Truth in Historical Story-Telling by Tara Cowan

Tara Cowan, author of Southern Rain, has been writing novels since she was seventeen. We connected through Instagram where she is @teaandrebellion – now that tells you something about her interests, doesn’t it? Tara is also an attorney and lives in Tennessee.

~~~

We’re all troubled by historical inaccuracy, aren’t we?  A wrong date, a poor retelling of events, a word from the wrong era, a fashion choice three decades too soon… All of these can snap us right out of the world we are trying to create.  I’ll call these “easy fixes” that can be prevented with historical vetting and a great deal of research (even though there’s nothing easy about that at all!).

But you can get all of that right, and still there is a deeper level of accuracy for which we need to strive: our characters’ beliefs about moral or social issues of their era.  For me, this has become one of my greatest struggles as a writer and reader of Historical Fiction.

So much of what our historical characters do or believe can be mind-boggling or even morally wrong to modern eyes.  Slavery is the obvious example from my novel, Southern Rain, and, of course, it takes everything within the modern author not to be heavy-handed with the message, “This is an affront to human dignity!”  But would my Civil War era characters have thought so?  Perhaps on some deep, primal level they would have known it within themselves, but would they have said it?  Unless they were staunch abolitionists, unfortunately, no. If you look at writings from the time, you see a very broad spectrum of beliefs relating to slavery, ranging from “necessary evil” to “positive good” to “bad for the economy” and “a danger to the balance of power.”  You’re wanting so badly for someone to just say that it was demoralizing and inhuman. And you can find those beliefs, but not as often as you would wish, and largely only among staunch moral abolitionists who were considered by their peers a bit radical at the time.  And so you, as the writer, are faced with a choice: tell the story like it would have been or sugar-coat the past?

That seems easy to answer, but it isn’t always.  We fear that the reader will dislike our characters if their beliefs are outdated or wrong.  That if our characters feel indifference on a subject about which they should feel strongly, our readers will turn against them.  The idea also presents itself that our readers will think that our historical characters’ beliefs are our beliefs.  Sometimes we just want to give our characters a break already in what could be a really punishing world.

Think about Lydia Bennett of Pride and Prejudice.  She is engraved on our memories as a flighty girl because everyone in the Regency Era would have said so.  A more modern pen might have taken a more sympathetic look at the full picture (she was young, her father was absent-minded, her mother was driving her to be married, etc.) and ultimately ended on a more forgiving note that really wouldn’t have been accurate to the Regency Era.  Things like this happen all the time in otherwise great books: the characters aren’t as shocked as they would’ve been, the characters don’t take something seriously enough…

I think a lot about a book by Tamera Alexander titled Beyond This Moment. (Spoiler Alert!) The Reconstruction Era heroine gets pregnant, as they would have said then, “out of wedlock.”  And she pays for it over and over and over.  Even in a succeeding book the townspeople haven’t fully forgiven her. When I read the book as a teenager, I hated that town so much.  I thought the author had drawn them too starchy and the repercussions too dramatically to put a nice, happy-ending bow on the story.  Now, of course, I realize that she was just being truthful, and my hat is off to her for that!

I see writers struggling all the time with the choice between sticking with the rules of an era on the one hand and giving their stories a more modern twist on the other. The bold Victorian woman who swears off corsets and goes to college has become so common in literature that the proper, buttoned-up Victorian woman seems to be the anomaly.  And those stories can be great– many of them currently fill my shelves!  However, I do believe we need to be very careful to frame those stories in an accurate way when we’re pushing the boundaries of history.  We need to tell those fabulous stories of women who had amazing scholastic or professional accomplishments because they did exist. We also need to remember that only an extremely small percentage of women was able to go to college in the Nineteenth Century because they were prevented from doing so.

We can make a person a man or woman of his or her time and still give them break-out moments. An example from one of my earlier manuscripts is a perfect Antebellum wife who, for an entire novel, allows her husband’s word to be law in their household.  Then he goes too far, in her estimation, and she absolutely fillets him. Do I think there was precisely that sort of drama in Victorian marriages?  Oh, yes, most definitely.  And I think that female character was quite strong in her own way for taking a look at the rules in place and concocting subtle ways to get around them, as women have done for centuries (even if she wasn’t ready to throw her corset out the window!).

