Personal diaries are treasure for writers of historical fiction

This article first appeared in the Historical Novel Review, a quarterly publication of the Historical Novel Society. I’m grateful to Lucinda Byatt, features editor, for accepting the article.

Authenticity is crucial to historical fiction. Weaving the right blend of facts and fiction will transform a reader in time and place while staying true to the historical record. Deep, wide-ranging research in required to achieve this objective. 

My latest novel, Paris In Ruins, begins in September 1870 and continues through the Siege of Paris and the Paris Commune. Knowing nothing of that time in French history, I wandered around in Google-land to orient myself, gradually slotting my finds into categories like fashion, life and society, Paris maps and landmarks, women’s lives, the French government.

I’m a firm believer in looking at bibliographies, which is how I stumbled on the first English account of someone who’d experienced both the siege and Commune. Since my knowledge of French is limited, I was unable to read any of the many accounts written in that language and was particularly grateful for this discovery. In a pinch, I can laboriously translate a page or two and have even paid for French research assistance on a few occasions. However, it’s a serious handicap when writing historical fiction set in a country where the customs and language are foreign to you.

That first personal account was written by Elihu Washburne, America’s ambassador to France. Michael Hill incorporated Washburne’s letters and diary into a book: Elihu Washburne: The Diary and Letters of America’s Minister to France During the Siege and Commune of Paris. I ordered a used copy immediately and when it arrived, lost myself in reading about that horrifying time. Later, I found and read Diary of the Besieged Resident in Paris by Henry Labouchère, My Adventures in the Commune by Ernest Alfred Vizetelly, and The Insurrection in ParisRelated by an Englishman Davy.

Each of these accounts provided observations of the people and politics, the military activities that took place, the impact of war and the uprising that followed, as well as the look and feel of Paris. Collectively they helped me build a world for readers filled with real details: the price of meat; the daily weather; the mood of Parisians; the absence of dogs and cats in the streets; the rumours that swirled around inciting unrest and anger.

Did I worry that these diaries were written by outsiders? Yes and no. On the yes side of the equation, I had to check the facts for accuracy and ignore comments and generalizations that appeared biased. On the no side of the equation, as an author of fiction, I create worlds for my readers. These diarists actually lived in that world. Their observations and concerns were intended to inform readers of the on-the-ground situation, not to mislead them. Collectively the diaries were indispensable to my understanding of Paris and its citizens in those tumultuous times.

Elihu Washburne wrote almost every day beginning in early August 1870, when the French army under Napoleon III’s leadership, was battling with the Prussian army near the border between those two countries. By early September, Napoleon III had abdicated, and a new government was established. The detail and imagery of his entries enhanced many of my scenes.

September 15, 1870 ~~ Every carriage has disappeared … the city is but one big camp. Three hundred thousand soldiers passed in review before Gen. Trochu … regiments are marching down the Champs-Élysées and as I write I distinctly hear them singing the eternal but ever inspiring, Marseillaise.

Two main characters in Paris In Ruins are women of privileged upbringings—Camille and Mariele. Did their parents object to them walking in the streets? In one scene, the sound of the Marseillaise leads Camille and Mariele into the midst of a dangerous mob.

December 23 & 24, 1870 ~~ The situation is becoming daily much more grave here in Paris. The suffering is intense … The clubs have begun again to agitate … they are killing off the horses very fast … 500,000 men now under arms for fourteen weeks have accomplished nothing and will not so long as Trochu is in command.

In Paris In Ruins a modest Christmas dinner becomes the setting for conflict between the younger generation and their parents as Mariele and her brother argue that the rich aren’t doing enough for the poor and that General Trochu is incapable of saving Paris.

April 6, 1871 ~~ … vast numbers of the best citizens are seized as hostages and cast into dungeons … All Frenchmen prohibited from leaving Paris.

A passage like this combined with research into the actions of the Paris Commune prompted a scene where Camille’s brother Victor, a Catholic priest, is taken hostage by a group of Communards who also steal gold and silver artifacts from the church.

When the Communards set Paris on fire in the last days of the Commune, Alfred Vizetelly puts the reader in the very midst of the scene:

“The flames seemed to travel from either end of the great façade—over 1200 feet in length—towards the central cupola-crowned pavilion … At about two in the morning, there came a terrific thunderous shock and uproar, and the whole of the surrounding district trembled. Flames now leapt skyward from the central pavilion of the palace, whose cupola was tossed into the air, whence it fell in blazing fragments, while a myriad of sparks rose, rained, or rushed hither and thither, imparting to the awful spectacle much the aspect of a ‘bouquet’ of fireworks.”

