Dialogue and character with Sarah Taylor

Sarah Taylor has a BA in History and an MSLS and is a writer of historical fiction who recently published her first novel, Beautiful Dreamer, a novel about Steven Foster We met online as people do these days and our conversation led to today’s post. Welcome to A Writer of History, Sarah.

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M.K. Tod’s article, “7 Elements of Historical Fiction” outlines the seven most important aspects of historical fiction. I will focus on two of them, dialogue and character, as they shaped my recent novel, Beautiful Dreamer. Set in nineteenth century Pittsburgh, it follows the life of America’s first professional composer, Stephen Collins Foster. I have previously written historical fiction and historical fantasy about fictional characters.

Many new historical fiction authors create characters who behave like twenty-first century people, no matter the era they lived in, but, as historical novelist Harry Sidebottom said, “The past is another country.” It can be difficult to think as someone in another era thought, especially when they may have had beliefs contrary to the twenty-first century’s. With fictional characters, it’s easy to want to make them likeable—“They should be anti-slavery or pro-suffrage”—forgetting that political correctness as we know it today did not exist until 1970; before then, it meant “according to fixed laws” (late 15th century) or “in a politic manner” (1580s). Especially with real historical figures, they may have thought differently than people do now, and, even if you wonder, “How could they have thought that?”, it is important to represent them fairly and accurately.

For instance, in real life and as portrayed in my novel, Beautiful Dreamer, the Foster family was mostly conservative and pro-Southern, though they lived in the North, while Stephen Foster was pro-Union and anti-slavery. His father was a Jacksonian, and his brother wrote articles during the Civil War like “The Uses of Slave States,” while Stephen dedicated songs to President Lincoln. The family didn’t necessarily write why they believed what they did, which meant reading between the lines and researching reasons why similar people were pro-Southern or pro-slavery. It broadens our perspective to look at both sides of an issue, such as the North and the South, beyond the one side that’s commonly taught or discussed. Though the Civil War is often cast in moral terms, such as the North was “right” and the South was “wrong,” writing and researching different perspectives on the war helped me see all sides of an issue. As a historian and as a writer, I try to portray historical individuals sympathetically, no matter their political views.

Their hundreds of family letters opened a window on how they talked, and I drew quotes from them as they fit into the story. For instance, Stephen later wrote a friend about selling his song “Oh! Susanna” that “Though this song was not successful, yet the two fifty-dollar bills I received for it had the effect of starting me on my present vocation as songwriter.” I included this quote in the scene where he sells “Oh! Susanna” to a publisher and is happy to receive two fifty-dollar bills for it, though the publisher made $10,000 on the song. Historical people spoke and wrote differently in some ways than we do, but, in many ways, people from the nineteenth century spoke and wrote similarly to now and used familiar idioms. What Diana Gabaldon calls the “PBS voiceover effect” often used in Civil War era novels and films may be exaggerated.

If writing fictional characters, reading letters by individuals similar to your characters, whether a nineteenth century aristocrat or an eighteenth-century maid, would help, as would reading plays and novels of the time, such as Shakespeare or Charles Dickens. The Little Book of Lost Words: Collywobbles, Snollygoster, and 86 Other Surprisingly Useful Terms Worth Resurrecting, by Joe Gillard, creator of the website “History Hustle,” compiles historical words that are no longer commonly used (but should be), and the Writer’s Digest Writer’s Guide to Everyday Life series covers historical eras from the Middle Ages to the Wild West, compiling every fact important to constructing a historical era, including a glossary of slang unique to that era. Etymonline.com and dictionaries such as Oxford English Dictionary list the etymology of every word and idiom and when they first appeared.

While accuracy is important to historical dialogue, so is readability. If the dialogue is too historically accurate, a twenty-first century person might not understand it. For instance, I had to edit the quote from Stephen Foster above in the novel for clarity. It’s important to strike a balance between accuracy and understandability. I also fit dialogue from recollections of friends and family who knew Stephen into the story, including the scene where Stephen proposes to his wife, Jane McDowell, after both he and a rival suitor, Dick Cowan, accidentally show up at her house at the same time:

The next time I came [to Jane’s house], Joe [the servant] brought none other than Dick into the parlor. “What’s Dick doing here?” I whispered to Jane, but she just rose with a smile as Dick hung up his military broadcloth cape.

