Dazzled by a green door

Dear all – this is the first post in a new series I’m calling transported … hope you enjoy it.

Almost two years ago – hard to believe – my husband and I spent three weeks living in a Paris apartment. We walked the streets searching for evidence of Paris 1870, the setting for Paris in Ruins, an as yet unpublished novel. The idea was to live like Parisians do, while absorbing the culture and feel of the city which still reflects that time period.

Historical fiction has the privilege and challenge of transporting readers in time and place. Readers say that’s the number one priority of historical fiction. Walking the streets, I focused on discovering little details that might create exactly that feeling for readers.

One day I was dazzled by this green door. What emotion does it evoke? What time period does it represent? Who fashioned the almost sinister-looking knocker? What would the knocker sound like? Look at how the shadow extends the length of the fingers. Did you notice the woman’s hand bears a ring and the wrist is framed with a ruffle? What sort of people passed through the door? Why is there a grill at eye level?

Imagine the scene: Exhausted and bedraggled, Mariele lifted the brass knocker shaped like a woman’s hand and let it fall. She smiled limply at her mother and knocked again. Maman’s cheeks were sunburned and her hair, normally tightly coifed, now lay like thick ribbons down her back. Their clothes were dirty, their hands scratched from climbing fences, their legs so fatigued they could barely stand. Mariele wore no boots, her feet bound in strips of cotton torn from her petticoat, were cut and blistered, the cloth damp with blood. – from Paris in Ruins 

Or maybe this could happen: Claire was curious about the door, not only its vivid green colour but also the brass knocker shaped like a woman’s hand. Stefan had told her to meet him at the shop with the green door but he’d said nothing about the knocker or the small grill that allowed the owner to scrutinize visitors before letting them in. “Details are the lifeblood of espionage,” Captain Lucas always said. If she made a mistake now, the mission would fail.

Or this: Breathless and with blood oozing from the wound to her side, Lisette lifted the knocker – the one Michel fashioned in the shape of her very own hand. She let it fall once and then twice before collapsing to the ground.

Every time I see this photo, I’m transported to another time and place.

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.

Successful Historical Fiction with Nicole Evelina

Thanks for your indulgence while I enjoyed a brief hiatus from blogging in the lead up to our son’s wedding. I’m delighted to tell you that all went well!

Today, I have Nicole Evelina on the blog discussing the topic of successful historical fiction. Nicole writes stories of strong women from history and today. She also appeared on A Writer of History in 2016. Many thanks for sharing your thoughts, Nicole.

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What’s your definition of successful historical fiction?

Successful historical fiction transports you to another time and place without you realizing it. It is great fiction in general, according to the rules of writing you’d apply to any genre. And the very best helps you learn something about human nature, the time period, a famous historical personage, and/or yourself.

What attributes are most important to you when designating a novel ‘successful historical fiction’.

Historical accuracy and a good story.

Which authors do you think create the most successful historical fiction?

Patricia Bracewell, Geraldine Brooks, Anne Fortier, MJ Rose, and Susanna Kearsley.

What makes these particular authors stand out?

They all paint rich pictures and tell stories that stay with you long after you are done reading.

In your opinion, what aspects prevent a novel from being designated successful historical fiction?

Anything that takes you out of the time and place, feels forced or anachronistic. Even when words are historically correct, if they feel too modern, it can be jarring. For example, I read a book that takes place in the 1920s that used the term “mixologist” for a bartender. I looked it up and it is technically correct for the period, but that word has become so synonymous with recent years that it tripped me up. Lack of research/lazy research goes along with this. Also, forcing modern viewpoints on historical characters.

Are famous people essential to successful historical fiction?

Not at all. I think the unknowns are even more fun because then you learn something about a  real person at the same time you are entertained. Fictional characters are often a good way to see a different POV of an event/time period.

Does successful historical fiction have to say something relevant to today’s conditions?

Yes. I think every book has to say something relevant to readers. If it doesn’t, we can’t relate to the book, characters, etc. and are not inclined to continue reading. Luckily, the basics of the human condition don’t really change. So even though slavery is illegal in most places now, we can still read stories of the US pre-Civil War south or the Roman Empire and emphasize with struggle of the slave because it’s part of human nature to not want to be in forced servitude. In the same way, we can read about times when women didn’t have any rights because it shows us how far we have come and how far we still have to go.

What role does research play in successful historical fiction?

Aside from the basic skills of any storyteller, research is everything. It’s what makes historical fiction what it is; it’s what enables writers to convincingly time travel to a period they can never actually visit; it’s what makes a book feel authentic, and these things are key to a good reading experience.

