Reflections on Writing Historical Fiction – Stephanie Dray

Many of you will know New York Times bestselling author Stephanie Dray from her wonderfully crafted novels My Dear Hamilton and America’s First Daughter, both written with Laura Kamoie. She has also written a series set in ancient Egypt and three novels cowritten with author groups. Today, Stephanie reflects on her career writing historical fiction.

How would you describe the historical fiction you write? Has this changed over time?

When I started as an author, I wrote historical fantasy, or perhaps more precisely, historical fiction with magical realism. These days I write primarily biographical historical women’s fiction. A subtle shift, but an important one! When I started out, I wanted to explore history, but also religion and allegory and myth. These days I’ve become much more concrete. Part of this is because of the market, but some of this is also because of the subject matter; it’s one thing to write historical fantasy about Cleopatra’s daughter. It’s quite another to try to inject magical elements into a story about the founding fathers and mothers of the country. Given their contemporary importance, people might find it disrespectful, and in any case, the kind of story I wanted to tell had changed.

Is there a particular time period you concentrate on? If so, why? If you’ve switched time periods, why?

I started out in the ancient world; I love the operatic drama and pageantry of it. I also like the fact that it’s so far removed from the political baggage of our own world while still being entirely relevant. That’s the case because the ancient world was struggling with how to govern themselves in the same way we are now.

I was a government major in college and I’ve always been fascinated by the rise and fall of republics. It’s so much more complicated than the usual vying for power between kings and all the inevitable executions and battles that come with that. The rise and fall of republics bring characters to the fore from so many different cross-sections of society. It’s very exciting from a novelist’s standpoint!

So I found that republic and revolutionary excitement in ancient Rome. I didn’t find that so much again until the 18th century. So it might have seemed like a big jump from say, Cleopatra to Thomas Jefferson, but it made perfect sense in my brain.

My most recent work is set in three time periods–during the French Revolution, World War One, and World War Two–all united by the singular legacy of Lafayette and the women who safeguarded his castle during three of history’s darkest hours.

Again this felt like a natural jump because a republic was on the rise during the French Revolution, and deeply threatened in both world wars. I’m always fascinated by the way women are discounted in these great movements, even though they not only contribute to them–sometimes, as my co-authors and I tried to show in RIBBONS OF SCARLET, women even start these movements.

What do you consider the purpose/value of historical fiction? Have your thoughts on this changed with time?

I believe deeply that historical fiction is an art form and doesn’t need to have a purpose or value beyond that. Full stop.

And yet… how astonishingly wonderful that it actually can have additional purpose and value.

Historical fiction has the capacity to educate, to comment on contemporary events without the baggage of those contemporary events, and sometimes–if you’re lucky–you can even make a contribution to the historical record because novelists ask different questions than historians tend to.

In my forthcoming work I stumbled upon some old love letters and unraveled a “code” from World War One that revealed an unknown relationship, and working with the family, helped uncover some fascinating aspects of a woman who was already interesting. So to the extent that there is value in solving historical mysteries, I love that this genre lets us do that too!

What advice do you have for new authors?

Network with other writers. Your author-besties can often be your lifeline in this business. Another thing that’s important to do is cultivate the capacity to simultaneously believe that your work is something special and worth protecting, while also believing that your work is deeply flawed and must be edited. This will get you far!

What are you passionate about in terms of historical fiction?

I’m passionate about protecting the biographical historical novel as an art form. It always makes me so sad to see historical fiction authors having to justify themselves. Along with many of my colleagues, I’ve often been asked “If you’re going to do all this research, why write a novel and not a biography?” The tone of this question always implies that I’ve done something lesser. And it’s maddening, truly, if only because some stories can only be told responsibly in novel form.

For example, the lack of primary sources that exist for many important historical women is downright depressing. Take Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton, wife of our first secretary of the treasury. She was the subject of my co-authored novel, MY DEAR HAMILTON. She was an amazing woman! A true founding mother. Strong, devoted, loyal, patriotic–a person who made a real contribution to the country. But her life has to be extrapolated largely from the extant primary sources of the men surrounding her. Her father, her brothers, her husband, her sons…

This is flimsy stuff upon which to base a scholarly biography because much has to be surmised. But so much of it can be surmised, so much of it is obvious, in fact, that even if it won’t meet academic standards, a picture becomes clear enough to paint in a novel.

Eliza Hamilton deserved to have her story told, we told her story in perhaps the only way that could be told and I’m so proud that we did.

Aside from the issue of source material, there’s also the undeniable point to be made about reach. It’s the rare scholarly biography that can reach as wide an audience as a novel can. This genre has the unique capacity to send readers scrambling to learn more; we not only feed an audience for those excellent scholarly books but we also create an audience for them.

The interplay between Hamilton: An American Musical and Ron Chernow’s excellent biography on the same subject is a case in point. Lin Manuel Miranda’s musical is absolutely historical fiction–and some of the best ever written. But nobody ever asks him Why didn’t you write a biography? Nor should they. I’m honored to be even a small humble part of a genre that can do for civics what that musical did. What we’re doing is valuable and important and I don’t think any of us writing in this genre ought to shy away from the fight.

Great wisdom about our genre, Stephanie. And great encouragement for those writing historical fiction. On another occasion, I would love to hear your thoughts on writing as part of a team. Many thanks.

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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 www.mktod.com.

7 thoughts on “Reflections on Writing Historical Fiction – Stephanie Dray”

  1. Very interesting thoughts on the value of the biographical historical novel, especially as regards women whose lives were sparsely documented. Thanks for this great article!

  2. I love this quote: “I’m passionate about protecting the biographical historical novel as an art form.” If a reader truly understands that statement, they will easily be able to answer the question about biography versus novel that is raised in the same paragraph as that quote.

  3. Loved the article and I definitely love historical fiction. Thanks for sharing this with us. I have read most of Stephanie’s books and look forward to her next one about the legacy of Lafayette.

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