Reflections on Writing Historical Fiction … with Kate Quinn

I’m launching a new series today and delighted to have Kate Quinn here to kick things off. The series? I’ve asked a number of well known authors to reflect on their years of writing historical fiction. Some of these authors have been writing successfully for more than thirty years. Some are based in the US, others in the UK. And they all have wonderfully successful novels.

Today, Kate Quinn discusses several topics and offers an in-depth look at what it’s been like to switch time periods.

Changing Horses Mid-Stream: An Ancient World Author Jumps To The 20th Century

“What’s a girl like you doing in a time like this?”

It’s a question I’ve grown familiar with, as a historical novelist who has made a recent, monumental jump in time periods. My first love was the ancient world, and that was where I gravitated when penning my first novels, eventually writing four set in early Imperial Rome. I made a two-book jump after that to the Italian Renaissance and the delicious cesspit that was the rule of the Borgia pope, yet it was still Italy, still Rome, still comfortably pre-modern. But my latest books “The Alice Network” and “The Huntress” pole-vault all the way into the 20th century, telling respective stories of a World War I spy ring and the World War II all-female bomber pilot regiment known as the Night Witches—and a jump that big will give you whiplash, believe me. Why, readers asked, did I make such a big change in subject and research matter?

Part passion, and part practicality. I have always been a writer with far more story ideas teeming in my head than I can ever get round to writing, and there were always some 20th century notions lurking among the plots about Roman empresses and Renaissance courtesans. I started giving those fledgling ideas some serious consideration when I looked at the market and saw the recent boom in 20th century historical fiction. 

Now, I can’t write what I don’t love—I don’t think any author can—but the question here wasn’t “Can you write in an era you don’t love?” It was “Can you learn to love a new era?” The answer turned out to be “yes.” I like the 20thcentury a lot, and once “The Alice Network” bloomed into a full-fledged story in my mind, it positively begged to be written. “The Huntress” followed right on its heels.

Making a jump this big does have its scary moments, though. After writing four books in ancient Rome and two in the Renaissance, I was very comfortable in those worlds. I know the courtship customs, the vocabulary, the period-appropriate coinage and clothes and food, and I have it all at my fingertips without needing to look much of anything up. Writing in a historical era you know well is like lounging around in your favorite Pjs, or dog-paddling through the shallow side of the swimming pool. Taking on an entirely new historical era feels like being tossed head-first into the deep end: I was researching everything in a frantic effort to acquire the kind of familiarity with the era that novel-writing requires. Because it isn’t getting a battle’s date wrong that will sink your story; concrete dates and bare-bones facts are for the most part easy to look up—it’s the tiny details like not knowing if a zipper would be on the back or the side of a woman’s dress in 1947, or how much afternoon tea would cost with rationing laws in place. Those are the things that are hard to dig up, and I sweated bullets researching “The Alice Network” and “The Huntress.”

But it was worth it. I’m proud of my 20th century novels, and I hugely enjoyed writing both. I still love ancient Rome and the Italian Renaissance, and I plan to pen more -stories set there . . . but for the time being, I’m enjoying my jump to the 20th century, and have no plans to leave just yet!

What aspects do you love about writing historical fiction? It’s a way to examine universal human issues through a lens of the past–and a way to make people realize that humanity has not changed, even if it dresses in different clothes and uses different language than we do in the modern era!

What advice do you have for new authors? Embrace the suck–i.e., give yourself permission to be bad! Because all first drafts are bad, and that’s ok, but I see many new writers get so paralyzed by the inner voice that says “This is so terrible, I can never show it to anyone” that they never really get off the ground. It’s ok if your first draft is bad; it will get better. And you don’t have to show your work to anyone until you’re ready, so just write without fear of what anyone will say–especially that critical inner voice.

What are you passionate about in terms of historical fiction? I want to see more diverse hist-fic, not just European history. I want to see stories out of Asian history and African history, Native American history and South American history. There’s so much out there waiting to be told.

What are you working on now? My next book is titled THE ROSE CODE, about the female codebreakers of Bletchley Park. It should release early 2021. 

Many thanks, Kate. I love your perspective on changing time periods. I should mention that my book club had a lively discussion of Kate’s The Alice Network on Monday – everyone loved it! You can also read an earlier post featuring Kate Quinn and The Alice Network.

STAY TUNED FOR MORE AUTHORS REFLECTING ON THEIR YEARS OF WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION. 

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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 www.mktod.com.

