Reflections on Writing Historical Fiction with B.A. Shapiro

Barbara (B.A.) Shapiro is the NYT bestselling author of THE MURALIST and THE ART FORGER, both stories of art, mystery and history with a bit of romance thrown in. A few years ago, I had the pleasure of sharing coffee with Barbara as she was working on her latest novel, The Collector’s Apprentice. It’s a treat to have Barbara share some of her reflections on writing historical fiction.

How did you get started writing historical fiction?

I’ve written twelve novels over the past thirty years—eight of which have been published—and nine of these have been either totally of partially historical. I never had a plan to write historical fiction, it just worked for many of the stories I was interested in writing. And, of course, I got kind of addicted to living in completely different worlds. I also mix fictional characters with actual historical persons, and this is great fun.

What have you learned over the years?

When I wrote my first historical, I spent almost a year doing research before I began to write. My second about six months. My third about three, with much of the research going hand-in-hand with the writing process. What I learned is that, for me, it’s better to do a more cursory review of the time and place at the beginning, noting more where the information is than going into it in depth, and then returning to the specifics as I find I need them.

What do you like most about writing historical fiction?

To me, the great power of historical fiction is the genre’s ability to allow the reader to step back from their assumptions and explore the human experience with fewer preconceived notions. For example, in my novel The Muralist, the protagonist is struggling to get her Jewish family out of Europe in 1939, a plot line that engendered much sympathy for her and the immigrant experience. The book came out in 2016, just as the issue of immigration was becoming politicized, and I hope that my readers were more empathetic to the immigrants’ plight because they had empathized with Alizée’s.

What are you working on now?

Not surprisingly, after three heavily historical novels set all over the country and world, the new one is contemporary and is set in Boston, where I live. A girl’s got to have some variety.

What advice do you have for new authors?

I have two pieces of advice. First, get your butt in the chair and stay there. Second, let yourself write it wrong: that’s what rewrites are for.

Many thanks, Barbara. These days I so appreciate the way writing allows me to escape. Right now I’m in 1870 Paris rather than 2020 Covid-19 North America. But I am having trouble keeping my butt in the chair!

The Collector’s Apprentice by B.A. Shapiro ~~ It’s the summer of 1922, and nineteen-year-old Paulien Mertens finds herself in Paris—broke, disowned, and completely alone. Everyone in Belgium, including her own family, believes she stole millions in a sophisticated con game perpetrated by her then-fiancé, George Everard. To protect herself from the law and the wrath of those who lost everything, she creates a new identity, a Frenchwoman named Vivienne Gregsby, and sets out to recover her father’s art collection, prove her innocence—and exact revenge on George.


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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9 Responses

  1. Hi Mary,

    I enjoyed this post. Just one small correction. I think Barbara meant to write “empathetic” rather than “emphatic” when referring to a reaction to an immigrant.

    Glad you are able to keep going with your blog!


    1. Thanks, Therese! Actually made two changes as a result of your feedback 🙂 Keeping the blog going but once a week rather than twice. Hope all is well with you and yours.

  2. Barbara’s comment very much resonates: “it’s better to do a more cursory review of the time and place at the beginning”. My naive experience had been just the opposite: research, research and research until you realize you are researching every little detail, and not writing a darn thing. Its better to stay off that treadmill!

  3. I’m a fan of BA Shapiro’s books, and it was a treat to read her comments. Thanks for publishing the interview!

  4. Hello Mary,

    Are you well? Are you coping with the times?

    I’m reaching out to you as I’m almost certain you are aware that five of our author colleagues and I are involved in a collection of WW2 novels that will be launched to commemorate the 75th anniversary of WW2s end. I’m wondering whether you have space in your blog for us? I’ve been writing away about my topic for several blogs (my novel touches on the Holocaust from a gentile’s perspective and has already been picked up by a publisher when the rights revert back to me). I could send you something as soon as you like. I’m almost certain you are booked way ahead, and if you have nothing but space for a mention of the collection, we’d be so grateful for that bump. It’s releasing on May 5th, and the price for the whole collection is 99c until May 11th.

    Thank you for considering anything you can do; Marion Kummerow, Rachel Wesson, Ellie Midwood, JJ Toner, Marina Osipova, and I are willing to return the favor anytime you need something. Also, I’m not sure whether you are aware or whether you use the service: I’ve put together a sales promotion over Bookfunnel. It leads straight to the buy links you add. Here’s the link, as I feel your books would be a good fit – we’re calling all books that have to do with a conflict, fiction and non-fiction, and will give this cross-promo a big push between May 5 and May 11. This would be another opportunity to help us reach readers and gain exposure.

    I look forward to hearing from you whatever you decide.

    All the best, Chrystyna


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