Writing biographical historical fiction

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I’ve always wanted to tackle biographical fiction but so far, I haven’t taken the plunge. Susan Higginbotham has made this a specialty and today offers insights into the writing of her latest fictionalized biography – The First Lady and the Rebel. 

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Part of the fun of writing (and reading) biographical historical fiction is the supporting cast–those people, some famous and some obscure, whose lives intersect with those of the main characters. While The First Lady and the Rebel is concerned chiefly with the lives of two sisters, Mary Lincoln and Emily Todd Helm, a number of other historical figures make appearances. Some, like Mary’s dressmaker, former slave Elizabeth Keckly, will be familiar to many readers; others will probably be new to most. Here is just a handful of the people you’ll meet in my novel:

  • Major Benjamin F. Ficklin: Kicked out of the storied Virginia Military Institute, he returned to graduate near the bottom of his class. He was one of the founders of the Pony Express and briefly owned Monticello–yes, that Monticello.
  • Princess Agnes Salm-Salm: Born in Vermont (or maybe Quebec) as Agnes Elisabeth Winona Leclerc Joy, she may or may not have gone on the stage during her youth, and probably did not work as a circus rider, but she indisputably turned up in Washington, D.C., in 1861, where she met Felix Constantin Alexander Johann Nepomuk, Prince Salm-Salm, a Prussian nobleman whom she married the following year. Following her husband, an officer in the Union army, into camp, she impressed onlookers with her abilities as a equestrienne, but made a very different impression on Mary Lincoln.
  • Phil: The enslaved manservant of Emily’s husband, Benjamin Hardin Helm,he spent his free years working as a hack driver in Louisville. One of his passengers was Sarah Bernhardt, whose strong perfume forced local police to admit that she had indeed ridden in his carriage.
  • Cranston Laurie: The wife of a civil servant, Mrs. Laurie was a spiritualist who hosted séances at her Georgetown residence. Her guests included Mary Lincoln, who attended on New Year’s Eve, 1862. Mrs. Laurie’s revelations, which included the information that “the cabinet were all the enemies of the President,” fortunately did not interfere with the Emancipation Proclamation, which Abraham Lincoln issued the next day.
  • Thomas Conolly: An Irish MP who dabbled in blockade running, his misadventures earned him a front-row seat to the demise of the Confederacy, which he enlivened by keeping the cocktails flowing at Richmond’s battered Spotswood Hotel.

While none of these characters were so rude as to steal the show from the main characters (as did Jane Dudley, Duchess of Northumberland, who appropriated half of an earlier novel, Her Highness, the Traitor, for herself), each could well carry a novel on his or her own. For the writer of biographical historical fiction, there’s never a shortage of stories to tell-whether they be of a first lady, a rebel, or even one’s own grandparents.

Many thanks, Susan. I’m sure these characters will enliven your latest novel. And with Mary Todd Lincoln (hello – my name is Mary Tod!) and Emily Todd Helm, it sounds like a perfect one for me! Wishing you lots of success.

The First Lady and the Rebel by Susan Higginbotham ~~ The story of Mary Todd Lincoln and Emily Todd Helm, two sisters on separate sides of history, fighting for the country they believe in against the people they love most.

When the Civil War cracks the country in two, First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln watches from the White House as the blows of a divided nation shake her people and her husband, President Lincoln, to their very core. As the news of wartime enter the Oval Office, Mary waits with bated breath, both for the hopes of a Northern victory as well as in distress of a bloody Southern defeat.

Mary, like many people during this time, have a family that is torn between North and South. her beloved sister Emily is across party lines, fighting for the Confederates, and Mary is at risk of losing both the country she loves and the family she has had to abandon in the tides of this brutal war.

Available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Indie Bound

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

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.

An Unusual Royal Love Story

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I’m in awe of authors who write about truly ancient times – and  Judith Starkston is one of them! This tale of ancient marriage and political intrigue comes from her novel Priestess of Ishana, the first book in her Tesha series, which is available free on Amazon October 2-6 as part of the launch Oct 14 of the second book, Sorcery in Alpara.

An Unusual Royal Love Story: When Hattusili Met Puduhepa ~~ by Judith Starkston

I write historical fantasy based on the Bronze Age Hittites (c. 1275 BCE)—an empire of the ancient Near East nearly buried by the sands of time. In spite of the vivid glimpses of this lost kingdom brought to light by recent archaeology and the decipherment and translation of many thousands of clay tablets, there still remain vast gaps in historians’ knowledge. To be honest about my imaginative filling of those gaps, my storytelling combines fantasy and history.

For instance, I give my historical figures fictional names, though often only minimally different from their real names. I also let the magical religious beliefs of these historic people find full expression in the action. My “quarter turn to the fantastic,” to borrow Guy Gavriel Kay’s phrase, allows me to honor what we actually know while also owning up to my inventive extensions. Allowing room for the fantastical elements suggested by Hittite culture makes for the best storytelling.

