Personal diaries are treasure for writers of historical fiction

This article first appeared in the Historical Novel Review, a quarterly publication of the Historical Novel Society. I’m grateful to Lucinda Byatt, features editor, for accepting the article.

Authenticity is crucial to historical fiction. Weaving the right blend of facts and fiction will transform a reader in time and place while staying true to the historical record. Deep, wide-ranging research in required to achieve this objective. 

My latest novel, Paris In Ruins, begins in September 1870 and continues through the Siege of Paris and the Paris Commune. Knowing nothing of that time in French history, I wandered around in Google-land to orient myself, gradually slotting my finds into categories like fashion, life and society, Paris maps and landmarks, women’s lives, the French government.

I’m a firm believer in looking at bibliographies, which is how I stumbled on the first English account of someone who’d experienced both the siege and Commune. Since my knowledge of French is limited, I was unable to read any of the many accounts written in that language and was particularly grateful for this discovery. In a pinch, I can laboriously translate a page or two and have even paid for French research assistance on a few occasions. However, it’s a serious handicap when writing historical fiction set in a country where the customs and language are foreign to you.

That first personal account was written by Elihu Washburne, America’s ambassador to France. Michael Hill incorporated Washburne’s letters and diary into a book: Elihu Washburne: The Diary and Letters of America’s Minister to France During the Siege and Commune of Paris. I ordered a used copy immediately and when it arrived, lost myself in reading about that horrifying time. Later, I found and read Diary of the Besieged Resident in Paris by Henry Labouchère, My Adventures in the Commune by Ernest Alfred Vizetelly, and The Insurrection in ParisRelated by an Englishman Davy.

Each of these accounts provided observations of the people and politics, the military activities that took place, the impact of war and the uprising that followed, as well as the look and feel of Paris. Collectively they helped me build a world for readers filled with real details: the price of meat; the daily weather; the mood of Parisians; the absence of dogs and cats in the streets; the rumours that swirled around inciting unrest and anger.

Did I worry that these diaries were written by outsiders? Yes and no. On the yes side of the equation, I had to check the facts for accuracy and ignore comments and generalizations that appeared biased. On the no side of the equation, as an author of fiction, I create worlds for my readers. These diarists actually lived in that world. Their observations and concerns were intended to inform readers of the on-the-ground situation, not to mislead them. Collectively the diaries were indispensable to my understanding of Paris and its citizens in those tumultuous times.

Elihu Washburne wrote almost every day beginning in early August 1870, when the French army under Napoleon III’s leadership, was battling with the Prussian army near the border between those two countries. By early September, Napoleon III had abdicated, and a new government was established. The detail and imagery of his entries enhanced many of my scenes.

September 15, 1870 ~~ Every carriage has disappeared … the city is but one big camp. Three hundred thousand soldiers passed in review before Gen. Trochu … regiments are marching down the Champs-Élysées and as I write I distinctly hear them singing the eternal but ever inspiring, Marseillaise.

Two main characters in Paris In Ruins are women of privileged upbringings—Camille and Mariele. Did their parents object to them walking in the streets? In one scene, the sound of the Marseillaise leads Camille and Mariele into the midst of a dangerous mob.

December 23 & 24, 1870 ~~ The situation is becoming daily much more grave here in Paris. The suffering is intense … The clubs have begun again to agitate … they are killing off the horses very fast … 500,000 men now under arms for fourteen weeks have accomplished nothing and will not so long as Trochu is in command.

In Paris In Ruins a modest Christmas dinner becomes the setting for conflict between the younger generation and their parents as Mariele and her brother argue that the rich aren’t doing enough for the poor and that General Trochu is incapable of saving Paris.

April 6, 1871 ~~ … vast numbers of the best citizens are seized as hostages and cast into dungeons … All Frenchmen prohibited from leaving Paris.

A passage like this combined with research into the actions of the Paris Commune prompted a scene where Camille’s brother Victor, a Catholic priest, is taken hostage by a group of Communards who also steal gold and silver artifacts from the church.

When the Communards set Paris on fire in the last days of the Commune, Alfred Vizetelly puts the reader in the very midst of the scene:

“The flames seemed to travel from either end of the great façade—over 1200 feet in length—towards the central cupola-crowned pavilion … At about two in the morning, there came a terrific thunderous shock and uproar, and the whole of the surrounding district trembled. Flames now leapt skyward from the central pavilion of the palace, whose cupola was tossed into the air, whence it fell in blazing fragments, while a myriad of sparks rose, rained, or rushed hither and thither, imparting to the awful spectacle much the aspect of a ‘bouquet’ of fireworks.”

This diary entry helped create a scene with Mariele, Camille, and their mothers watching Paris go up in flames. The vividness of Vizetelly’s writing was instrumental to the mood of fear, anger, and grave distress these women experienced. Were their loved ones in the midst of the flames? Would one of them perish? Would Paris ever be the same?

Did I worry that these accounts were all written by men? Definitely. To compensate, I found a few diaries written by female artists of the time that had been translated into English as well as a translation of some of Louise Michel’s writings. Michel was a well-known leader of the Commune. I read of French etiquette and manners, the education of women, the rights of women, famous salons led by women, and various articles concerning women of the 19th century.

Personal diaries are treasures for writers of historical fiction. They should be verified and augmented with other sources of information such as non-fiction books detailing historical events, visits to museums, an understanding of the military, political, societal, religious, industrial, and technological circumstances of the time. Leveraging them judiciously into plot, dialogue, setting, narrative and other elements of the story will truly transport readers in time and place.

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M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, PARIS IN RUINS, is available on Amazon USAmazon CanadaKobo, and Barnes&Noble. An earlier novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from AmazonNookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on FacebookTwitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.

9 thoughts on “Personal diaries are treasure for writers of historical fiction”

  1. I write historical fiction set during World War 1. My recent story “White Feather” about stretcher-bearers leaned heavily on Coyle’s account of his time on the Western front and a copy of the Handbook for Sanitation Troops from that period.

    1. Hi Mike – I’ve written 3 novels featuring WWI. Such a compelling era for stories. How interesting that you’ve used a diary of someone who was really there. The stretcher bearer view of war is certainly unique. You’re welcome to write something about that on my blog 🙂

      1. Thank you for the invitation.

        This year my local writer’s group’s anthology had the theme of virtue and vice. A recent talk by the Western Front Association about conscientious objectors (CO) gave me the idea of a story about a CO whose alternate service was as a stretcher-bearer during World War 1. Although my copy of the DRILL REGULATIONS AND SERVICE MANUAL FOR SANITARY TROOPS gave me the technical aspects, I wanted to get the feel for what it would have meant to be a bearer during the war. Fortunately, my collection of WW1 memorabilia includes a copy of Edward Coryle’s diary AMBULANCING ON THE FRENCH FRONT and I was able to use it for that perspective. One of the Stories from Coyle’s account ended up as a key scene in the story “White Feather” when it was published.

        “White Feather” is part of a series of stories I have published about the soldier’s life in World War 1. I am currently researching a planned novel on one of the Welsh Tunneling Companies that were key to the mining and countermining efforts on the Western Front.

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