“Good evening, Miss Jane. You’re looking wonderful as always.”

“You flatterer.” She laughed as they sat down.

“Good evening, sir,” Dick told me. I turned my back to them and didn’t answer, picking up a book and flipping pages without knowing the contents. Why was Dick here unless Jane had asked him to come and forgotten I was coming at this time? Jane and Dick went on talking as if nothing were amiss, and I went on flipping pages. If I acknowledged him, that would give him more reason to tease me the next day. At long last, Dick stood up and said, “Good night, Miss Jane” and “Good night, sir” to me. I ignored him. Picking up his cape, Dick left, and Jane rose to see him out.

I stood, shaking; if Jane mixed up the times on purpose, she achieved her desired effect. When Jane returned, I gathered up my nerve to ask her. “And now, Miss Jane, I want your answer. Is it a yes? Or is it a no?”

She blinked, startled, and then recovered with a slight smile. “Yes.”

I wrapped my arms around her waist and kissed her. Yes. She said yes.

Don’t be afraid to let your historical characters, whether fictional or real, espouse views that may now be considered controversial. At one point, they may have been considered mainstream; woman’s suffrage, for instance, used to be a minority view, while most women were indifferent or opposed to it. Use primary sources, such as letters and literature, for historical thought processes and dialogue, as well as dictionaries and etymonline.com to avoid anachronisms. By following the “7 Elements of Historical Fiction” outlined by M.K. Tod’s blog post, you’ll be able to write historical fiction that readers will be immersed in and remember.

Many thanks, Sarah, for adding to the discussion of the seven elements of historical fiction.

Beautiful Dreamer by Sarah Taylor ~~ Quiet and dreamy-eyed, Stephen Foster wants nothing more than to be a musician in a world where boys are supposed to grow up and go into business, like the family hero, his older brother William. Even though he can play the flute perfectly from the age of six, his family’s expectations of a traditional profession drive him to Cincinnati, where he works at his older brother Dunning’s warehouse. While in Cincinnati, he publishes his first great hit at the age of twenty-one, “Oh! Susanna.” With Firth, Pond and Company, the best New York publisher, to sell his songs and E.P. Christy, among the greatest of minstrel performers, to sing them, Stephen is sure he can make songwriting his business. He turns out hits like “Old Folks at Home” and “My Old Kentucky Home, Good Night,” songs that Frederick Douglass said “awaken the sympathies for the slave,” as if his life depends on it. With the Civil War approaching and personal tragedies striking, it does.

Beautiful Dreamer is available at Amazon and Barnes and Noble.

Missing in Action …

Dear friends – since beginning A Writer of History in 2012, I’ve posted twice a week almost every week. While there were times when I struggled to find a topic that would illuminate the topic of reading and writing historical fiction, for the most part the creative juices flowed with the able and welcome assistance of other authors, readers, and bloggers.

However, the last two or three months have been a challenge. Not only have I worked very hard alongside the wonderful team of volunteers putting on this year’s HNSNA – Historical Novel Society North America – conference, but I have also released Paris In Ruins and dealt with my increasingly frail mother. The workload has been heavy.

Beyond that, my mother’s decline has been difficult to watch and has affected me emotionally, draining my usual can-do attitude and approach to life.

Please bear with me …

On the good news front, on Thursday, author Sarah Taylor will share thoughts on dialogue and character in historical fiction. And when the conference is over, I’ll be able to share my notes from some of the panels and presentations I’ve moderated. So stay tuned!

Many thanks for your ongoing interest and support.

DON’T MISS OTHER POSTS ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION.  FOLLOW A WRITER OF HISTORY

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, PARIS IN RUINS, is available for pre-order 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.

Characters Stranger than Fiction by Maryka Biaggio

Maryka Biaggio is a psychology professor turned novelist who specializes in historical fiction based on real people. Maryka told me that she enjoys the challenge of starting with actual people and dramatizing their lives and motivations while recreating their emotional world through dialogue and action. With the release of her latest novel, The Point of Vanishing, she reflects on the characters she’s discovered whose lives are stranger than fiction. Over to you, Maryka!

