Barbara (B.A.) Shapiro is the NYT bestselling author of THE MURALIST and THE ART FORGER, both stories of art, mystery and history with a bit of romance thrown in. A few years ago, I had the pleasure of sharing coffee with Barbara as she was working on her latest novel, The Collector’s Apprentice. It’s a treat to have Barbara share some of her reflections on writing historical fiction.
How did you get started writing historical fiction?
I’ve written twelve novels over the past thirty years—eight of which have been published—and nine of these have been either totally of partially historical. I never had a plan to write historical fiction, it just worked for many of the stories I was interested in writing. And, of course, I got kind of addicted to living in completely different worlds. I also mix fictional characters with actual historical persons, and this is great fun.
What have you learned over the years?
When I wrote my first historical, I spent almost a year doing research before I began to write. My second about six months. My third about three, with much of the research going hand-in-hand with the writing process. What I learned is that, for me, it’s better to do a more cursory review of the time and place at the beginning, noting more where the information is than going into it in depth, and then returning to the specifics as I find I need them.
What do you like most about writing historical fiction?
To me, the great power of historical fiction is the genre’s ability to allow the reader to step back from their assumptions and explore the human experience with fewer preconceived notions. For example, in my novel The Muralist, the protagonist is struggling to get her Jewish family out of Europe in 1939, a plot line that engendered much sympathy for her and the immigrant experience. The book came out in 2016, just as the issue of immigration was becoming politicized, and I hope that my readers were more empathetic to the immigrants’ plight because they had empathized with Alizée’s.
What are you working on now?
Not surprisingly, after three heavily historical novels set all over the country and world, the new one is contemporary and is set in Boston, where I live. A girl’s got to have some variety.
What advice do you have for new authors?
I have two pieces of advice. First, get your butt in the chair and stay there. Second, let yourself write it wrong: that’s what rewrites are for.
Many thanks, Barbara. These days I so appreciate the way writing allows me to escape. Right now I’m in 1870 Paris rather than 2020 Covid-19 North America. But I am having trouble keeping my butt in the chair!
The Collector’s Apprentice by B.A. Shapiro ~~ It’s the summer of 1922, and nineteen-year-old Paulien Mertens finds herself in Paris—broke, disowned, and completely alone. Everyone in Belgium, including her own family, believes she stole millions in a sophisticated con game perpetrated by her then-fiancé, George Everard. To protect herself from the law and the wrath of those who lost everything, she creates a new identity, a Frenchwoman named Vivienne Gregsby, and sets out to recover her father’s art collection, prove her innocence—and exact revenge on George.
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the modern world is still governed by forces as ancient as the hills: power vs. weakness, love vs. hatred, truth vs. lies, life vs. death. Thus, the stories of our past, be it recent or distant, tend to closely mirror our present-day situation.
Not only has the path from then to now been continuous, but the way we define ourselves is largely in reaction to the generations that came before us. We may have rejected many of their beliefs and behaviors, but we reject in opposition to them and in so doing are defined in large measure by them. We are not painting on a blank canvas. As Booker winner Barry Unsworth put it, the past “belongs to us because it made us what we are.”
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? … We wrestle with the moral questions of our day, and so should our characters.
there are entire fields of scientific investigation—anthropology, paleoanthropology, archeology, evolutionary genetics—devoted to my subject. So that’s where I went. To read the research studies, papers, and articles that these scientists have presented since the first Neanderthal fossil was discovered in the Neander Valley in Germany in 1856.
This recent research teamwork has reminded me once again of the importance of approaching your historical research as a child, especially in the early stages. This means getting your hands dirty and staying focused on daily life.
And there you have it. A year of terrific guest posts and great insights on historical fiction.
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I had the great good fortune to meet Leslie Carroll at the HNS conference in Denver. Not only is she an author, writing under her own name as well as those of Juliet Grey and Amanda Elyot, Leslie is also an actor with many stage credits. Listening to her in one-on-one conversation and during panel discussions, one can readily appreciated her dynamic personality and determination.
Today Leslie gives us her take on the unique aspects of historical fiction.
What are the ‘magic ingredients’ that make historical fiction unforgettable or irresistible to readers?
Irresistible historical fiction should transport readers to another time and place, completely immersing them in the experience of another era. When readers close the book, they should be surprised to find themselves (back) in the 21st century.
What techniques do you employ to create that magic?
I begin with extensive research, not only about my characters (I write about actual historical figures) but about the era itself, about the clothing, the food, the furniture, the gardens, etc. And I aim to engage all five senses, placing the reader within the novel, rather than observing the action from the outside. I want the reader to feel as though she or he is standing beside the characters in the room, seeing and hearing, tasting, touching, and smelling what they are—an active participant, rather than a passive observer. This gives the reader more of a stake in the outcome.
How are historical novels inherently different from contemporary novels?
The author is immersing her or his reader in a very specific world—but it’s a bygone era, and one that has its rules and parameters already laid out. You can’t just strap a sword or a corset on a character and have them behave (or speak) the way we do in 2015. The manners and mores of the past are very often quite different from ours; and therefore characters (especially women) will do things that may seem out of step with choices a contemporary character would have or make. I firmly believe that authors must remain true to the ethos of the historical era in which their novels are set, otherwise, why write historical fiction? I despise anachronisms in novels, whether in behavior or dialogue.
What aspects about the past do you specifically try to highlight in your novels?
