Reflections on Writing Historical Fiction – Stephanie Dray

Many of you will know New York Times bestselling author Stephanie Dray from her wonderfully crafted novels My Dear Hamilton and America’s First Daughter, both written with Laura Kamoie. She has also written a series set in ancient Egypt and three novels cowritten with author groups. Today, Stephanie reflects on her career writing historical fiction.

How would you describe the historical fiction you write? Has this changed over time?

When I started as an author, I wrote historical fantasy, or perhaps more precisely, historical fiction with magical realism. These days I write primarily biographical historical women’s fiction. A subtle shift, but an important one! When I started out, I wanted to explore history, but also religion and allegory and myth. These days I’ve become much more concrete. Part of this is because of the market, but some of this is also because of the subject matter; it’s one thing to write historical fantasy about Cleopatra’s daughter. It’s quite another to try to inject magical elements into a story about the founding fathers and mothers of the country. Given their contemporary importance, people might find it disrespectful, and in any case, the kind of story I wanted to tell had changed.

Is there a particular time period you concentrate on? If so, why? If you’ve switched time periods, why?

I started out in the ancient world; I love the operatic drama and pageantry of it. I also like the fact that it’s so far removed from the political baggage of our own world while still being entirely relevant. That’s the case because the ancient world was struggling with how to govern themselves in the same way we are now.

I was a government major in college and I’ve always been fascinated by the rise and fall of republics. It’s so much more complicated than the usual vying for power between kings and all the inevitable executions and battles that come with that. The rise and fall of republics bring characters to the fore from so many different cross-sections of society. It’s very exciting from a novelist’s standpoint!

So I found that republic and revolutionary excitement in ancient Rome. I didn’t find that so much again until the 18th century. So it might have seemed like a big jump from say, Cleopatra to Thomas Jefferson, but it made perfect sense in my brain.

My most recent work is set in three time periods–during the French Revolution, World War One, and World War Two–all united by the singular legacy of Lafayette and the women who safeguarded his castle during three of history’s darkest hours.

Again this felt like a natural jump because a republic was on the rise during the French Revolution, and deeply threatened in both world wars. I’m always fascinated by the way women are discounted in these great movements, even though they not only contribute to them–sometimes, as my co-authors and I tried to show in RIBBONS OF SCARLET, women even start these movements.

What do you consider the purpose/value of historical fiction? Have your thoughts on this changed with time?

I believe deeply that historical fiction is an art form and doesn’t need to have a purpose or value beyond that. Full stop.

And yet… how astonishingly wonderful that it actually can have additional purpose and value.

Historical fiction has the capacity to educate, to comment on contemporary events without the baggage of those contemporary events, and sometimes–if you’re lucky–you can even make a contribution to the historical record because novelists ask different questions than historians tend to.

In my forthcoming work I stumbled upon some old love letters and unraveled a “code” from World War One that revealed an unknown relationship, and working with the family, helped uncover some fascinating aspects of a woman who was already interesting. So to the extent that there is value in solving historical mysteries, I love that this genre lets us do that too!

What advice do you have for new authors?

Network with other writers. Your author-besties can often be your lifeline in this business. Another thing that’s important to do is cultivate the capacity to simultaneously believe that your work is something special and worth protecting, while also believing that your work is deeply flawed and must be edited. This will get you far!

What are you passionate about in terms of historical fiction?

I’m passionate about protecting the biographical historical novel as an art form. It always makes me so sad to see historical fiction authors having to justify themselves. Along with many of my colleagues, I’ve often been asked “If you’re going to do all this research, why write a novel and not a biography?” The tone of this question always implies that I’ve done something lesser. And it’s maddening, truly, if only because some stories can only be told responsibly in novel form.

For example, the lack of primary sources that exist for many important historical women is downright depressing. Take Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton, wife of our first secretary of the treasury. She was the subject of my co-authored novel, MY DEAR HAMILTON. She was an amazing woman! A true founding mother. Strong, devoted, loyal, patriotic–a person who made a real contribution to the country. But her life has to be extrapolated largely from the extant primary sources of the men surrounding her. Her father, her brothers, her husband, her sons…

This is flimsy stuff upon which to base a scholarly biography because much has to be surmised. But so much of it can be surmised, so much of it is obvious, in fact, that even if it won’t meet academic standards, a picture becomes clear enough to paint in a novel.

