fiction as the next closest thing to the classics—at least they were set in the same eras!
Spending so much time in the classics, however, has made me keenly aware and thus critical (in a good and a bad way) of the various attempts of contemporary authors to replicate the language, mannerisms, details and mindsets of the past. Some obviously do it better than others, and I learned a lot from observing both the brilliant imitators as well as the rather clumsy.
Somewhat related is my other secret form of research, which is to watch period dramas. Being an Anglophile my whole life and then somehow marrying a Brit, I think I can safely say that I’ve watched almost every period drama to come out of the BBC or PBS. And, as with anything, the devil is in the details. Some seem to do it better than others, and it has been helpful to visually observe what works and what doesn’t. Watching a period series has also helped me to learn good pacing, but that’s another story . . .
Specifically for the Henrietta and Inspector Howard series, however, I have had fun looking online for photos and maps of the way neighborhoods in Chicago used to look and along the way spotted a lot of little things as well: the way ordinary people dressed, what they carried in their hands on the way home from work, what the shops had in the windows. I also lived for several years on Chicago’s northwest side, and during that time I was fortunate in being able to interview many people who had grown up in that area in the 1930’s and 40’s. They were an absolute treasure trove of information. One elderly woman, in particular, mesmerized me so much with the fantastic stories of her life, that I “borrowed” several elements from her and used them to craft the back story of my heroine, Henrietta Von Harmon.
What aspects do you feel need to be included when you are building a past world for your readers?
I think it’s important to connect people to tangible things to make the past real, to make your movie set, as it were, become a real world. For example, people really seem to like to read about clothing, food and weather for some reason—perhaps because they are three things that touch us directly every day. So I try to bring those elements into my novels. What would someone have ordered at the Woolworth’s lunch counter, for instance? Are their trousers made of wool or serge? Can the sound of Benny Goodman on the wireless in the next room be heard through the rain pelting on the thick glass of the windows?
Using these small details to elicit an emotional or visual response in the reader makes for a convincing recreation of the past. You have to make the reader believe they are really there, that they have somehow traveled back in time. The problem is how to do this in a succinct way. The modern reader’s attention span is so minute that you have very little space to unlock that vast catalog of images which I referred to above.
Do you see any particular trends in HF?
There seems to be a ton of WWII novels out there, and it seems stories set around the first World War are becoming popular now as well. Also, there seems to be a trend for the last several years for novels to run two story lines that jump back and forth in time. It’s hard to categorize these books, I think, because they aren’t straight up historical fiction, but not exactly contemporary either. Personally, I love them, but I think they’re hard to do well, because ideally you want the reader to be invested in both worlds and it’s difficult to write both convincingly.
Please tell us a little about your latest novel.
I’d love to! A Ring of Truth is the second book in the Henrietta and Inspector Howard series, set in Chicago in the 1930’s. Spoiler alert if you haven’t read Book 1 (A Girl Like You) because this book picks up right where that one leaves off . . .
Now that they’re engaged to be married, Henrietta and Clive have to figure out how this is all going to work, especially since they don’t know each other all that well.
Clive reveals that he’s actually the son of a very wealthy family in the northern suburbs and takes Henrietta to his family estate, Highbury, to meet them. She ends up agreeing to stay there for a few weeks to get to know them better while Clive returns to his police work in the city. Naturally, she feels more at home with the servants than she does Clive’s snooty parents and soon gets involved in finding an elderly servant’s missing ring. The plot thickens, though, when it becomes apparent that Henrietta has uncovered something more sinister than she first imagined. When Clive finally does return from the city for their engagement party, things begin to quickly unravel between the two of them, forcing them to reconsider whether they are really meant for each other after all…
Many thanks for your insights, Michelle. I wish you great success with A Ring of Truth.
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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.