For the most part, I try to stick to accuracies, however distasteful or foreign, of the era without imbuing the story with modern morality and ideas.  In Southern Rain, my otherwise-delightful male lead feels very hurt when his wife says that she wishes she could have the vote so that he would not speak for the both of them.  To us, she’s doing nothing more than wishing to exercise what ought to be her rights.  But to a Victorian husband, that would have been painful to hear, since voting went to the heart of his Victorian head-of-household rights and duties. If he were a modern man, it would have been out of character, but I had to do it.

I fear making it seem like it would have been easy if all of my characters think it’s great that a Nineteenth Century heroine wants to enter what was considered to be the masculine realm.  I fear trivializing the struggle of the enslaved by making all of my characters abolitionists.  We’re missing a great opportunity if we gloss over moral dilemmas because we’re afraid to tell it like it was.  What better opportunity to show that women are equal than to tell the truth of what happens when they are not treated equally under the law?  What better way to highlight the injustice of what the enslaved faced than to be honest about how people felt about them?

One of the best examples of a book which accomplishes this is America’s First Daughter, by Stephanie Dray and Laura Kamoie.  The book follows the life of Thomas Jefferson’s daughter, Martha, and the authors mention something in the notes about not deviating from what she really would have felt.  She defended her father on matters no one would defend today, while also growing blazingly angry with him on others of which we would have been more forgiving. We see her caught up in Revolutionary fervor in the belief that slavery must and shall end, we see her slap a slave in anger, we see her changing towards complacency when slavery became an economic necessity, and eventually, we see her fighting for abolition as First Lady of Virginia against all odds.  The alternations in her feelings ring so true when you look at the nuances of things that humans do and feel over the course of their lives.  We wrestle with the moral questions of our day, and so should our characters. 

We shouldn’t be afraid to tell it like it was.  For just a moment, you might be overwhelmed, thinking: I can’t do this. I can’t portray characters who have such odd beliefs!  But you’ll be surprised to find how much is similar in humans across the ages.  We can write characters whom we like, and even admire, who hold beliefs that wouldn’t wash in the modern era.  And we’re missing a great opportunity for exploring the complexities of human nature if we make everyone just as he or she should be. And our readers are very sharp! They know that they are reading a work of both fiction and history, and they know when something rings true.  Readers of Historical Fiction want accuracy, and they want to be transported to another time and place and maybe learn something along the way.  Otherwise, we might as well be writing modern books.  And I, for one, can attest to the joy that Historical Fiction has brought me over the years!  So dig in, find the truth, and tell it boldly!  Happy writing (and reading)!

Many thanks, Tara. Best wishes for Southern Rain and the series that follows. Love the idea of breakout moments.

Southern Rain by Tara Cowan

Charleston, Modern Day:
Adeline Miller, a preservationist, gets a call from a Charleston psychiatrist who wants her to restore his Battery Street mansion to its former glory. Thinking this might be her big break, she relocates to Charleston, moves into the third floor of the mansion, and gets to work. As she begins to discover secrets from the past about the family who once lived there, her future begins to get a lot more complicated than she ever expected.

Charleston, 1859:
Shannon Ravenel, the daughter of wealthy rice planter King Ravenel, is destined to marry into South Carolina’s elite planting class. That conclusion is thrown into question when her brother brings home his friend from the Naval Academy, Massachusetts-bred John Thomas Haley. Love aside, can a planter’s daughter and an abolitionist’s son forge a future in a nation that is ripping apart at the seams, or does fate have other plans for both?

FOR MORE ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION  FOLLOW A WRITER OF HISTORY (see left hand sidebar)

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.

Looking back on the theme of transported in time and place

For the last year or so, I’ve invited many authors to describe how they do the work of transporting readers in time and place. Today I’m looking back on  some of those posts.

Elizabeth Hutchison Barnard on writing Temptation Rag – “A novel’s setting is not just something physical; it is intrinsically tied to the deeper meanings of a story.”

Stephanie Thornton on writing American Princess – “One of my favorite distractions while writing is researching exactly what life would have been like for my characters. For turn-of-the-century America, that often meant looking up menus and digging through grainy black-and-white pictures in online archives so I could add verisimilitude to every scene.”

Fiona Veitch Smith on writing The Cairo Brief – “Before I even start writing – and certainly during the process – I absorb myself in the music, fashion, art, architecture, cuisine, cinema and theatre of the period … for my latest book, The Cairo Brief, I signed up for a six-week online course in antiquities theft, run by Glasgow University through Future Learn.”

JP Robinson on writing In the Shadow of Your Wings – “I typically take about two days to research names that were popular in the era I’m writing about before naming my characters.”

