Author Robert Masello on writing historical fiction

ROBERT MASELLO is a former New York journalist, Los Angeles television writer, and currently the author of several historical novels, including his most recent, The Night Crossing. Publishers Weekly called it “an interesting alternate history [in which] Masello creatively reimagines the inspiration for Dracula with thrills, frights, and a splendid final confrontation aboard the Titanic.”

How’s that for a story concept? I’m delighted to welcome Robert on publication day for The Night Crossing. Let’s see what he has to say about writing historical fiction.

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I never meant to get into this racket. Historical fiction. But nobody believes me when I say that.

Still, I guess the signs were there all along.

In high school, the only subjects that truly interested me were history and English, and as a result, they were the two in which I excelled, winning the prizes in both (a Merriam-Webster dictionary and a copy of Barbara Tuchman’sThe Proud Tower.  I became a lifelong devotee of Tuchman, though the dictionary has long since disintegrated.)

I wrote some contemporary novels over the years, set among the struggling writers and musicians and artists of New York – a world I knew all too well – but it wasn’t until I went sort of crazy and embarked upon a supernatural, dual-narrative story about the Crimean War and, in the present-day, an Antarctic research station that I found myself truly engaged. When I was asked what I was working on, and I tried to explain, people looked at me like I’d lost my mind. I’d get a pat on the shoulder, a sympathetic glance, and a “whatever lights your fire” kind of comment. That book —Blood and Ice— was, I’m relieved to report, published by Random House and other houses all over the world, and at least nobody acts like I’ve gone off the rails anymore when I tell them my latest strange inspiration.

The Night Crossing is the most recent evidence of my penchant for mixing history and mystery, fact and fiction. Its protagonist is Bram Stoker and it purports to be the true story behind the creation of his 1897 masterpiece, Dracula. Oh yeah, I might not have made clear that I like my tales to be generously spiced with the supernatural. So this one was the ideal brew, allowing me to wallow in research of the late Victorian era and at the same time read lots of spooky stuff turned out by Stoker and some of his contemporaries.

Therein lies the danger, however, for writers of historical fiction. You can get lost in the research. You go down into the archives and only turn up again twenty years later, blinking at the sunlight, with shaggy hair and curling fingernails. Not to mention the fact that you’ve missed your deadline by maybe a decade. For The Night Crossing, I devoured a couple of biographies of Stoker –Something in the Blood by David J. Skal was indispensable –and a handful of books about the Titanic, on the decks of which the climax of the novel takes place in 1912. But then I forced myself to stop. (If you wanted to read everything ever written about the Titanic, you would never be seen again.) What I want as a writer is to be able to provide a convincing sense of immersion in the era; what I want as a reader of historical fiction is to enjoy that immersion without ever feeling that I’ve stumbled into an “information dump,” an unmediated regurgitation of the research that the author performed and, because authors do get inordinately attached to their fact-finding work, can’t resist including.  Lest I fall victim to it myself (and I’m sure I have at times), I always try to remind myself that less is more, and that the telling detail is worth a whole page of exposition.

For instance, the very fact that Stoker, desperate to become an author and not just the dog’s body to Henry Irving, the most famous actor of his day, quietly underwrote an illustrated publication of his own volume of short stories, entitled Under the Sunset, told me so much about the man himself.  Or the fact that the lookouts on the Titanic that fateful night did not have a pair of binoculars on hand. (Afterwards, it was mandated.) Or that London society at the time, in the grips of what might be called Egypt-mania, often enjoyed mummy-unwrapping parties, where the hosts desecrated the ancient remains:

“The corpse, tightly bound in discolored linen, lay like some sacrificial beast on the trestle table before him . . . The outermost bandages crisscrossed across the body, and as Thorne began to snip away at them, his sister grabbed the loose ends, tore them off, and let them flutter to the floor like confetti . . . Mina was close enough that she could smell the antique aroma of the mummy – the tarry bitumen that made up part of the coating, the salty natron that was employed as a preservative, the ancient oils and fragrances that had anointed the body after forty days of drying. The mummification process could be a long and laborious one, especially when done properly.  Each limb, each finger and toe, was separately wrapped to maintain the body’s integrity.  Reversing the process, undoing layer after layer of protective covering, was not an easy task.”