At the heart of my series is a love story—one that spanned about forty years. The historical record tells us about the start of this relationship between Puduhepa, priestess of Ishtar at the goddess’s temple in Lawazantiya, and King Hattusili, younger brother of the Great King of the Hittite Empire. (In my novels the character who represents Puduhepa is named Tesha after the Hittite word for ‘dream’ because the historic woman was famous for her visionary dreams. Hattusili goes by the shortened name Hattu.)

The usual path for a royal family member was an arranged marriage designed to solidify relations between kingdoms or powerful families. Hattusili, royal prince, also served as king of one of the most troublesome parts of the empire—a lesser king to the Great King, but powerful and trusted by Great King Muwattalli. Thus his marriage would have been more consequential than most.

Hattusili did make a politically useful marriage, but we have no evidence that Great King Muwattalli arranged it. Instead the record gives us an intriguing tale with mystical elements.

Hattusili composed a document that is sometimes referred to as his “Autobiography” or “Apology.” In form it is the announcement of the dedication of a landed estate to the goddess Ishtar, and it describes the ways Hattusili has experienced Ishtar’s divine providence throughout his life. It’s not an unbiased account—if such a thing exists. However, other documents, such as prayers and decrees, as well as his actions support the authenticity of Hattusili’s devotion to Ishtar and therefore the integrity of this narrative.

Hattusili described in this document how when his brother decided to go to war against Egypt, he served as his brother’s general and brought his small kingdom’s troops and chariots with him. A good deal later, on the way home from this military encounter known as the Battle of Kadesh, Hattusili made a detour to dedicate his portion of the battle loot to his goddess Ishtar at her most illustrious temple in Lawazantiya. He believed he owed his victory over Egypt to his goddess, and he put his money on that belief and paid her back. Of the unexpected event that occurred while making these offerings, he said (Hoffner’s translation):

At the command of the goddess Ishtar I took Puduhepa, daughter of the priest Pentipsharri, as my wife. We joined in matrimony, and the goddess gave us the love of husband and wife. We had sons and daughters. On this occasion the goddess my lady appeared to me in a dream saying: “Serve me with your household!” So I served the goddess together with my household. The goddess was there with us in the household which we made, and our household thrived. This too was a sign of Ishtar’s honoring me.

 

Ishtar arranged, even commanded, his marriage, and the results were harmonious.

In the same autobiographical document, Hattusili also mentioned accusations of sorcery brought against him around this same time. I used this bare outline of events as a foundation to build the plot of Priestess of Ishana.

We know from the poignancy of Puduhepa’s prayers on her husband’s behalf (he suffered poor health) and many other indications that this historic couple gained profound support from their love for each other. They worked as equals, which was allowed under Hittite law and custom, but wasn’t the common king-queen relationship. Puduhepa showed brilliant skills as his queen in many areas: administrative, diplomatic, judicial, religious and familial. Ishtar’s command, which they both said they received via dreams, suited them well. Their long partnership certainly suits my fiction well.

rock carving in Turkey along the old Hittite trade road that depicts Puduhepa and Hattusili making offerings

Of course, no marriage is without troubles, and I do not spare these two characters—conflict is the sustenance of good storytelling. The insiders’ view of this marriage’s unusual beginning serves as an excellent starting point for the first book in the series, Priestess of Ishana, and the overall arc of their relationship underpins the other books. I chose in the second book, Sorcery in Alpara, to put their love to some striking tests because I have observed that long-lasting, happy marriages get there by slogging through bad times, not by having fairytale endings. Although these “tests” qualify as one of those gaps I fill imaginatively, I cannot believe two rulers of a fractious, problematic kingdom who were beset by enemies on all sides could have entirely avoided marital crises. They would have had to learn by trial and error how to conduct that enduring partnership. There were few if any models around them, and their marriage stood out among the ancients as famously remarkable—a true equal meeting of minds and hearts.

Here is an excerpt from Chapter 7, Priestess of Ishana, depicting the moment Tesha and Hattu first lay eyes on each other, the beginning of this unusual royal love story:

Cries of alarm arose from the courtyard of Ishana’s temple.

“It’s a curse.”

“No one’s safe!”

“It will kill us.”

Hattu worked his way through the throng to the base of the steps that led to the sacrificial area. A curse? His limbs hummed with tension as they did in battle.

At the center of the crowd, a trembling boy leaned against an old man with a white beard and weather-beaten face.

Hattu looked at the frightened child, then signaled his men by the entryway to be watchful. Marak caught his eye and nodded.

A distinguished, gray-haired man dressed in the fur-trimmed, black robes of Grand Votary of Ishana appeared at the top of the stairs and raised his hands to order silence.