Here’s my “and yet . . .” moment, because sometimes I find that there are contemporary echoes even though my novel is very firmly anchored in a specific year in the past. What continues to fascinate me about history is the adage that those who don’t learn from it are doomed to repeat it. And so often I discover as I write my books that current events (whether globally, or in America) are mirroring some of the events in my novels. It was certainly true of American politics as I was writing CONFESSIONS OF MARIE ANTOINETTE, the final novel in my Marie Antoinette trilogy (under the pen name Juliet Grey), which takes place from October 1789 to October 1793. There was not a single reference, even obliquely, in my novel to contemporary American politics, but as an author I could not help but see history repeating itself in certain ways. And in my Amanda Elyot novel THE MEMOIRS OF HELEN OF TROY, when the twin towers of Ilium (Troy) crumbled during the siege of Troy, I couldn’t help, as a New York City native who witnessed the fall of the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center on 9-11, thinking about the parallels.
Yet the primary aspects of the past that I find myself highlighting in my novels are those of our common humanity (between then and now) as well as the common lack thereof, the ironic parallels in both circumstances. But I don’t set out to hit this; it seems to come out organically, so it must be in my selection of material in the first place!
I also write about some of the “bad girls of history,” women who have undeservedly gotten a bad reputation, due to their lives being propagandized by the men who wrote the pamphlets or biographies or textbooks about them. History is written by the winners, as we know, and my real-life heroines (e.g., Helen of Troy, Emma Hamilton, Marie Antoinette) have gotten the short end of the stick. One thing I do, writing in the first person POV, is give these women the chance to reclaim their own stories.
In writing historical fiction, what techniques do you use to ensure that conflict, plot, setting, dialogue, and characters are true to the time period?
My novels focus on actual historical figures, so the plot is driven by the events of their lives, which were chock-full of conflict to begin with. So, ensuring that plot and characters are true to the time period is not a challenge for me. I try to immerse myself in the era in which the novel is set, no matter which era it is. I listen to music written during that time period, if it’s available. For the Marie Antoinette trilogy I even burned candles from Cire Trudon, a candle maker that has been in business since the reign of Louis XIV (!) and from whom Marie Antoinette commissioned bespoke scents. Extensive research in printed books, online, plus traveling to locations (such as Versailles, for example), allows me to see where and how my characters lived. As for writing dialogue, I am also a professional actress. With a background in performing dialogue, including classical plays, I began my career as an author with a sense of how to write dialogue. So, if it sounds stilted, or it doesn’t sound as if a real person is speaking, it doesn’t go into the novel. Ditto, if it sounds too contemporary. But if it sounds too arcane, no one will understand it.
Can you share any of the unique sources or challenges for the time period(s) you write about?
Sometimes it’s surprisingly difficult to find information, sources, and resources. I have started to write a novel set in 17th c. France and am discovering that as vast a trove of information as there is on mid to late 18th c. France, the mid to late 17th c. is remarkably sparse! I find very little on furniture and furnishings, garments, home and garden design, etc. The France of Louis XIV is not the same as the England of Charles II, even though the years are the same; but I have no interest in fudging it!
What do you do to ensure your characters are fully imagined in the historical context?
Research, research, research. The characters must behave according to their time. I am not one of those authors who never lets the facts get in the way of a good story. I am one of those authors who adheres closely to the historical record and then adds an author’s note at the back explaining when and where I diverged from the facts and why I did so. My job as an author of historical fiction (and the word “historical” comes before the word “fiction”) is to first provide the history for the reader and then embellish the story from there, filling in, embroidering and embellishing the spaces in between. That’s where I get to create the fiction. For example, I know from my research—the facts—that Marie Antoinette and Louis were married for seven years before they finally conceived a child and that in their first several months of marriage he visited her bed faithfully, and yet nothing happened (no conception); however, the court was astonished that the teenage spouses, so different from one another, became close friends. So, with my author’s powers of deduction, something was going on in the privacy of that royal bedchamber even if it wasn’t sexual intercourse, something to draw these teens closer, things they disclosed and shared in the darkness. And that’s where I can create the fiction (imagining what transpired in the boudoir) that became the fact (where courtiers and ministers letters and memoirs stated that the two became friends).
Have other writers of historical fiction influenced you and, if so, how?
I enjoy the writing of many other living authors, but I will not name any of them because someone will read this and wonder “Hey, why didn’t she didn’t name me?!” and, stepping into their shoes, I would not want to feel that pinch. I’m too empathetic, because whenever I see a colleague’s short list of their favorite HF authors and I’m not on it, I’ll admit that I die just a little. Maybe I need to get a thicker skin, but I like to think it’s my vulnerability that allows me to delve deep into my characters’ psyches and empathize with them.
I will not read a colleague’s novel set in the same time period as my wip because I don’t want to be influenced by another’s work, even subconsciously. When I was writing the Marie Antoinette trilogy I had Hilary Mantel’s A PLACE OF GREATER SAFETY on my nightstand for years. I still haven’t read it (though I did read her brilliant WOLF HALL novels). I think Mantel is terrific but I would not consider her an influence on my writing. I would like to think that while I admire several authors, living and deceased, my writer’s voice and my point of view with regard to my subjects are uniquely my own.
Many thanks, Leslie. What a wonderful perspective you’ve added to this dialogue on ‘inside historical fiction’.
BECOMING MARIE ANTOINETTE by Juliet Grey (aka Leslie Carroll and Amanda Elyot)
Much has been written about Marie Antoinette, whose ascent to power-and steep downfall during the French Revolution-is legendary. But BECOMING MARIE ANTOINETTE offers a fresh perspective on Marie Antoinette’s young life, a topic mostly overlooked by historians until now. In this elegant and entertaining novel, Juliet Grey looks beyond the crown to the sacrifices a young, spoiled girl was compelled to make long before she could become the queen of France who would leave an indelible mark on history.