Nicola Cornick on writing The Phantom Tree – “I’ve never been able to paint but I visualise the process of creating my imaginary world as a picture in which layer upon layer of detail is added, from the frame that surrounds it to the tiniest figure in the corner.”

Sue Ingalls Finan on writing The Cards Don’t Lie – “Free women of color in New Orleans in the early 1800s were often involved in placages, or left-handed marriages with wealthy white men. Their mothers, thanks to their own placage benefactors, sponsored grand balls to arrange permanent financial settlements for their daughters.”

Arthur Hittner on writing Artist, Soldier, Lover, Muse – Research for a non-fiction book prompted Hittner’s fiction. He “traced the living descendants of the artist, determining that the bulk of his output resided in the attics and basements of nephews and nieces, and in the vaults of an art museum in Springfield, Massachusetts. I viewed and photographed the collections of the descendants and the paintings in the museum … Along with the paintings, I’d gained access to an old scrapbook that had been lovingly maintained by the artist’s parents. Inside were yellowed newspaper clippings from the Thirties and early Forties, chronicling the young artist’s triumphs and later, his tragic demise.”

Harald Johnson on writing New York 1609 – Johnson made an amazing discovery “It’s a computer simulation of what Manhattan would have looked like on September 12, 1609—the day Henry Hudson and his crew sailed to it.”

M.K. Tod on writing Unravelled and the power of a photo: “Suddenly, there it was: a red Tonneau with just the right blend of style and uniqueness. Not only was it quirky but it fit my notion of the woman who originally owned it – a fiercely independent woman who’d never married but had had many relationships, particularly with one or two of the impressionist painters of the time.”

Sophie Schiller on writing Island on Fireduring a visit to Musée Volcanologique “On the walls are various photographs of the city when it was known as the ‘Paris of the West Indies’. The pictures reveal a town full of French colonial grace, carriages crowding the cobblestone streets, rum barrels lining the waterfront, planters in panama hats, and barefoot market women carrying baskets on their heads. Interspersed among these photographs are artifacts, including broken china, a crushed pistol, melted scissors, charred spaghetti, stacks of drinking glasses fused into misshapen columns, and a human skull reportedly from the prison.”

Elizabeth St. John drew inspiration from visits the Tower of London for her novels The Lady of the Tower and By Love Divided – “What I didn’t anticipate was the visceral reaction of walking through Lucy’s rooms, standing in her kitchen, looking through her parlor window– just as she had done. The emotional response to treading in her footsteps inspired so much of my work within The Lady of the Tower, and so many small details found their way into my writing.”

Glen Ebisch on writing Dearest David which is a novel about Henry David Thoreau – “A fairly high level of historical accuracy is necessary in order to convince the reader that he or she is actually living in that time. In addition, the author must try to recapture the concerns, the issues, and the view of life that was prevalent for people living then.”

Carol Bodensteiner on writing Simple Truth, which is a contemporary novel – Carol writes that place is as complex as a human being. “In addition to the town itself, the other most significant location in the story is the poultry packing plant … The work that goes on in packing plants may be difficult for some people to stomach. Yet it is important to know the place to understand why people choose to work there. In the plant, as in the town, the situation is complex, made more so by the diversity of countries, languages, religions, and cultures represented.”

Dana Stabenow on writing Silk and Song – “One of the most delightful discoveries during my research was The Medieval Woman: An Illuminated Book of Days, a daily diary which features illustrations from illuminated manuscripts current to the time in which I wrote featuring women…working. Yes, they are sweeping and spinning and weaving and cooking. They are also selling and painting and and laying brick for city walls and defending their castles crossbow in hand.”

Jeffrey K. Walker on writing None of Us the Same – Jeffrey focuses on finding authentic voices “Within the superstructure of solid research, we imagine our histories and we therefore have to find voices for the characters we’ve imagined placing there. By this I mean not only their dialogue, but also their patterns of thought, reactions to all manner of situations, and interactions with each other and their world. That’s the challenge in developing richly drawn, three-dimensional characters that engage readers on a deeper level than merely as historical curiosities … I bought a box of reproduction artifacts in the gift shop of the Imperial War Museum—which led me to spending several hours listening to two dozen songs listed in a Red Cross entertainment program from 1917 to literally get the sound of my character’s music in my ears. On a more practical level, this broad survey of original writing gave me a strong grounding in the slang, idiom, word choice, and level of formality used by people of the period.”