Eliza Hamilton deserved to have her story told, we told her story in perhaps the only way that could be told and I’m so proud that we did.

Aside from the issue of source material, there’s also the undeniable point to be made about reach. It’s the rare scholarly biography that can reach as wide an audience as a novel can. This genre has the unique capacity to send readers scrambling to learn more; we not only feed an audience for those excellent scholarly books but we also create an audience for them.

The interplay between Hamilton: An American Musical and Ron Chernow’s excellent biography on the same subject is a case in point. Lin Manuel Miranda’s musical is absolutely historical fiction–and some of the best ever written. But nobody ever asks him Why didn’t you write a biography? Nor should they. I’m honored to be even a small humble part of a genre that can do for civics what that musical did. What we’re doing is valuable and important and I don’t think any of us writing in this genre ought to shy away from the fight.

Great wisdom about our genre, Stephanie. And great encouragement for those writing historical fiction. On another occasion, I would love to hear your thoughts on writing as part of a team. Many thanks.


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

Social Media Mistakes with Laura Kamoie – #HNS2019

Laura Kamoie amazes me with her ability to co-write such wonderful novels as America’s First Daughter and My Dear Hamilton with Stephanie Dray. Combine that talent with a talk on the dos and don’ts of social media and I was lining up for this presentation at #HNS2019.

Laura gave us her qualifications immediately: she used to write romance and that genre is very good at social media so she learned from some of the best!

#1 Mistake – too much time on social media and not enough time writing. Don’t get overwhelmed by social media. You don’t have to do it all. Figure out what you’re comfortable with and be authentic. And if you’re going to be selective, according to Laura, Facebook is where readers hang out, particularly the 40+ crowd. Twitter is where influencers and industry folks hang out.

Laura offered the group several tangible ideas to keep in mind as we work on our social media presence.


First, make sure you have a social media presence such as a website with your name prominently displayed. Use the PIN feature on Facebook and Twitter. Include retail links – all of them, not just Amazon to make it easy and to reduce clicks for readers. Include the covers of your books to create a branded look.


Make sure that what you write and what kind of stories you write serve readers. Again, Laura mentioned retail links. Include quotes about your book(s). Find ways to take people through the stages of new to you ==> reader ==> fan ==> superfan. Superfans will bring other readers to you.


Goals of social media book promotion are to gain exposure for you as an author and what you write. To foster discoverability. To build you name, brand, and book recognition. To build relationships with existing readers so that readers will feel invested in you and feel some sort of kinship with you. To network and build relationships with authors, bloggers, reviewers. These relationships will get others talking about your books. (See, I did that at the beginning of this post!) To find new readers. And ultimately, to sell books.

Mistakes on Facebook and Twitter:

  • your posts are either too sell/buy or too personal/diluted
  • you don’t engage/interact – remember that social media shrinks the distance between author and readers; you need to engage and readers want you to engage
  • you don’t post regularly enough – Laura recommends 2-3 times per day
  • you have no custom URL on Facebook
  • you have no branded cover image
  • you don’t have an author page on Facebook (as distinct from your personal page)
  • you have no description and/or no links on your Facebook cover image
  • you don’t pin a post to signify its importance and to prompt shares
  • check out Laura’s Facebook page for ideas; click on her header image for Ribbons of Scarlet to see what she has included;


  • your genre
  • your personality
  • whether visitor’s interests match your offer
  • Laura recommends checking out the websites of: Kristin Hannah, Steve Berry, Geraldine Brooks, Christina Baker Kline, Susan Meissner, Alma Katsu, Jennifer Robson

Mistakes on Website:

  • unclear branding/messaging about who you are and what you write and what kind of emotional reading experience your books offer
  • missing retail links
  • no master book list, no information on what’s coming soon
  • out of date/stagnant information
  • inactive blog
  • hard to spell/difficult to remember URL

Website Must Haves

  • newsletter signup
  • about page to convey who you are in an engaging way with headshot and short bio
  • separate page for each book that includes cover, buy links, short description, social proof

In closing, Laura reminded us not to be overwhelmed and to do what you are comfortable with. In her own case, Laura is on Twitter at least once a day; on Facebook 2-3 times a day; she has a virtual assistant; and posts about her backlist on TBT (Throwback Thursday).