 

8 Tips from Guest Post Authors

During 2019, A Writer of History had the good fortune of securing many guest authors to discuss a range of topics related to historical fiction. Below are 8 tips that stand out for me.

Historical fiction, in its very essence, is a way of falling together in time—a story is set in the past, but it is being written from the present, so, for me, the process of writing such a story is in itself a synchronizing of different times.

Mary F. Burns, author of The Love for Three Oranges

In Keeping Historical Figures Real, Mary Sheeran discusses how to weave real historical figures into your novels. She says that:

“we can’t just report; all characters need to drive the story and have something of the writer in them.

A Surgeon’s Advice … on how to Write Books with Andrew Lam

Writers must choose topics that matter to people. Stories that center on a controversial topic, an important historical event, or a way to help others improve their lives are all more likely to succeed. If your book isn’t about something important, it won’t be important to readers. Make sure it matters.

 

Marc Graham whose novel Song of Songs is about the legendary Queen of Sheba, writes of the challenges in going far back in time.

While it’s simply not possible to recreate these tales with certain accuracy, harnessing the best available resources (archaeology, linguistics, epigraphy) and cross-referencing the myths among different cultures can help us frame our stories in a realistic world.

 

In Writing the Stories of History’s Powerful Women, Judith Cromwell tells us that:

such writing requires meticulous research.  Research resembles a mixture of jigsaw puzzle and mystery.  The writer must identify clues, track each to its source, evaluate each within the context of the subject’s life and character.  Original research brings the thrill of unearthing new information.

Donna Baier Stein, author of Scenes From the Heartland, discusses using actual images as a basis for building a story in her post Turning Images into Tales:

as a fiction writer, my desire was not to capture the truth of the actual image (the way a photographer might want to do), but to imagine a potential story behind this scene.

 

Luke Jerod Kummer is the author of The Blue Period, a novel about Pablo Picasso. He writes about examining the works of Picasso in order to gain a deep understanding of his character:

when I sought to reconstruct the look and feel of where and how a maturing Picasso lived in Barcelona and Paris, or what his households, friends or lovers were like, there were  paintings, pastels and drawings allowing intimate glimpses both of his surroundings and what was going on inside him.

 

Elizabeth Bell’s guest post The Importance of Warts brings out the theme of creating characters and stories that don’t gloss over the warts of historical events, culture and social mores. She says:

As historical novelists, we are tour guides and teachers … We do [readers] an enormous disservice if we’ve whitewashed that truth… If we don’t make our readers think, if we don’t make them at least a little uncomfortable, we’re not doing our jobs.

Important lessons. I’ll have a few more for you next time.

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 Love for Three Oranges by Mary F. Burns

What roles do serendipity and synchronicity play in writing historical fiction? Mary F. Burns is here to explain her experience. Mary’s second mystery involving John Singer Sargent and Violet Paget is called The Love for Three Oranges.

The Love for Three Oranges by Mary F. Burns

There are at least two things that I experience when I write, especially when I write historical fiction: Serendipity and Synchronicity.

Serendipity does not come from Latin or Greek, but rather was coined in 1754 by Horace Walpole, suggested by The Three Princes of Serendip, the title of an Indian fairy tale in which the heroes “were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things they were not seeking.” It has come to mean “good luck in finding valuable things unintentionally” but I want to emphasize the word “sagacity” in addition to just accident. We’ll get back to this word in a few moments.

Synchronicity is the simultaneous occurrence of events which appear significantly related but have no discernible causal connection. This term was created by Carl Jung in the 1950s to describe the occurrence and connection between two or more events that cannot be explained as a question of cause and effect, but of a falling together in time, a kind of simultaneity, connected by meaning. A very simple example would be thinking of an old friend one morning, and then later coming across a photograph of that friend stuck in a book you take down at random from the bookshelf, and then getting a phone call from the friend that same day. No one of these events is either a cause or an effect, but they are connected by meaning, Jung would say.

Historical fiction, in its very essence, is a way of falling together in time—a story is set in the past, but it is being written from the present, so, for me, the process of writing such a story is in itself a synchronizing of different times. In the mystery series I am writing that feature John Singer Sargent and Violet Paget, I have structured the stories so that there are two distinct time periods in each book. In the first book, The Spoils of Avalon, the reader can time travel between 1877 Brompton, a northern town, and 1539 Glastonbury, every other chapter, and there’s even a third time reference, in the quotations at the beginning of each chapter from Tennyson’s Idylls of the King, which is the story of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, long held to be medieval, but historically, if Arthur lived at all, it was around the year 600 of the Common Era.