Not so different, come to think of it, from writing historical fiction, where the goal is to preserve the past and then reveal it, layer by layer, until it feels not only real, but almost alive again. Although Bram Stoker, who gave us the immortal Count Dracula, has been gone for just over a hundred years now, I like to think he’d have given me his blessing for The Night Crossing.

The Night Crossing by Robert Masello

It begins among the Carpathian peaks, when an intrepid explorer discovers a mysterious golden box. She brings it back with her to the foggy streets of Victorian London, unaware of its dangerous power…or that an evil beyond imagining has already taken root in the city.

Stoker, a successful theater manager but frustrated writer, is drawn into a deadly web spun by the wealthy founders of a mission house for the poor. Far from a safe haven, the mission harbors a dark and terrifying secret.

To save the souls of thousands, Stoker—aided by the explorer and a match girl grieving the loss of her child—must pursue an enemy as ancient as the Saharan sands where it originated. Their journey will take them through the city’s overgrown graveyards and rat-infested tunnels and even onto the maiden voyage of the world’s first “unsinkable” ship…

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.

Building an Alternative Historical World by Alison Morton

Alison Morton writes alternative historical fiction, an intriguing genre with many fans. With her novels – six to date – she’s created a world with a country in Europe called Roma Nova, founded sixteen centuries ago by Roman exiles and ruled by women. Great premise, don’t you think? The latest is called Retalio. Today Alison tells us about building such an alternative world. Over to you, Alison!

Building an alternative historical world

Romans in the 21st century? Possibly provocative, but a perfectly feasible venture into alternative history fiction. How do you do this with no historical foundation?

Setting a story in the past or in another country is already a challenge. But if you invent the country and need to meld it with history that the reader already knows, then the task is doubled.

Unless writing post-apocalyptic, the geography and climate must resemble the ones in the region where the imagined country lies. And no alternate history writer can neglect their imagined country’s social, economic and political development. This sounds dry, but every living person is a product of their local conditions. Their experience of living in a place, and struggle to make sense of it, is expressed through culture and behaviour.

Norman Davies in Vanished Kingdoms: The History of Half-Forgotten Europe reminds us that:

in order to survive, newborn states need to possess a set of viable internal organs, including a functioning executive, a defence force, a revenue system and a diplomatic force. If they possess none of these things, they lack the means to sustain an autonomous existence and they perish before they can breathe and flourish.

So these are the givens. How do writers weave them into their stories? The key is plausibility. Take a character working in law enforcement. Readers can accept cops being gentle or tough, enthusiastic, intellectual or world-weary. Law enforcers come from all genders, classes, races and ages and stand in different places along the personal morality ruler. But whether corrupt or clean, they should catch criminals, arrest and charge them within a judicial system. Legal practicalities may differ significantly from those we know, but they must be consistent with that society while remaining plausible for the reader.

Readers will engage with an alternate history story and follow it as long as the writer keeps their trust. One way to do this is to infuse, but not flood, the story with corroborative detail so that it verifies and reinforces the original setting the writer has introduced. Even though my books are set in the 20th and 21st centuries, the Roma Novan characters say things like ‘I wouldn’t be in your sandals (not ‘shoes’) when he finds out.’ And there are honey-coated biscuits (Honey was important for the ancient Romans.) not chocolate digestives (iconic British cookie) or bagels in the squad room.

In my first novel, INCEPTIO, the core story of a twenty-five year old New Yorker who faces total disruption to her life when a sinister government enforcer compels her to flee to Roma Nova could be set anywhere. But I’ve made New York an Autonomous City in the Eastern United States (EUS) that the Dutch only left in 1813 and the British in 1865. The New World French states of Louisiane and Québec are ruled by Gouverneurs-Généraux on behalf of Napoléon VI; California and Texas belong to the Spanish Empire; and the Western Territories are a protected area for the Indigenous Peoples. These are background details as the New World is only the setting for the first few chapters. But as J K Rowling knew with Harry Potter’s world, although you don’t put it in the books, you have to have worked it all out in your head.

So, how to do this? 

  1. Decide on your Point of Divergence [POD] from real timeline history

Research this to death; know the political set-up, religion, customs, dress, food, agriculture, geography, economy, legal background, defence forces, cultural attitudes, everyday life of all classes and groups. These are the building blocks for your alternate society.