Well, if you aren’t exhausted, I was at the end of that session (I know I didn’t capture everything!!) and as I prepare this post I admit to feeling daunted all over again by the work involved with social media. I already spend many hours to sustain my blog — clearly that’s not enough if I want to serve and engage with readers!


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

Interview with Stephanie Dray, co-author of American’s First Daughter

A few weeks ago, I read America’s First Daughter written by Stephanie Dray and Laura Kamoie. The novel was so excellent, I should use the word devoured! It’s difficult enough for one author to create a story let alone two, so I decided to find out more. Here’s Stephanie letting us in on her writing world and how she works with Laura.

Can you tell us a little of your journey from newbie author to bestselling author?

Gosh, it was a long journey. I started out as a fantasy writer who didn’t realize she wanted to write historical fiction. I have some manuscripts that are truly terrible, and will be hidden under the bed forever. But I eventually started getting little stories published in professional publications, then, under a pen name, I started writing genre fiction for traditional publishers. And my first historical was LILY OF THE NILE about the little known daughter of Cleopatra and Marc Antony who went on to be one of the greatest client queens in the Roman empire. That became a trilogy, and a passion. After seven years in the ancient world, however, I was ready to move on. And it was America’s First Daughter that gave me the chance to do that. I was both surprised, and delighted by the public response to it, and that it hit the NYT Bestseller list, now with hundreds of thousands of books sold. But I really take nothing for granted. In this business, you’re only ever as good as your last book.

What took you from lawyer/teacher to writing historical fiction? And how did your earlier career help your writing career?

The lawyer joke that I often make is that I decided if I was going to lie for a living I’d rather write fiction. It always makes me laugh, but it’s a bit too flip, really, both with its attitude towards lawyers and fiction writing, because both seek out greater truths even if it’s a circuitous path there. I think my earlier career helped me learn to research, and it definitely gave me an appreciation for how history and precedent shapes the present world, an understanding I try to bring to all my work.

With the H-Team and Laura Kamoie you seem to have become an expert at writing fiction collaboratively. Can you tell us why you chose that path? And secondly, can you give us some insights on how the process works so that the reader has a seamless reading experience?

I didn’t set out to be the Queen of Collaboration; I think it’s just that I’m a very social creature and writing can be a very solitary profession. I do it because my craft improves by learning from others and I’ve been blessed to have some extremely talented writer friends. Even so, my writing relationship with Laura is special.

Now, we’re good friends, which helps enormously. But we also think alike when it comes to story structure. With regard to America’s First Daughter, we had a completely unified vision of how the story should unfold from day one, and that served us well. Especially on the rare occasion that we came up against editorial pushback from critique partners or others. We very rarely disagreed and when we did, we always fashioned a third solution that was better than what either of us originally intended.

We found ourselves in more disagreement regarding My Dear Hamilton, but that was only because our original idea, which we thought was so clever, didn’t work at all. And so, under extreme deadline pressures, we had to very quickly navigate a new path. But in the end, the respect we have for one another always gets us through the process and makes a stronger book. Laura and I edit each other’s words freely. We use track changes, of course, so that if there’s a dispute about something we can see what’s changed and we can talk about it. But there’s really no ego surrounding the sanctity of our words. They’re Patsy’s words or Eliza’s words and we just try to make them the best they can be.

You’ve written several novels set in ancient Egypt and with America’s First Daughter and the upcoming My Dear Hamilton, you are now focused on American history. What prompted the switch?

There are two reasons, really. The first is that, as a Government major and former lawyer, I have always wanted to write about the Founding Fathers and even when I look back to my creative writing in college I see that I was writing historical fiction about figures in government. Fortunately, America’s First Daughter gave me a chance to write about a Founding Father from the eyes of his daughter Patsy, a little known woman who had a great deal of influence over our country’s conception of itself.