In your opinion, how are these elements critical to successful historical fiction? Characters. Setting. Plot. Conflict. Dialogue. World building. Themes.

Characters, world building and setting must be authentic to the period for a reader to take them seriously, hence the role of research. Plot must be well-written and realistic and conflict must make us want to keep reading – just as in any other kind of book. Dialogue must sound like it is right for the period – no modern language, yet also not so historically accurate that a modern reader can’t understand it. Themes are what make the books relevant to modern readers.

Do you judge historical fiction differently from contemporary fiction?

Yes. I hold it to a higher standard because of all the work that goes into creating it. Having written both, I can confidently say there is so much you don’t have to think about when writing contemporary fiction because it is second nature to you and to your readers. Those very same things are part of what makes successful historical fiction shine – the very fact that you don’t notice how different they are from today because the author has done their research and convinced you they are part of the everyday life of the characters you are reading.

Many thanks for adding to the discussion, Nicole.

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.

Successful Historical Fiction with Chris O’Neill

Chris O’Neill took on the challenge of discussing successful historical fiction. Chris is a published author in healthcare research, and is on the threshold of publishing his first historical fiction novel.He’s an avid reader and a fan of historical fiction. Many thanks for participating, Chris.

What’s your definition of successful historical fiction?

Focusing on the novel rather than marketing, I’d say a blend of very interesting story with historical detail that both sets the past apart but also links with contemporary issues and problems.

What attributes are most important to you when designating a novel ‘successful historical fiction’.

The same as above combined with a series. I like series because the characters can grow with the conflicts they experience.  Of course, not every novel will fit well with a series.  And in some series I like (e.g., Saxon Tales) the character development stalls or levels out (middle age, perhaps???) and it’s pretty much the action surrounding a familiar character (Uhtred) that pulls me to the next installment.

Which authors do you think create the most successful historical fiction? (please restrict yourself to a small number of authors!)

The two that stand out in the last year or so are J. Tullos Hennig (who revisions Robin Hood mythically) and Bernard Cornwell (both the Grail series and the Saxon Tales with Uhtred).  I think BBC has developed a fine character and WWII ambience with Christopher Foyle (“Foyle’s War” written by Anthony Horowitz), and the series has the attribute of emphasizing virtue over expedience—a healthy contrast to modern cynicism.

What makes these particular authors stand out?

Well, returning to my opening thoughts about the definition of successful historical fiction, a great blending of historical detail with contemporary issues (Foyle re: modern-day cynicism; Robin Hood as gay, mystical and embodying resistance).  In the Saxon Tales, Uhtred has such a Shakespearean presence that the story captures your attention from beginning to end—with relentless action between.

In your opinion, what aspects prevent a novel from being designated successful historical fiction?

I have no idea.  So much of art is in taste and marketing.  I know what I like and seek it out through online reviews like Goodreads and author interviews.

Are famous people essential to successful historical fiction?

Of course, not.

Does successful historical fiction have to say something relevant to today’s conditions?

It inevitably does, so I’m not sure that’s the right question.  With the concept of erasure (human experience that is not mentioned or described or explored) it seems impossible that a story not be relevant when an author doesn’t address a critical feature of the historical era or culture.  Not describing the servant experience, the homophobia, the unjust circumstances, for example, is a statement by its absence.  It’s something I notice—not that a book can deal with every issue in equal depth.  As I see it, the problem and opportunity is how to explore what hasn’t been recorded (except for perhaps an archeological record).  The author is left with personal insight into human experience—something that surrounds the writing every day.  Lots to discuss about the writer’s license and imagination here, but this is a brief response.  For the reader it comes down to: is the story engaging and believable?

What role does research play in successful historical fiction?

Research is essential if it’s historical fiction or fantasy.  For me, it sets out features of a broad landscape and adds detail.  But the human drama is what interests me most, not the number of cannons stuck on a muddy road and late to the battle.  Still, “All the Light We Cannot See” (Anthony Doerr) was riveting with the occasional data overloads!

What can I say?  One gives an answer and can immediately find the exception … again and again!

Do you judge historical fiction differently from contemporary fiction?

Yes.  All my expectations of “contemporary fiction” apply with the added requirement that “history” be present in the story and active in some way that matters to the characters and plot.

Many thanks, Chris. And best wishes for your writing journey.

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 and blogs about all aspects of the genre at A Writer of History. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union on August 16, 2016. 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.