This diary entry helped create a scene with Mariele, Camille, and their mothers watching Paris go up in flames. The vividness of Vizetelly’s writing was instrumental to the mood of fear, anger, and grave distress these women experienced. Were their loved ones in the midst of the flames? Would one of them perish? Would Paris ever be the same?

Did I worry that these accounts were all written by men? Definitely. To compensate, I found a few diaries written by female artists of the time that had been translated into English as well as a translation of some of Louise Michel’s writings. Michel was a well-known leader of the Commune. I read of French etiquette and manners, the education of women, the rights of women, famous salons led by women, and various articles concerning women of the 19th century.

Personal diaries are treasures for writers of historical fiction. They should be verified and augmented with other sources of information such as non-fiction books detailing historical events, visits to museums, an understanding of the military, political, societal, religious, industrial, and technological circumstances of the time. Leveraging them judiciously into plot, dialogue, setting, narrative and other elements of the story will truly transport readers in time and place.

DON’T MISS OTHER POSTS ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION.  FOLLOW A WRITER OF HISTORY

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, PARIS IN RUINS, is available on Amazon USAmazon CanadaKobo, and Barnes&Noble. An earlier novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from AmazonNookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on FacebookTwitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.

Other Voices – with Jeffrey K. Walker

Friend and fellow author, Jeffrey K. Walker, responded to last week’s Missing In Action with the offer to share a few posts on my blog. Such kindness! I greatly admire Jeff’s novels and his blogging voice – a little cheeky, a little irreverant – is most enjoyable. Plus the topics he tackles are well suited for an audience that loves the reading and writing of historical fiction. So … take it away, Jeffrey!

OTHER VOICES by JEFFREY K. WALKER

I turned over my second book, Truly Are the Free, to the copy editor on Friday. That’s always a Highly Emotional Event, since it’s the moment one’s beautiful, finely crafted, and perfectly constructed literary stroke of genius gets turned into… a product. In the end, a book is something you sell. Like soap or sneakers or Silly String. And let’s be honest, Silly String is way more fun than most books. Other than mine, it goes without saying. 

Because if you’re going to write one novel why not write three, Truly Are the Free is the second volume in my First World War and 1920s Sweet Wine of Youth trilogy. And yet again I ran head-on into a problem that emerged in my first book: how does a middle-aged white guy from fly-over country write how other people talk?

This may not sound like an Earth-Shaking Problem, but it tied me in knots with my first book, None of Us the Same. Two of the main characters and a whole cod-schooner-full of supporting ones were from Newfoundland. Also, half the novel is set there. So far so good—they speak English up there in Canada, eh? Well, sort of. 

Here’s the thing, Newfoundland developed with three historical oddities: 1) it was not part of Canada until 1949, 2) it’s a rather isolated and island-ish sort of place, and 3) most of the people spent four centuries in dispersed outports and coastal islands that you could only get to by boat. 

As a result, with a population of 528,448 (not counting moose), Newfounese sports 20 sub-dialects (if you throw in Labrador, which you have to do to be fair to all dog breeds). So when it came time to actually make these characters speak in my book, I was determined to Do So With Authenticity. Because, you know, I’m an Author and must be True To My Art

Yeah, not so much. Writing authentic dialect meant writing completely inaccessible dialogue to everyone but the .15% of native English speakers who currently inhabit the Province of Newfoundland and Labrador.

With all my in-depth linguistic research rapidly circling the drain, after the second draft of None of Us the Same I discovered that a) authenticity is really, really hard, and b) what I was really after in my fiction was verisimilitude—roughly translated, getting close enough. This meant creating a fictional space in which readers could lose themselves while I didn’t do anything stupid to jerk them out. So what I needed was the appearance of authenticity. Sort of like making a breakfast cereal bar in Brooklyn appear to be… well, anything other than a Very Silly Brooklyn Thing.

What I ended up with was a judicious sprinkling of idiom that I hope provides a sense of place without confusing people. For example, if someone is very thin, in the USA we might say, “He’s skinny as a rail” but in Newfoundland maybe, “He’s as thin as a rasher in the wind,” the delightful mental image being a strip of bacon flapping in the breeze. I threw in a few flag words, like the ubiquitous “b’y”— today used to refer to men, children, women, dogs, whatever—which was lifted directly from the southeast Irish pronunciation of “boy.”