Some serendipity, many personal visits to the places of their novels, much deep digging into history and reading a wide range of non-fiction sources. All to serve the purpose of writing stories that transport readers in time and place. I’m grateful to these authors and many other who contributed to the series.

FOR MORE ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION FOLLOW A WRITER OF HISTORY (using the widget on the left sidebar)

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.

The Life of a Blog

Today, I’m looking back at the journey I’ve taken with A Writer of History. And no … this is not the end of A Writer of History. Just an opportunity to contemplate how it has evolved.

It all began early in 2012, when I decided to “push the reset button” and create a new blog to focus on the writing of historical fiction. I’d kept an earlier blog (now defunct) called One Writer’s Voice where I wrote about the business of writing and the notion of being an author entrepreneur. Ultimately, though, I decided to shift gears and create A Writer of History. You can find that first blog post about new beginnings here.

The last seven (!!) years have been a wonderful experience. One that has connected me with many authors, bloggers, and readers, and I’m grateful to all of you who have come along with me on the journey, to those who have contributed thoughts and content, and to those who visit from time to time. I’ve written 817 posts (818 if you include this one). And visitors have grown from 964 in 2012 to over 56,000 in 2018. Never would have imagined that!

At the beginning, I decided to survey those who read fiction with an emphasis on historical fiction. I thought a survey might be useful and I could share the results on A Writer of History. One of the results from that survey was a list of Top Historical Fiction Authors and from there I went on to interview some of those authors including Elizabeth Chadwick, C.W. Gortner, Hilary Mantel, Jacqueline Winspear, Margaret George, Helen Hollick and many others. I also interviewed bloggers who focused on historical fiction included Amy Bruno, Richard Lee,

Because I was writing novels set during WWI, I included many posts exploring my findings – from fashion, to military strategy, to WWI trench standing orders.

At some point, I began to receive book review requests – the first one being The Twelve Rooms of the Nile by Enid Shomer. I was astonished to be asked for a review … imagine, someone ‘out there’ had noticed my little blog. I have to confess that I don’t do many of those anymore given that reading and then reviewing is such a time commitment. Instead, I invite authors to guest post or be interviewed, which also offers a chance to feature something about their latest novel as well as a book cover.

Over the years, various topics have attracted my interest: the role of social media and reading, the life of an author, the excitement of historical research, the daunting challenge of marketing, my self-publishing journey, and the joy of being published. I’ve also included snippets from my own writing and sources of inspiration including my grandparents’ photos and mementos.

I belong to three book clubs and have often posted about our book selections and the lively discussions we have. And for several years now, I’ve posted ‘A Year of Reading’ list with brief thoughts on each novel read that year.

More surveys followed in 2013, 2015, 2017 and 2018. Each survey was an opportunity to discover more about the world of reading and to explore what the findings mean for authors. Although time consuming, the surveys have prompted much interest and I’ve used some of the insights in my own writing and marketing as have others.

My first novel Unravelled was self-published in 2013 followed by Lies Told in Silence in 2014, and then Time and Regret was published by Lake Union in 2016 – I posted about them here and you celebrated with me.

A few years ago, I decided to focus on a themeInside Historical Fiction – to look under the covers of historical fiction and illuminate those attributes that make it different from contemporary fiction. Many writers and readers contributed their thoughts. Another theme was Successful Historical Fiction. Last year’s theme was Transported in Time and Place which began with Dazzled by a Green Door. I’ve written about the purpose of historical fiction and compiled a list from the 2015 survey of favourite historical fiction novels. Another popular series were the WWI letters home from my husband’s great-uncle who served in France and Africa. I tagged these Somewhere in France and Somewhere in Africa.

On the blog you can also find writing tips from well-known authors like Emma Darwin and personal postsWill the Real M.K. Tod Please Stand Up; Grateful for Every Day (a post following the plane crash my husband and I survived), and one on my own #metoo experiences called A Lifelong Feminist.

Much to my delight, in 2016 Writers Digest selected A Writer of History for its list of 101 Best Websites for Writers – and they repeated the honour in 2018. I’m grateful for the acknowledgement of what we’ve built together.

So my friends, it’s been a rewarding journey. You’ve helped me along the way by cheering me on, adding your voice, and contributing your posts. I’ve enjoyed every minute of it and look forward to much more.

FOR MORE ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION FOLLOW A WRITER OF HISTORY (using the widget on the left sidebar)

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.