  1. Know how you want your society to be and develop it with historic logic

If your story world doesn’t hang together, you will break a reader’s trust. You can have a fantastic world, but it needs to have reached that place in a plausible way. Writers need to give characters motivation, whether personal or political or just forced by circumstances from outside.

In my modern Roma Nova world, women are prominent. This seems a long way from the ancient world where Roman attitudes to women were repressive [starting point]. But towards the later Imperial period [moving time on] women gained much more freedom to act, trade and own property and to run businesses of all types [social and economic development]. Divorce was easy, and step and adopted families were commonplace [standard Roman social custom].

Apulius, the leader of Roma Nova’s founders, had married Julia Bacausa, the tough daughter of a Celtic princeling in Noricum. She came from a society in which, although Romanised for several generations, women in her family made decisions, fought in battles and managed inheritance and property [non-Roman values introduced]. Their four daughters [next generation] were amongst the first pioneers [automatically new tough environment] so necessarily had to act more decisively [changing behaviour patterns] than they would have in a traditional urban Roman setting.

Given the unstable, dangerous times in Roma Nova’s first few hundred years [outside circumstances], eventually the daughters as well as sons had to put on armour and carry weapons to defend their homeland and their way of life [societal motivation]. Thus, women have developed leadership roles in all parts of Roma Novan life over the next sixteen centuries.

  1. Keep some anchors to the readers’ pre-knowledge

Creating a story should be fun for the writer and the result rewarding for the reader. Although most writers like to encourage the reader to work a little and participate in the experience, writers shouldn’t bewilder readers. I mentioned plausibility earlier and how to inject corroborative details into the world being created. Anchors are equally important. For example, if you say “Roman legionary” most readers have an idea in their head already.

Taking Roma Nova as an example:

Roma Nova’s continued existence has been favoured by three factors: the discovery and exploitation of high-grade silver in their mountains [geography with a dollop of luck!], their efficient technology [historical fact], and their robust response to any threat [core Roman attitude]. Remembering their Byzantine cousins’ defeat in the Fall of Constantinople [known historical fact], Roma Novan troops assisted the western nations at the Battle of Vienna in 1683 to halt the Ottoman advance into Europe [known historical turning point]. Nearly two hundred years later, they used their diplomatic skills to help forge an alliance to push Napoleon IV back across the Rhine as he attempted to expand his grandfather’s empire [building on known historical person’s story].

  1. Make the alternate present real

Writers need to imbue their characters with a sense of living in the present, in the now. This is their current existence, for them it’s not some story in a book(!). Character-based stories are popular; readers are intrigued by what happens to individual people living in different environments as well as taking part in major historical events. Sometimes it’s more interesting to follow the person’s story than the big event itself…

In summary, alternate history gives us a rich environment in which to develop our storytelling. As with any story in any genre, the writing must create a plausible world, backed by meticulous research, but the writer is, of course, the mistress of her universe.

Download Alison’s practical guide to writing in an alternate historical environment:
http://alisonmortonauthor.com/writing-books/writing-in-an-alternative-history-setting/

Fascinating, Alison. Both parallels to and divergence from traditional historical fiction. I’m sure readers will be eager to sample your novels and their alternative world. 

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 What Ifs of History with Alison Morton

Today Alison Morton talks about an intriguing kind of historical fiction — alternative history. She’s the author of INCEPTIO, PERFIDITAS and SUCCESSIO, alternate history thrillers (Roma Nova series) and B.R.A.G. Medallion® honorees. AURELIA is Alison’s most recent novel, the fourth in her Roma Nova series. 

Historical fiction is a broad church; a re-telling of real events, quasi-biographical fiction, romantic, adventure, fantastical and detective stories, tales from the cave to the 1960s and set in every country and social situation you can imagine. And within that mix are counter-factual, alternative history stories, the ‘what ifs’ which project a possible different timeline from our own. Suppose the Spanish Armada had succeeded (Pavane, Keith Roberts)? Perhaps Napoleon had escaped from St Helena (Napoléon in America, Shannon Selin)? Or Germany had won the Second World War as in Robert Harris’s gripping Fatherland?

These are grand scale events, but historical fiction is also about ‘small people’. Ever since I walked on my first Roman mosaic at age eleven, I’ve been mesmerised by the complex, powerful and technological civilisation that was Rome. But even at eleven I wasn’t content with the part played by women in their society: influencers, eminences grises, heiresses and mothers, but de facto as well as de jure powerless. Enter Roma Nova, a modern, alternate version of a Roman society where women play the prominent role. (More about how this evolved.)