I thought I had a handle on this tug-of-war between authenticity and accessibility. Early readers of None of Us the Same assured me I’d gotten it about right. Then I started writing Truly Are the Free, which is set in France, Ireland and the USA. While sharing a time period and some characters with Book #1, the story in Book #2 shifts to an African-American regiment from Harlem, some Irish locals, and beaucoup de French people.

The French were my initial problem, since I had to decide how much actual French I could risk having my not-so-actual French people speak. I’ve tried to cut this knot by using just enough French phrases to create that elusive verisimilitude of Frenchness. When I used French, I either selected cognates—words that looked more or less the same in both languages—or I found indirect ways to define the phrase in surrounding text. We’ll see if I got it right soon enough.

The more tangly problem was my African-American characters. Let’s be honest. I’m acutely aware of the highly contentious and often very emotional arguments swirling around writing circles, academia and our broader American society regarding “cultural appropriation.” This debate asks, can anyone not of a particular racial, ethnic, religious, linguistic, or other discrete group write authentically about people from that group? This includes fictional characters. Maybe especially fictional characters. And nothing is closer to the heart of this matter than what form of words you put in a character’s mouth. 

To say I went through waves of panic would be an understatement. Big tsunami waves, followed by deep troughs of self-doubt. The last thing I wanted was my African-American characters to descend into caricatures like Amos &  Andy or some old Hollywood mammy. I actually had nightmares where I was stuck in an Aunt Jemima commercial from my childhood. And be fair, to a 7-year-old me, a talking syrup bottle was a Very Scary Concept. (Or was that Mrs. Butterworth?)

I desperately wanted to do right by my characters. They’re drawn from the experiences of some all-too-real valiant men and intrepid women, even if mine are fictional. On the other hand, my African-American characters span the spectrum from the university-educated son of an affluent doctor to an uneducated soldier from a sharecropper family. They couldn’t speak the same, since that would sound fake and, well, silly.

After a lot of thought and reading and listening to Others Smarter Than Me, I finally landed in my personal comfort zone. I asked myself two things with every African-American character I created or before putting any kind of words in their mouths. 

First, can I describe out loud a legitimate narrative need for this character or piece of dialogue? (This is something you should probably ask about ANY character or dialogue, lest you write a rambling and boring book.) If I truly needed the character, the scene or the dialogue to build a character, convey a necessary sense of time or place, or advance the plot, then I’m good to go on to the next question.

Second, can I treat the character, their backstory, and their behavior with respect and dignity? The starting place here is DO YOUR RESEARCH—that’s the first line of defense against descending into stereotypes and clichés, particularly writing historical fiction. (I recently heard a full-throated exposition on this by way-too-talented Jamaican-American novelist Nicole Dennis-Benn.) There’s no copy-and-paste Googley shortcut to thorough research. And you have to then verify a second time everything that ends up in your manuscript, which will ideally be (according to Papa Hemingway at least) about 10% of what you started with. 

However, this doesn’t mean I didn’t write some broken or malevolent African-American characters—when you read Truly Are the Free, you’ll find some deliciously evil people, black and white. But I strived even with these Bad Guys to treat them with care and diligence, to make them fully-fleshed, warm-blooded, three-dimensional.

And I suppose the final lesson I’ve learned is to approach the whole project with a healthy dose of humility. As a fiction writer, I wield an awesome amount of power, the power of life or death, happiness or tragedy. Since omnipotence is a heady thrill, there’s a constant need to check my hubris, especially when writing cross-culturally. There’s always more to learn, after all.

Hope you’ll give my new book, Truly Are the Free, a read when it comes out 30 November [2017]. And of course you can start right now with None of us the Same.

Many thanks for sharing this post, Jeff. Jeffrey K. Walker will be back soon with another article – this one will be on Birth of the F-Bomb. And by the way, you can read an earlier post by Jeffrey titled The Wages of Violence here.

DON’T MISS OTHER POSTS ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION.  FOLLOW A WRITER OF HISTORY

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, PARIS IN RUINS, is available for pre-order on Amazon USAmazon CanadaKobo, and Barnes&Noble. An earlier novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from AmazonNookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on FacebookTwitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.

Characters Stranger than Fiction by Maryka Biaggio

Maryka Biaggio is a psychology professor turned novelist who specializes in historical fiction based on real people. Maryka told me that she enjoys the challenge of starting with actual people and dramatizing their lives and motivations while recreating their emotional world through dialogue and action. With the release of her latest novel, The Point of Vanishing, she reflects on the characters she’s discovered whose lives are stranger than fiction. Over to you, Maryka!

