Writing biographical historical fiction

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.

REAL LIVES ARE STRANGER THAN FICTION

I met Curt Locklear at this year’s Historical Novel Society conference. He’s an author, historian, teacher, education consultant, and public speaker. He also plays the banjo. Welcome, Curt!

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Real Lives are Stranger than Fiction by Curt Locklear

One of the great things about research for historical fiction is coming upon a surprise and knowing immediately that you can use it in your story. In my discovery of the amazing lives of the Fox Sisters, it was not just a neat tidbit to insert to add flavor to a good story. Their lives, or should I say antics, became a driving element in the plot of all three of my Civil War novels.

The Fox Sisters were the first and most notable, or notorious, spiritualists. The  phenomenon they helped engender – the “Spiritualist Movement” – swept through the nation.  This movement, proclaimed by even church leaders as religious in nature, clutched the United States and Great Britain in its grubby paws. Twelve years prior to the Civil War, in upstate New York, two young sisters, Kate Fox, age12, and Maggie Fox, age13, began their elaborate hoax innocently enough. Their father was devout Methodist minister, but the girls had no qualms about their extended effort to deceive their parents and neighbors.

They began their hijinks at night, tying a string on an apple and bouncing it on the floorboards of their upstairs room to sound like footsteps. Both girls later found they had an innate ability to make the joints in their big toes pop extremely loudly. They went on to invent a story about a peddler, Mr. Split-foot, who had been murdered. In the presence of their parents and neighbors, they would “ask” Mr. Split-foot’s ghost a question, and he would always rap the floors exactly correctly. No one doubted their story or discovered their ruse.

After a while, their mother sent them to stay with their much older sister, Leah. Rather than bring a halt to their connivance, the older sister saw the makings of a good income. If snake oil salesmen could sell their wares, Leah was certain that the sisters could market their uncanny ability of “speaking to the dead” to a nation of suckers. Their first séance, or spirit rapping, was held at Corinthian Hall – Rochester, New York’s largest venue. The price was one dollar.

The show was a success as were several more soon after. In a short while, “Spirit Societies” were formed all through New York state. The young sisters, in later seances, were speaking to Ben Franklin, Thomas Paine, and even Shakespeare. It was not long before other entrepreneurs figured out that a naïve and easily-fooled public would pay for séance shenanigans – wholly believing the purveyors of spiritual nonsense.

With newly burgeoning “science findings” sometimes flying in the face of some religious dogmas, many people searched for proof that immortality and the afterworld existed. Of course, skeptics immediately took on the hoaxes. A number of the shysters were found out. They were caught using small drums between their legs or having an accomplice behind a curtain, and so on.

Despite the skeptics, the spiritualist societies grew in number, most notably in Ohio.

The Fox Sisters, being more than once tied to chairs and monitored closely by renowned skeptics, were never found out. When the two spiritualists cracked their toe joints inside their shoes against wooden floorboards, the sound reverberated everywhere on the stage. No one guessed their ploy.

With their overbearing older sister forcing them into compliance, both Kate and Maggie became alcoholics and ended up broke at the ends of their lives. Both later admitted their lies.

The larger story is that many of the most respected individuals in the United States and Great Britain succumbed to the belief that certain people could openly consort with the deceased. Among them were Horace Greeley, the outspoken publisher of the New York Tribune and A. Conan Doyle, author of the Sherlock Holmes mysteries.

When the Civil War began, never had the American nation seen such loss of life. The effects of witnessing the inconceivable devastation first-hand when the battle arrived in their front yards; and the dire news delivered by newspaper almost daily, led to a sort of national insanity. Large cities had a steady stream of hearses and coffin-laden wagons, the deaths being more from disease than battlefield death. Sometimes, in a single battle, small towns lost almost every young man who had joined the army.

No wonder people sought some sort of relief from their anguish.

The panacea was a chance to speak to lost loved ones during a séance. Historians estimate that as much as one-fifth of the US population believed in Spiritualism (the ability of some people to speak to the dead.)

Perhaps the most notable person to consort with spiritualists was Mary Todd Lincoln, the wife of the president. Mrs. Lincoln held numerous seances in the White House after the untimely death by typhoid of their young son, Willie. Even the president sometimes attended. Mary Lincoln’s favorite spiritualist was Nettie Colburn, though she had Charles Colchester lead a séance as well. President Lincoln, his wife, and Charles Colchester play prominently in my third novel – Reconciled. The Fox Sisters are in all three novels and are involved in the dramatic climax in Reconciled.

