What Makes Historical Fiction Tick – with Donna Russo Morin

Today is release day for The Competition, Donna Russo Morin‘s second novel in the Da Vinci’s Disciples trilogy. And today I’m delighted to have Donna on the blog discussing what makes historical fiction tick. Over to you, Donna.

What are the ‘magic ingredients’ that make historical fiction unforgettable or irresistible to readers?

Stir together characters that are recognizable and relatable no matter that they lived hundreds of years ago, a fascinating/traumatic/life-changing moment in history, and a perfectly recreated setting.

As a top historical fiction writer, what techniques do you employ to create that magic?

First, thank you for such a complimentary status. When a story unfolds in my mind, it’s as if I’m watching a movie, and I put everything I see down on paper. There’s a fine line between enough description and too much. The key, for me, is to weave all the historical events, lifestyle particulars, and period appropriate character behavior seamlessly into the narrative via dialogue, internal monologues, and action, anything but simple plops of description. The most powerful insertion of historical information comes when it is disguised as something else; it’s what I strive for in each and every book.

How are historical novels inherently different from contemporary novels?

Mark Twain said, “The difference between history and fiction is that fiction has to be believed.’ A truer statement has never been spoken. It’s a greater challenge for the historical novelist to suspend the disbelief of their readers as the people and their lives are so far removed from modern day life. Consequently, the historical novelist needs to make the past so alive that today’s reader can relate, can immerse themselves so deeply in the work, it becomes inconsequential that it took place hundreds of years ago.

What aspects about the past do you specifically try to highlight in your novels?

It has been a recurring theme in all of my books (six so far) to highlight strong women who dare to break the constraints imposed by the social mores of their time period. My Da Vinci’s Disciples trilogy (PORTRAIT OF A CONSPIRACY, May 2016; THE COMPETITION, April 25, 2017; BONFIRE OF THE VANITIES, Spring 2018) is the story of a secret society of women artists, under the tutelage of the great Leonardo da Vinci, who must navigate the treacherous life of 15th century Florence while trying to bring their artistry to the world. Every one of the women in this society is based on real women in my life, including myself. I try to shine a light on the fact that the struggles of gender are as true today as they were in centuries past…and that we still have a long road to travel.

In writing historical fiction, what techniques do you use to ensure that conflict, plot, setting, dialogue, and characters are true to the time period?

I need to know the period as if I’ve lived it. In addition to months of academic research, I read novels written in the period, contemporary novels of the era. For example, if a writer a hundred years from now wants to write about this time period, they may want to read Richard Russo’s Empire Falls. One book of distinction for me has been Il Cortegiano (The Book of the Courtier) written by Baldassare Castiglione in 1507. It’s an extraordinary glimpse into Renaissance life. It is a series of fictional conversation between factual personages, such as the Duke of Urbino and other nobles. Over the course of four evenings, members of the court try to describe the perfect courtly gentleman. They debate the nature of nobility, humor, women, and love. The truth of the time is all there. Though the archaic language can be difficult to plow through, the benefits are more than worth the time.

Have other writers of historical fiction influenced you and, if so, how?

I cut my teeth on Margaret Mitchell, James Michener, John Jakes, Rosalind Laker, and most recently, Diana Gabaldon. In all instances, these authors wrote epic sagas. Their world building is impeccable and with every book I write, I strive to match that authority. I still write ‘big’ books, as they did, which are no longer as popular as they once were. My agent and editor are constantly asking for cuts; a terrible wound for a writer. It is my challenge to world-build as successfully as the writers mentioned above, but with far less words.

If I’ve learned one thing from these writers more than any other, it’s that it is the function of the non-fiction history book writer to tell us what happened and where; it is the goal of every historical novelist to tell us how it felt.

Many thanks, Donna. You write in a time period and setting that many would find very difficult! Congratulations and best wishes for your latest novel.