The second reason for the switch is that I like to be read, and the commercial niche for ancient history–especially stories about ancient women who don’t wield swords–is a smaller one than for American history at this particular juncture. Readers have a lot of people clamoring for their attention these days; I will always try to give them what they want. In the end, it’s a fortuitous switch because as it happens, America and ancient Rome have a lot in common. The clothes are different. The climate is different. But the ideas, tensions, and struggles are very similar. And of course, I’m fascinated by Republics. Their rise, their fall, their triumphs and failures. That’s the stuff of drama!

American’s First Daughter is wonderfully written and a compelling story. How did you go about the research process?

Oh, thank you for your kind remarks about the novel. It truly was a passion project. The research, I confess, was arduous, but made much easier by the national archives, where 18k letters of Jefferson have been cataloged, digitized and transcribed. From his letters, we moved to the letters of the family, which are kept on These are amazing resources for all Americans and it made it much easier for us to imagine the inner thoughts of our characters–because they wrote some of them down.

Patsy Jefferson lives a long life. How did you decide what and what not to include?

That was really tough. There were a number of times that I wished things would stop happening to her. We ended up stripping a lot of the politics out of the book simply because Patsy was removed from a lot of it. Her father got to be the president because she was busy keeping his plantation going, but that meant she wasn’t directly involved with many of the more famous, or infamous, political doings of the day. Not so Eliza Hamilton, I should add, who was right in the thick of it with her husband at the time. Our basic rule was that if something didn’t directly shape or influence the character arc we wanted for Patsy then it would have to go.

You say that you write about women who live in the shadows of men and that your novels explore “the moral dilemmas, difficult choices, and heartbreaking sacrifices that shaped these women’s lives.” How do you choose which women to write about?

In some ways I almost feel as if they choose me. Cleopatra Selene certainly did. I was actually trying to write a story about her brother, but I kept hearing her voice in my head. The same thing happened to me with Cartimandua from A Year of Ravens. I was supposed to write about someone else, but I couldn’t fall asleep at night because this ancient lady wouldn’t shut up. I know that sounds pretty woo woo, and I’m not one of those people who think the dead literally speak to them. But there’s an exercise in empathy that happens while writing and the mind latches onto what it latches onto. Psychological alchemy, I guess.

I will say though, that there’s no way that Patsy Jefferson chose me. In fact, both Laura and I were acutely aware that she would not have wanted her story told which made her a truly challenging woman to write about!

What do you think are the critical ingredients of historical fiction? And why do you think readers enjoy the genre?

Oh goodie! An invitation to ride my hobby horse. I apply a very emphatically broad definition to the genre. If it’s set in the past–let’s say more than thirty years–it’s some sort of historical fiction. Whether or not it will be enjoyable or good is a much different question that depends on any variety of factors, but I take a very hard line against folks who get all sniffy about what does, or does not, belong in our genre based on their own particular preferences. I think we all need to be welcoming more readers, with their varied tastes, into the fold. For me personally, what I enjoy about historical fiction is learning something new; generally what I read prompts me to do a little research of my own or ask questions I would never have asked. I enjoy slipping into a different world than my own, without all the modern baggage we carry, to try and wrap my mind around human problems–which I don’t believe ever really change.

America’s First Daughter by Stephanie Dray and Laura Kamoie – In a compelling, richly researched novel that draws from thousands of letters and original sources, bestselling authors Stephanie Dray and Laura Kamoie tell the fascinating, untold story of Thomas Jefferson’s eldest daughter, Martha “Patsy” Jefferson Randolph—a woman who kept the secrets of our most enigmatic founding father and shaped an American legacy.

My Dear Hamilton by Stephanie Dray and Laura Kamoie – From the New York Times bestselling authors of America’s First Daughter comes the epic story of Eliza Schuyler Hamilton—a revolutionary woman who, like her new nation, struggled to define herself in the wake of war, betrayal, and tragedy. Haunting, moving, and beautifully written, Dray and Kamoie used thousands of letters and original sources to tell Eliza’s story as it’s never been told before—not just as the wronged wife at the center of a political sex scandal—but also as a founding mother who shaped an American legacy in her own right. Coming April 2018.

Many thanks, Stephanie. I’m delighted to have you on the blog. I’m sure readers will find your experience as a co-author and writer of historical fiction very interesting.

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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