Simple yet Complex:  Writing a Historical Novel Series

Novels based on the lives of artists are a favourite of mine, and if the artists are part of the famed Impressionist style, even more so. Author Joe Byrd’s new novel Monet & Oscar is exactly that. Here’s Joe discussing this novel and the writing of a series.

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Writing a historical novel is, in my experience, a simpler process than making up a novel’s characters and settings from scratch. Especially if you do extensive research—my study of Claude Monet took over thirty years, which may be a bit excessive for most authors. I started with a known, if not wholly understood, main character for my first novel Monet & Oscar. The setting, Monet’s garden in Giverny, France, was a place I had visited several times and could easily picture and research. Many of the book’s other characters who were Monet’s friends, like Georges Clemenceau, Gustave Geffroy, and Auguste Renoir, are familiar to readers. 

The significant events of Monet’s life are discussed in many resources. The work he created is available in many books, museums, and novelty shops. Yet his personal life is not well known. I decided to create a vehicle, a young man, to help me probe Monet’s personal life and family dynamics. This also made it easier for me to explore Monet’s relationships with his friends and colleagues. In essence, all the heavy lifting of creating the setting and the characters were done for me. All I had to do was uncover it through extensive research and then weave this information into an exciting story. 

Sounded simple enough until I started writing a sequel to my first book about Monet. My first challenge in writing the second book in the series was keeping track of the characters and the storyline as they transitioned into the second book. It’s what the detective stories call “keeping your story straight.” Nothing bothers me more than reading a book series and finding a person doing something out of character or a scene that doesn’t fit with what was established in the previous book. 

I turned to a noted writing coach, K.M. Weiland’s two books, Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel, to help me create a timeline for the original novel and extend that work to a series of books. This was especially difficult for me because I’m what writing coaches call a “panster.” This means I write what comes to mind without extensive outlining and character development. When I started writing the second book in the series, I was forced to become a “plotter.” As a “plotter,” I needed to carefully create a timeline of the finished novel and each book in the series

I also needed to describe the characters and map out their behavior. As we know, people evolve over time. My character maps need to encapsulate this evolution. If the characters don’t evolve over time, they are static and thus unbelievable. Plus, they need to follow the sequence of recorded historical events. If I get the sequence wrong and Monet, for example, has his cataract surgery too soon or too late in relation to his painting activities, some readers will notice. Errors like this would call into question the veracity of my work. 

I had a problem with the timing in my first novel when I placed the timing of a child’s birth before a particular battle in WWI. Luckily my editor pointed out my error, and I had to edit several chapters to bring events back into their proper sequence. Thank God for good editors. 

My next effort will be more difficult; I’m writing a book in the series that is a prequel to my first novel. Don’t ask why I started my series in the middle. If I weren’t such a “pantser,” I wouldn’t have let this happen. The prequel comes along with its own set of problems. 

The characters must be portrayed as they were before events depicted in the later books changed them. It’s the same as correctly accounting for their evolution in the subsequent books, only in reverse. I will need to recount the characters before they evolved and include what factors caused them to develop in this manner. I haven’t begun the prequel yet, but I have started the research. See below, a photo of me with the owner, Claire Gardie, in front of Monet’s house in Argenteuil, where he lived for three years before moving to Giverny. 

This period was particularly challenging for Monet and his struggling family. He went from being a starving artist to one who became more successful. His first wife died, and he became involved with a woman who was to become his second wife. His family size grew from two children to eight. His painting style and subject matter changed from capturing France’s modern, industrial society to focusing on landscapes and the effects of light on nature and water. 

These changes in Monet’s life altered his personality and his work. First, I must capture these changes, record them as part of the story, and then account for how they impacted his character in the subsequent two novels. Each book in the series must include a consistent evolution of the characters within an accurate setting and historical events. 

Writing a historical fiction series is difficult, but the rewards are worth the effort. First, an author can bring life to historical persons and periods. For me, the most essential bonus is writing something the readers feel adds to their knowledge and experience of a historical figure and their era. I want to write something that sticks with them.

Many thanks, Joe. I too have been trying to write a series backwards – your ideas will be very helpful!

Monet & Oscar: The Essence of Light by Joe Byrd

It was the end of WWI when Oscar, an American soldier in a French Army hospital, learned of his mother’s death. With no reason to return home, Oscar decides to remain in France and sets out to find his father, an impressionist painter whose identity he never knew. Through a twist of fate, Oscar is offered a job working in Monet’s world-famous garden at Giverny. Hopeful the most renowned Impressionist can help him find his father, Oscar searches for clues as Monet, tired and disheartened by his deteriorating eyesight, introduces him to his previous painting venues and Impressionist friends.

Thus begins an enthralling and beautiful story filled with art, love, passion, self-discovery and a reconciliation with the past. Set against the backdrop of Monet’s famous garden, this book offers a new, historically accurate depiction of Monet told through the eyes of his fictional son.

FOR MORE ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION FOLLOW A WRITER OF HISTORY 

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel is THE ADMIRAL’S WIFE, a dual timeline set in Hong Kong. Mary’s other novels, PARIS IN RUINS, TIME AND REGRET, 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.

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8 Responses

  1. I do not envy your process of writing a prequel to an already written book. Just thinking about my book two following the one I am finishing is giving me heart palpitations. Good luck.

  2. I found this post particularly interesting because I have done the same thing in a series: I wrote the first book then set the second book seven years earlier. Book III (the WIP) will connect the two. I’m a plotter and did this on purpose, for reasons I won’t go into here:) Happily, readers haven’t seemed to mind, though in retrospect, I rather wish I had said on the cover Book I in the series, Book II, and so on. A character Bible is a must.

  3. Thank you for your article and interview with Joe Byrd. I am beginning a sequel to my first historical fiction novel (Great Crossing) and facing the dilemma of uncovering new information in current research that is of course omitted in the first book. One example: a historically-based character, unnamed in early research, now has the name revealed by recent study. Do I simply put an author’s note in the back addressing the issue? Thanks!

    1. Hi Judalon – it seems to me that your decision is based on how important this figure is to the story. If unimportant, it’s probably not necessary, although for completeness you can certainly do so. Another thought that occurs to me is if you are indie/self published, you can always reissue the novel with the name now accurate. Your choice of course.

  4. Thank you so much for your swift reply. She is central to the sequel, and since I am indie, love your idea of going in to my upload and changing her name. The research revealed her father as well, the brother of my protagonist, a tough insert to make in the first novel. However, this can be put in the “if I can’t fix this, then what kind of a writer am I?” category. It will be a great challenge and learning experience, that’s for certain.

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