Is it historical fiction? Alternate (or alternative) history has two parents: history and speculative fiction. Alternate historical fiction can sit anywhere along a sliding scale from the well-researched counter-factual following historical logic and methodology to the completely bonkers story designed only to be cool. I explain the types in full detail here; I stand at the historical end because I’m a historian.

Alternate history is nothing new – Roman historian Livy speculates on the idea that the Romans would have eventually beaten Alexander the Great if he had lived longer and turned west to attack them (Book IX, sections 17-19 Ab urbe condita libri (The History of Rome), Titus Livius).

Alexander the Great

 

The basic characteristics of alternate history are three-fold: firstly, the event that turned history from the path we know – the point of divergence – must be in the past. Secondly, the new timeline follows a different path forever – there is no going back. Thirdly, stories should show the ramifications of the divergence and how the new reality functions.

The world can partially resemble our timeline or be very different. Sometimes there are documented historical characters, sometimes entirely fictional ones or a mixture of both. In no case are alternate history stories parallel or secret histories such as The Da Vinci Code or fantasy like Noami Novik’s Temeraire series.

But isn’t alternate history all invention? Yes and no. Plausibility and consistency are, as in all historical fiction, the key guidelines so that the reader is not lost or alienated. Local colour and period detail are essential, but only where necessary and when relevant.

The foundation step is to identify the point of divergence and make it a logical point where history could split and cause an alternative time line to emerge. My books are set in Roma Nova in the 20th and 21st centuries, but the country’s origin stretches back to a divergence point in AD 395 when the Roma Nova founders fled Rome after the Christian Roman emperor Theodosius issued the final edict outlawing all pagan religions.

‘Rome’ was significantly different in AD 395 from how it had been in 200 BC. For instance, the serstertius, the archetypal silver Roman coin that pops up in TV and films, had disappeared by the late fourth century. The gold solidus served as the standard unit at that time, so my modern Roma Novans use solidi.

Carina Mitela, 21st century PraetorianRoma Novans hold their culture and history very dear and see it as both a purpose and method of survival. In INCEPTIO, our heroine finds a forum, senate, a family based social system, all ruled by an imperatrix. The military elite is called the Praetorian Guard and service to the state is valued before personal pleasure or gain. Well, in theory! Roman homes are based around an atrium with a set of ancestor busts and statues (imagines) in the hallway. Although Latin is the official language, naming conventions have evolved along with the social system.

And finally, as with all historical fiction, my characters must act, think and feel like real people. The most credible ones live naturally within their world, i.e. consistently reflecting their unique environment and the prevailing social attitudes. Thus Roma Novans are tough and ingenious and their language, including slang and cursing, reflects this. Of course, it makes a stronger story if the permissions and constraints of their world conflict with their personal wishes and aims. But that’s what happens in good fiction!

Many thanks, Alison. I’m sure you’ve intrigued a lot of readers with your explanation and examples.

Alison MortonEven before she pulled on her first set of combats, Alison Morton was fascinated by the idea of women soldiers. Brought up by a feminist mother and an ex-military father, it never occurred to her that women couldn’t serve their country in the armed forces. Everybody in her family had done time in uniform and in theatre – regular and reserve Army, RAF, WRNS, WRAF – all over the globe. Alison served too, joining the Territorial Army in a special communications regiment and leaving as a captain.

Now, she lives in France and writes Roman-themed alternate history thrillers with tough heroines. You can find her on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads.

AURAL by Alison MortonAURELIABook four of the Roma Nova thriller series, set in Roma Nova’s recent past – the start of the young Aurelia Mitela’s adventures…

Late 1960s Roma Nova, the last Roman colony that has survived into the 20th century. Aurelia Mitela is alone – her partner gone, her child sickly and her mother dead – and forced to give up her beloved career as a Praetorian officer.

But her country needs her unique skills. Somebody is smuggling silver – Roma Nova’s lifeblood – on an industrial scale. Sent to Berlin to investigate, she encounters the mysterious and attractive Miklós, a known smuggler who knows too much and Caius Tellus, a Roma Novan she has despised and feared since childhood.

Barely escaping a trap set by a gang boss intent on terminating her, she discovers that her old enemy is at the heart of all her troubles and pursues him back home to Roma Nova…