“Where are these shepherds?” The Grand Votary spoke with forbidding sternness.

The child shrank against the old man.

A servant stepped forward and pointed. “There, sir.”

The shepherd, pushing the boy along, stepped closer. Hattu thought they must be the same two he’d seen earlier on the lower trail.

In the shadows of the portico behind the open area for sacrifices, folds of a red gown swung into view. One of Ishana’s priestesses. For a moment, the striking profile of a woman leaned into the light and then slipped back out of sight—all but the outline of her shapely arm. Hattu stretched to catch a better view.

“This old man and his grandson say they found a dead body,” the servant said. “They saw signs of sorcery in the cave.”

“The cave?” The Grand Votary’s voice grew shrill. “What’s this?” He descended the stairs. The old man panted with shortness of breath. The boy’s small chest rose in jerks of fear and the sound of his sobs carried to Hattu.

The young priestess came into the open, down the stairs, past the Grand Votary, close to the grandfather and child.

At the sight of her, an unfamiliar surge in Hattu’s heart caught him off guard. Slipping from under her veil, her long black hair glistened with the iridescence of a dragonfly over water. He could imagine it pouring through his fingers. He took in her luxuriantly proportioned body and recalled his conversation with Marak about bedmates. He ducked his head to clear it. This wasn’t a moment to let a pretty girl distract him.

He stepped closer. Her gaze went straight to him for an instant and she nodded, as if she recognized him. A sense of familiarity drew him to her. Impossible. Hattu shook off the sensation. A curse threatened.

Priestess of Ishana by Judith Starkston, available free on Amazon Oct 2-6  ~~ A curse, a conspiracy and the clash of kingdoms. A defiant priestess confronts her foes, armed only with ingenuity and forbidden magic.

An award-winning epic fantasy, Priestess of Ishana draws on the true-life of a remarkable but little-known Hittite queen who ruled over one of history’s most powerful empires.

A malignant curse from the Underworld threatens Tesha’s city with fiery devastation. The young priestess of Ishana, goddess of love and war, must overcome this demonic darkness. Charred remains of an enemy of the Hitolian Empire reveal both treason and evil magic. Into this crisis, King Hattu, the younger brother of the Great King, arrives to make offerings to the goddess Ishana, but he conceals his true mission in the city. As a connection sparks between King Hattu and Tesha, the Grand Votary accuses Hattu of murderous sorcery. Isolated in prison and facing execution, Hattu’s only hope lies in Tesha to uncover the conspiracy against him. Unfortunately, the Grand Votary is Tesha’s father, a rash, unyielding man, and now her worst enemy. To help Hattu, she must risk destroying her own father.

What a wonderful story, Judith. Some day you’ll have to tell me how you became fascinated with the Hittites!

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

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.

Interview with author Eugenia West

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I first encountered Eugenia Lovett West when her most recent novel – Sarah’s War – was released. As someone who began writing after a thirty-year career in business, I was fascinated to learn that Eugenia West is well into her nineties. She says that her goal is to keep on waking up every morning with the urge to create. Amen to that!

What was the inspiration for writing your first novel, The Ancestors Cry Out? 

Thanks so much for inviting me to be on your blog, What was my inspiration for writing my first novel, The Ancestor’s Cry Out? I fell in love with the island of Jamaica when visiting family there—and this was in the 1960’s before it became a popular resort. Women still walked along the road with baskets on heads and there were few cars. The beauty of sea and sky was dramatic, the people were warm and friendly. As well, there was great contrast between the shore and the higher elevation. A trip into the hills and a visit to a sugar plantation introduced me to a wilder landscape and sense of a strong sub-culture, sometimes voodoo. I read a number of journals written by wives of British governors with tales of uprisings and tragedy. The combination of beauty and the undercurrents of danger led me to invent a cast of characters and to send a young woman from Boston on a mission to find a lost inheritance.

What keeps you writing?

I believe strongly in the value of escape reading. For me, it started when I had little children and nap time was a chance to read and regain sanity. These days, the need for escape reading may be stronger than ever, and my aim is to give readers total immersion into another world. I come from a long line of preachers and teachers and I may have inherited a love of playing with words.  As well, the euphoria when a manuscript is accepted does overcome the pain of rejection. And—at age 96, it’s a gift to wake up in the morning with the urge to create.

Do you begin with plot or character?