Who hasn’t tossed out the adage “truth is stranger than fiction” after hearing some absurd but true tale? In fact, the saying has turned cliché from overuse. But when it comes to fiction writers, reanimating the lives of real people is a serious matter. And many readers find their interest especially piqued by novels based on actual persons. Could it be that we are compelled to compare ourselves to others, and, when those others are real people, that their tales are even more captivating? 

If we agree that one particular fascination stories hold for us is the means of measuring ourselves against others, it is not at all difficult to understand the attraction of stories based on real characters. Unbelievable as their motives may be, far-fetched as their actions and circumstances may seem, these people actually lived. Witness the popularity of a spate of novels based on real characters: The Aviator’s Wife by Melanie Benjamin gives us a behind-the-scenes glimpse of Anne Morrow Lindbergh and her resilience in seeing her and her husband through their strange history; Ariel Lawhon’s I was Anastasia tells the fascinating story of Anna Anderson’s battle to be recognized as Anastasia Romanov; and The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd is based on the true story of a young woman given ownership of another human being in the early 1800s.

I specialize in writing historical fiction based on real people. My own recently released novel, The Point of Vanishing, recounts the tale of the gifted writer Barbara Follett, who disappeared without a trace at age 25. My debut novel, Parlor Games, tells the tale of beautiful and cunning May Dugas, who conned her way from America to Shanghai, London, and points in between. I continue to be amazed by the number of readers who tell me that knowing May was a real person made the novel all the more fascinating.  And I expect those who are interested in Barbara Follett’s story will feel the same about The Point of Vanishing.

So I believe readers take a particular delight in the stories about real people. For if some real character could mastermind the most daring plot to separate a millionaire from his money, what adventures might be in store for any of us? If another could rise from poor beginnings and attain greatness, what might the meekest among us achieve? 

According to Italo Calvino, it all began with the first chronicler of the tribe: “The storyteller began to put forth words, not because he thought others might reply with other, predictable words, but . . . in order to extract an explanation of the world from the thread of every possible spoken narrative.” We humans are meaning-making machines, and it is stories that grease the gears of our turning minds. In its most basic form, story is about confronting life’s questions and quandaries. Writer E.A. Durden claims that “it is the job of fiction to portray the full spectrum of human possibility, to remind ourselves of everything we are capable of—from exploring the heavens to breaking out of the clink.” What better way to explore the possibilities than through actual lived experiences?

Of course, comparing ourselves to others doesn’t happen only in fiction, or even in such other narrative forms as biography or memoir—witness the popularity of polls, those ubiquitous instruments of public opinion and habit. And if there is any doubt about this need to compare, consider what happened when Alfred Kinsey released his highly technical and research-laden 1948 book “Sexual Behavior in the Human Male.” Thinking this tome would be of interest only to the scientific community, W.P. Saunders printed just 5,000 copies. Against all expectations, this book so intrigued the public that the publishing house had to keep two presses rolling to meet the demand. Within fifteen weeks of its release, the 800-page volume had shot to near the top of the bestseller list. Of course, the fact that the topic was sexual behavior helped propel sales, but this doesn’t undermine the point. In fact, it confirms a variant—the more taboo or personal the content of the “story,” the more appeal it will hold for our story-hungry minds. 

I don’t expect the urge to compare ourselves to others, to take the measure of people who created their own success—or demise—will ever end. There will always be a demand for novels based on characters stranger than fiction. 

Congratulations on the release of your newest novel, Maryka. And thank you for sharing thoughts on the eagerness readers have for fiction based on true characters. I love novels based on real people and can’t wait to read your latest. Readers can also enjoy my conversation with Maryka about what makes historical fiction tick.

THE POINT OF VANISHING by Maryka Biaggio is based on the true story of author Barbara Follett. On a December night in 1939 Barbara Follett fought with her husband and stormed out of their Boston home never to be heard from again. Now novelist Maryka Biaggio provides a captivating account of Barbara’s enigmatic life—and disappearance.

Barbara had all the makings of promise and success. Early on, her parents recognized her shining intellect and schooled her at home. At age twelve, she published the novel The House Without Windows to much acclaim. When she was fourteen, her charming account of a sailing journey, The Voyage of the Norman D, was released. But when tragedy struck the family, Barbara floundered. Watch the trailer for more!

DON’T MISS OTHER POSTS ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION.  FOLLOW A WRITER OF HISTORY

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, PARIS IN RUINS, is available for pre-order 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.