Author Robert Masello on writing historical fiction

ROBERT MASELLO is a former New York journalist, Los Angeles television writer, and currently the author of several historical novels, including his most recent, The Night Crossing. Publishers Weekly called it “an interesting alternate history [in which] Masello creatively reimagines the inspiration for Dracula with thrills, frights, and a splendid final confrontation aboard the Titanic.”

How’s that for a story concept? I’m delighted to welcome Robert on publication day for The Night Crossing. Let’s see what he has to say about writing historical fiction.


I never meant to get into this racket. Historical fiction. But nobody believes me when I say that.

Still, I guess the signs were there all along.

In high school, the only subjects that truly interested me were history and English, and as a result, they were the two in which I excelled, winning the prizes in both (a Merriam-Webster dictionary and a copy of Barbara Tuchman’sThe Proud Tower.  I became a lifelong devotee of Tuchman, though the dictionary has long since disintegrated.)

I wrote some contemporary novels over the years, set among the struggling writers and musicians and artists of New York – a world I knew all too well – but it wasn’t until I went sort of crazy and embarked upon a supernatural, dual-narrative story about the Crimean War and, in the present-day, an Antarctic research station that I found myself truly engaged. When I was asked what I was working on, and I tried to explain, people looked at me like I’d lost my mind. I’d get a pat on the shoulder, a sympathetic glance, and a “whatever lights your fire” kind of comment. That book —Blood and Ice— was, I’m relieved to report, published by Random House and other houses all over the world, and at least nobody acts like I’ve gone off the rails anymore when I tell them my latest strange inspiration.

The Night Crossing is the most recent evidence of my penchant for mixing history and mystery, fact and fiction. Its protagonist is Bram Stoker and it purports to be the true story behind the creation of his 1897 masterpiece, Dracula. Oh yeah, I might not have made clear that I like my tales to be generously spiced with the supernatural. So this one was the ideal brew, allowing me to wallow in research of the late Victorian era and at the same time read lots of spooky stuff turned out by Stoker and some of his contemporaries.

Therein lies the danger, however, for writers of historical fiction. You can get lost in the research. You go down into the archives and only turn up again twenty years later, blinking at the sunlight, with shaggy hair and curling fingernails. Not to mention the fact that you’ve missed your deadline by maybe a decade. For The Night Crossing, I devoured a couple of biographies of Stoker –Something in the Blood by David J. Skal was indispensable –and a handful of books about the Titanic, on the decks of which the climax of the novel takes place in 1912. But then I forced myself to stop. (If you wanted to read everything ever written about the Titanic, you would never be seen again.) What I want as a writer is to be able to provide a convincing sense of immersion in the era; what I want as a reader of historical fiction is to enjoy that immersion without ever feeling that I’ve stumbled into an “information dump,” an unmediated regurgitation of the research that the author performed and, because authors do get inordinately attached to their fact-finding work, can’t resist including.  Lest I fall victim to it myself (and I’m sure I have at times), I always try to remind myself that less is more, and that the telling detail is worth a whole page of exposition.

For instance, the very fact that Stoker, desperate to become an author and not just the dog’s body to Henry Irving, the most famous actor of his day, quietly underwrote an illustrated publication of his own volume of short stories, entitled Under the Sunset, told me so much about the man himself.  Or the fact that the lookouts on the Titanic that fateful night did not have a pair of binoculars on hand. (Afterwards, it was mandated.) Or that London society at the time, in the grips of what might be called Egypt-mania, often enjoyed mummy-unwrapping parties, where the hosts desecrated the ancient remains:

“The corpse, tightly bound in discolored linen, lay like some sacrificial beast on the trestle table before him . . . The outermost bandages crisscrossed across the body, and as Thorne began to snip away at them, his sister grabbed the loose ends, tore them off, and let them flutter to the floor like confetti . . . Mina was close enough that she could smell the antique aroma of the mummy – the tarry bitumen that made up part of the coating, the salty natron that was employed as a preservative, the ancient oils and fragrances that had anointed the body after forty days of drying. The mummification process could be a long and laborious one, especially when done properly.  Each limb, each finger and toe, was separately wrapped to maintain the body’s integrity.  Reversing the process, undoing layer after layer of protective covering, was not an easy task.”

Not so different, come to think of it, from writing historical fiction, where the goal is to preserve the past and then reveal it, layer by layer, until it feels not only real, but almost alive again. Although Bram Stoker, who gave us the immortal Count Dracula, has been gone for just over a hundred years now, I like to think he’d have given me his blessing for The Night Crossing.

The Night Crossing by Robert Masello

It begins among the Carpathian peaks, when an intrepid explorer discovers a mysterious golden box. She brings it back with her to the foggy streets of Victorian London, unaware of its dangerous power…or that an evil beyond imagining has already taken root in the city.

Stoker, a successful theater manager but frustrated writer, is drawn into a deadly web spun by the wealthy founders of a mission house for the poor. Far from a safe haven, the mission harbors a dark and terrifying secret.

To save the souls of thousands, Stoker—aided by the explorer and a match girl grieving the loss of her child—must pursue an enemy as ancient as the Saharan sands where it originated. Their journey will take them through the city’s overgrown graveyards and rat-infested tunnels and even onto the maiden voyage of the world’s first “unsinkable” ship…


M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. 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

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2 Responses

  1. This was a great interview! I love reading this genre, right now in fact I am reading RLM’s The Leper Messiah. He writes of David from boy wonder with a sack of stones to a King. His version really makes you think and it adds more to an already inspiring story!

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