For writing history, I’m apt to begin with plot. Sarah’s War evolved after reading about the winter of 1777 in Philadelphia, the contrast between General Washington’s disintegrating militia at Valley Forge, the sickness, the bleeding feet in the snow. Now picture British officers living the high life in winter quarters in Philadelphia. There were weekly balls at Mr. Smith’s City Tavern, sports, musicales. This culminated in a farewell party for General Sir William Howe modeled after an old fashioned jousting tournament and ending with a grand ball and fireworks costing thousands of pounds. An extravaganza—nothing like this had ever happened in the colonies. The contrast led me to start years of research. I spent four days reliving the Battle at the Brandywine River. I knew where every regiment in both armies was standing, and how the British general, Lord Cornwallis, made a fearful mistake by allowing his troops fall out for a leisurely lunch, giving Washington’s men a chance to avoid a trap and escape. The first version of Sarah’s War was far longer, with three main characters.  In the end, to make the story move faster, I concentrated on one character, Sarah. It caused me great pain to cut out many pages of careful research, but I tried hard to maintain a sense of what it was like to live in that dangerous time. Loyalists and fence sitters outnumbered patriots. The streets were filled with informers and spies. There was no structure of governance, just thirteen states each with their own demands. We owe a great deal to those first patriots who might well have been hung if the war for independence was lost.

You’ve written novels since the 1970s. What changes to the industry do you think are most significant?

My sense is that changes in the last few decades are giving writers far more opportunities to see their manuscripts become books that you can hold in your hand. When I started writing novels, it was almost essential to have an agent with connections to editors. The alternative was expensive vanity publishing. Now many books are self-published and profitable. There are more small presses, and there’s also a new game in town—hybrid publishing. The author pays up front and the hybrid publisher produces a presentable book—cover, ISBN, links to distributers etc.  Depending on the success of the print run, the author gets a high percentage of earnings. There have been other major changes. I used to work on an electric typewriter and mistakes had to be covered with white ink. Then came computers. Unlike children who seem to be born hardwired with technical skills, my generation struggled with the learning process—I still treat my computer with wary respect. In fact, when I started writing there was no internet and no social media like Facebook and Instagram and Twitter, giving writers the chance to build up lists of fans and followers.

What lessons have you learned from your long career writing fiction?

The answer is many—and often the hard way through trial and error. Readers and writers are starting off on a journey together. It’s up to the writer to create a bond—and that bond must be created as soon as possible. I learned that it takes many hours and many thousands of words to find one’s “voice” or particular style—my theory is that writing is 10% talent and 90% applying the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair. I discovered that I don’t have a gift for clever metaphors, but I do have an ear for dialogue that can move a story along without lengthy descriptions. It helped that when my youngest child was in school all day, I became a freelance reporter for a number of weeklies in New Jersey. Journalism teaches one to check facts and to cut down on adverbs and adjectives that detract from strong writing. Feeling important, I rushed around with my Nikkon camera covering everything from sewage disposal meetings to national conventions. Then, instead of 300 words, why not 300 pages? My first novel was sheer trash, but the second, The Ancestors Cry Out, was picked up by Doubleday. I learned that, for me, suspense is essential. I want the reader to be compelled to turn the page.

You’ve written both historical fiction and contemporary. What appeals to you about each genre?

As a story teller, not a bone fide historian, I owe a great deal to non-fiction writers like McCullough and Ellis and Philbrick. History can be flexible, accounts handed down are subject to change. For example, Malcolm Gladwell writes that it wasn’t Boston patriots dressed as Indians that boarded ships and threw tea overboard. It was tea smugglers, concerned that imported tea would eat into their profits. Historical fiction demands that you balance facts and imagination. Great care must be taken when introducing actual figures like George Washington and Alexander Hamilton. On the other hand, for mysteries, there are rules to follow like planting red herrings, valid clues, surprise endings. The villain is always caught and justice must triumph. Mysteries come in many shapes and sizes, but for me a husband killing his wife in a bathtub is not an option. Mine have global sub-plots like advanced weaponry, illegal viruses, and cybercrime. To sum up, I think there is a special dimension to writing history because both reader and writer gain insights from expanding our knowledge of the past and of the people who changed the world. It’s a never ending source of interest.

Many thanks for sharing your perspective, Eugenia. Readers will be fascinated with your experience and inspired by your career.

Sarah’s War by Eugenia Lovett West ~~ 1777 is a pivotal year in the United States. The Revolutionary War has long since begun, with no end in sight. George Washington and his untrained militia struggle to survive. The thirteen states are torn apart by politics. Amidst all this chaos, Sarah Champion—a beautiful young Patriot and parson’s daughter whose twin brother was killed in the Battle of Long Island—is sent from rural Connecticut to live with a rich Loyalist aunt in Philadelphia. There, she is plunged into a world of intrigue and treachery. She spies on British officers enjoying festivities in winter quarters. She goes to Valley Forge with information about a plot to kill Washington.

As the war drags on, Sarah digs deep for the strength, courage, and wits to overcome the numerous deadly threats she faces, driven on by her determination to realize one dream: being part of the efforts to form a new and independent country.

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

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.