Fascinating history, Curt. It’s my understanding that the famous French author Victor Hugo was also captivated by spiritualism. Best wishes for your Civil War novels.

Asunder Trilogy by Curt Locklear ~~ Thrust into the middle of Civil War battle, with both Union and Rebel protagonists and antagonists, Curt Locklear’s Asunder trilogy are stories of love and loss and of families torn apart.

Splintered is the second in the trilogy. From its heart-wrenching opening scene of stoic grief in a Lincoln White House on the day of his son Willie’s death to the final heart-wrenching battle scene and suprising assasination plot against Lincoln, Splintered proves itself a novel of sweeping, artfully rendered proportions, and one that is at times deeply moving, while always intelligent and socially conscious.

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.

Windmill Point author Jim Stempel on writing historical fiction

Windmill-Point-Jim-StempelThe grit, tragedy and bold strategy of the American Civil War play out in Jim Stempel’s Windmill Point. Am I glad I read it? You bet. Stempel’s writing is vivid and meticulous. He tells the story of the pivotal events that took place in little more than two weeks in such a compelling fashion that even knowing what happens, you still feel the inexorable pull of tension.

But this isn’t a book review, rather Jim Stempel is here to talk about the writing of historical fiction. So, over to you, Jim.

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I have written nonfiction, satire, and historical fiction, but when you asked me to write a post for your blog it immediately dawned on me that I had never spent much time (honestly, any time at all) thinking about how I actually go about writing. So first I had to step back and analyze my own approach, and secondly I wanted to be sure that whatever I came up with was not going to waste someone else’s time – as in, thank you Captain Obvious! I say that because I take writing very seriously and, as an extension, I take the efforts of other writers seriously too. I would like to treat every author’s efforts – whether that means a first or twentieth novel – with the same consideration I would like my own work to be treated. But writing is a personal business, we all have our unique approaches, and I know that the way I go about things may or may not be of use to someone else. With that disclaimer now a matter public record, I will suggest a few things that I hope someone might find helpful.

Research: The importance of this aspect of writing historical fiction has been amply documented on your blog before with detailed and excellent lists of elements to consider, but I would go those even one further. To write compelling historical fiction I think you need, not only research a particular time period adequately, but literally immerse yourself in it. I write about the American Civil War, for instance, but I have never technically researched it. I didn’t have to. I have been fascinated with history since I was a kid, and I read and wrote about the Civil War from the time I was in junior high school, through college, and (obviously) beyond. I read hundreds of books on the topic – fiction, nonfiction, memoirs, and biographies – traveled to all the major battlefields, attended lectures, reenactments, etc., and all of this before I had even thought about writing a single line. I would recommend that anyone interested in writing historical fiction choose a time period that fascinates them, then immerse themselves until they feel entirely comfortable calling themselves an authority. Then write.

Character Development: Much has been written about character development, and I have but a few thoughts to add. We come to know people slowly in real life, and I think it best that we come to know them slowly in fiction too. Give the reader a little at a time, with twists and turns that will make the character far more interesting than if the character was entirely divulged at the outset. Also, actions speak far louder than words, so the way a person moves, or sits, or responds to a statement or situation can say far more about a character’s persona than an entire descriptive paragraph.

Less is often more: Likewise, in describing a scene or situation or character there is often a tendency to initially overwhelm readers with details, when less would be far more effective. Pick out the key elements you need to convey then add to those as the scene develops.

Visualization: Lastly, I tend to visualize the scenes I write then jot them down just as a newspaper reporter might describe an actual scene he or she is witnessing. If you are truly familiar with your topic, characters, scenes, etc., this can work wonders. If you don’t like the results, you can back it up and run it over till you get something that you feel is right.

Mary, I hope these few suggestions prove helpful for some of your readers.

Many thanks, Jim. I wish you great success with Windmill Point.

Windmill Point is gripping historical fiction that vividly brings to life two desperate weeks during the spring of 1864, when the resolution of the American Civil War was balanced on a razor’s edge. At the time, both North and South had legitimate reasons to conclude they were very near victory. Ulysses S. Grant firmly believed that Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia was only one great assault away from implosion; Lee knew that the political will in the North to prosecute the war was on the verge of collapse. Stempel masterfully sets the stage for one of the most horrific battles of the Civil War, contrasting the conversations of decision-making generals with chilling accounts of how ordinary soldiers of both armies fared in the mud, the thunder and the bloody fighting on the battlefield.