In Jung’s terminology, the “meaning” or the synchronicity, that connects these three eras, in my story, concerns the testing of human loyalty, of faith or the lack of it, the mystery of the sacred as it interacts with the secular, and the effects that has on human character and fate. I was very alive to the dramatic contrast between the newly-industrialized, Darwinian, secular Victorian Age of Sargent and Paget—and the still-medieval, agrarian and sacred/seasonal time-in-eternity life of people in Europe in the early 16thcentury. Of course, on the one hand, it’s just a story about a murder and who committed it and why, and how the past is connected to the present through this event—but on the other hand, if you let all the character’s experiences and thoughts and actions roll in and wash over you, I believe you can get a real sense of what it was like to live in both those times, and how understanding the one can help you understand the other, as well as your own present time.

In this second book, The Love for Three Oranges, John and Violet find themselves summoned to Venice in the winter of 1879 to help an artist friend of Singer Sargent’s, whose palazzo is beset with death and ghosts and all sorts of troubling events. The second time period harks back some 140 years to 1739, where we are introduced to a famous Venetian playwright of that time, Carlo Gozzi.

And this is where my other special word—serendipity—played a huge part in the writing of this second mystery. Here’s the definition again: Serendipity is “Making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things one is not seeking.”

Before I even started writing these mystery stories, but after my first book about John Singer Sargent, in which Violet Paget has a very significant presence, Stu and I stayed in Venice for three days or so about seven years ago, with a small group of folks on a tour. We were lodged at a small, former palazzo on the western arm of the Grand Canal, just past the Rialto Bridge, called the Hotel San Cassiano, but also Ca’ Favretto. It had been the home of an Italian artist, Giacomo Favretto, from 1870 to 1887. He was of the Impressionist school, and several of his paintings were hung about the hotel. It was a charming place, and I took a lot of pictures of it.

When I got around to starting The Love for Three Oranges, I knew I was going to set the story in Venice, and I thought of that hotel, and Giacomo Favretto. So, I looked him up and lo and behold, it turns out he and John Sargent were good friends, and that Sargent stayed at the palazzo in Venice occasionally. What a happy discovery! I decided—with great sagacity—that it would be perfect to set the story in that location. Sagacity, for me, is the wisdom that comes from experience combined with the happy faculty of knowing a good thing when you see it.

So then I turned to the issue of the previous time period which would constitute the other half of the story—and you can imagine how hard it was to fasten on one particular century or era in the long, long history of Venice, with all her prominent artists, musicians, and writers! However, upon re-reading a biography of Violet Paget – aka Vernon Lee – I was reminded that in the year 1879 she was finishing up the manuscript for a book that would be published the next year—it was called “Studies of the Eighteenth Century in Italy”—and a significant amount of the book was concerned with one Carlo Gozzi, a playwright in the mid to late 1700’s in Venice. One thing led to another, and I found a complete copy online of Gozzi’s Memoirs. I read about his youthful days in Venice, living in one of the palazzos his family owned in Venice, his descriptions of its size and structure, its location on the Grand Canal, and its proximity to the Church of San Cassiano, which was his family’s parish, where many of his ancestors were buried. I looked at maps, I studied the streets and sotoportegos and campos of Venice, and I came to the conclusion that Gozzi’s former family home was none other than the Hotel San Cassiano—Giacomo Favretto’s home as well!

So there we had been, on the very spot where Carlo Gozzi had walked and slept and ate and dreamed—and where Sargent had visited his friend Giacomo as he lived and prospered and enjoyed life. And Gozzi the very person that Violet Paget was very enthusiastic and knowledgeable about, all right there. Three, or four, or five events in three time periods—all tied together by meaning, by the significance of their existence in relation to each other.

Serendipity and Synchronicity indeed!

Many thanks, Mary. The writing muse can be both strange and capricious!

The Love for Three Oranges: A John Singer Sargent/Violet Paget Mystery by Mary F. Burns

This second mystery finds John Sargent and Violet Paget afloat in murder in the fabled City of Venice during the darkest days of the year. Secrets and long-held grudges surface at Ca’ Favretto, an ancient palazzo on the Grand Canal, which has been recently purchased and refurbished by an Italian artist and good friend of Sargent–but will the ghosts of the past allow the new inhabitants to live in peace?

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.