The Competition by Donna Russo Morin – In a studiolo behind a church, six women gather to perform an act that is, at once, restorative, powerful, and illegal: they paint.
Under the tutelage of Leonardo da Vinci, these six show talent and drive equal to that of any man, but in Renaissance Florence, they must hide their skills, or risk the scorn of the church, the city, and the law.
A commission to paint a fresco in the church of Santo Spirito is about to be announced and Florence’s countless artists each seek the fame and glory this lucrative job will provide. Viviana, a noblewoman freed from a terrible marriage, and now able to pursue her artistic passions, sees a potential life-altering opportunity for herself and her fellow artists. The women first speak to Lorenzo de Medici himself, and finally, they submit a bid for the right to paint it. And they win. The very public commission belongs to them.
But with the victory comes a powerful cost. The church will not stand for women painting, especially not in a house of worship

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The historical fiction author behind A Writer of History...

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6 Responses

  1. Donna, thanks for being so clear. I wonder if you’d take one thought a little deeper.

    You write: “Every one of the women in this society is based on real women in my life, including myself. I try to shine a light on the fact that the struggles of gender are as true today as they were in centuries past…and that we still have a long road to travel.”

    There are writers who appear to have a different take and insist that characters should not take on modern attitudes. That seems like a bit of a pickle to navigate (mixing the culinary and naval metaphors there).

    How would you engage the objection that historical fiction is only historical if it reflects mores of “the times”?

    Thanks! Chris

    1. Hi Chris,

      That’s a great question and one I run up against on many occasions. First, I think it important to note that I am a ‘child of the 60s;’ I was born n the 50s, which allowed me to be a wide-eyed spectator and (at a rather young age) an activist in the civil rights movement and the feminist movement. It shaped my attitudes and cemented them.

      But that’s not all there is to it. As a lifelong student of history, it’s impossible to say, ‘the women of the 60s broke new ground and changed women’s lives forever.’ It’s an improbability of the highest order. Those women stood on the shoulders of the Suffragettes, and the Suffragettes stood on the women who came before and so on.

      If we look back in history, we find that women were not only marginalized, they were considered property, owned by their fathers and then their husbands. There were actual laws that allowed both men to beat these women did they not obey. There is no possibility that we have traveled from those conditions to modern day without other women who wanted more, strove for more. WE JUST DON’T KNOW ABOUT THEM BECAUSE HISTORY, AS WE LEARN IT TODAY, WAS WRITTEN BY WHITE MEN ABOUT WHITE MEN. The evolution of women has been left out of most history as if they didn’t exist. For example, do you know who Victoria Woodhull is? You should, but were never taught about her.

      What all this (sorry to have run on, one of my favorite topics to discuss) is that it is an illogical notion to think that ALL women in every past era were subservient without ambitions of their own. For the female gender to have evolved, we must accept the premise that, throughout time, there were women fighting for more, more freedom, more rights, more education, more options…even if we were never taught about them. They HAD TO EXIST FOR US TO BE WHERE WE ARE TODAY. They are the unmarked stepping stones.

      It is my goal, in almost every book I’ve written, to shine a light on these women whose lives have been kept in the dark, to hypothesize these lives and show their place in the journey of gender equality.

      My historical fiction is historical because I do reflect the mores of ‘the times,’ I simply choose to show those who fought against them rather than those who simply acquiesced to them. With THE COMPETITION especially, it brings into stark focus the strict mores of the era and the challenging–often dangerous–consequences for those who tried to break them. I try to put a face on all those women, throughout the centuries, who were there, who achieved, and who changed the course of women’s lives, and yet were ignored in ‘true’ history.

      Again, sorry for such a long answer; but thank you for allowing me to rant on about this subject that I find so very crucial.


      1. Donna, no need to apologize for a passionate feeling expressed with a clear thought. Well put. Perhaps a way to generalize the issue is for us to remember that all historical documents as de facto partial. Or, just because a fact is not recorded (preserved and retrieved) doesn’t mean there were no specific human events that contributed to macro changes in the long arc of societal development. It seems to me that the case your making requires the author to provide a reasonably accurate historical framework against which a protagonist resists … so that something “new” happens … whether or not the innovation is sustained.
        This leads to such stimulating conversation! Thanks so much for your clear and passionate response. Chris

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