Who hasn’t tossed out the adage “truth is stranger than fiction” after hearing some absurd but true tale? In fact, the saying has turned cliché from overuse. But when it comes to fiction writers, reanimating the lives of real people is a serious matter. And many readers find their interest especially piqued by novels based on actual persons. Could it be that we are compelled to compare ourselves to others, and, when those others are real people, that their tales are even more captivating? 

If we agree that one particular fascination stories hold for us is the means of measuring ourselves against others, it is not at all difficult to understand the attraction of stories based on real characters. Unbelievable as their motives may be, far-fetched as their actions and circumstances may seem, these people actually lived. Witness the popularity of a spate of novels based on real characters: The Aviator’s Wife by Melanie Benjamin gives us a behind-the-scenes glimpse of Anne Morrow Lindbergh and her resilience in seeing her and her husband through their strange history; Ariel Lawhon’s I was Anastasia tells the fascinating story of Anna Anderson’s battle to be recognized as Anastasia Romanov; and The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd is based on the true story of a young woman given ownership of another human being in the early 1800s.

I specialize in writing historical fiction based on real people. My own recently released novel, The Point of Vanishing, recounts the tale of the gifted writer Barbara Follett, who disappeared without a trace at age 25. My debut novel, Parlor Games, tells the tale of beautiful and cunning May Dugas, who conned her way from America to Shanghai, London, and points in between. I continue to be amazed by the number of readers who tell me that knowing May was a real person made the novel all the more fascinating.  And I expect those who are interested in Barbara Follett’s story will feel the same about The Point of Vanishing.

So I believe readers take a particular delight in the stories about real people. For if some real character could mastermind the most daring plot to separate a millionaire from his money, what adventures might be in store for any of us? If another could rise from poor beginnings and attain greatness, what might the meekest among us achieve? 

According to Italo Calvino, it all began with the first chronicler of the tribe: “The storyteller began to put forth words, not because he thought others might reply with other, predictable words, but . . . in order to extract an explanation of the world from the thread of every possible spoken narrative.” We humans are meaning-making machines, and it is stories that grease the gears of our turning minds. In its most basic form, story is about confronting life’s questions and quandaries. Writer E.A. Durden claims that “it is the job of fiction to portray the full spectrum of human possibility, to remind ourselves of everything we are capable of—from exploring the heavens to breaking out of the clink.” What better way to explore the possibilities than through actual lived experiences?

Of course, comparing ourselves to others doesn’t happen only in fiction, or even in such other narrative forms as biography or memoir—witness the popularity of polls, those ubiquitous instruments of public opinion and habit. And if there is any doubt about this need to compare, consider what happened when Alfred Kinsey released his highly technical and research-laden 1948 book “Sexual Behavior in the Human Male.” Thinking this tome would be of interest only to the scientific community, W.P. Saunders printed just 5,000 copies. Against all expectations, this book so intrigued the public that the publishing house had to keep two presses rolling to meet the demand. Within fifteen weeks of its release, the 800-page volume had shot to near the top of the bestseller list. Of course, the fact that the topic was sexual behavior helped propel sales, but this doesn’t undermine the point. In fact, it confirms a variant—the more taboo or personal the content of the “story,” the more appeal it will hold for our story-hungry minds. 

I don’t expect the urge to compare ourselves to others, to take the measure of people who created their own success—or demise—will ever end. There will always be a demand for novels based on characters stranger than fiction. 

Congratulations on the release of your newest novel, Maryka. And thank you for sharing thoughts on the eagerness readers have for fiction based on true characters. I love novels based on real people and can’t wait to read your latest. Readers can also enjoy my conversation with Maryka about what makes historical fiction tick.

THE POINT OF VANISHING by Maryka Biaggio is based on the true story of author Barbara Follett. On a December night in 1939 Barbara Follett fought with her husband and stormed out of their Boston home never to be heard from again. Now novelist Maryka Biaggio provides a captivating account of Barbara’s enigmatic life—and disappearance.

Barbara had all the makings of promise and success. Early on, her parents recognized her shining intellect and schooled her at home. At age twelve, she published the novel The House Without Windows to much acclaim. When she was fourteen, her charming account of a sailing journey, The Voyage of the Norman D, was released. But when tragedy struck the family, Barbara floundered. Watch the trailer for more!

DON’T MISS OTHER POSTS ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION.  FOLLOW A WRITER OF HISTORY

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, PARIS IN RUINS, is available for pre-order on Amazon USAmazon CanadaKobo, and Barnes&Noble. An earlier novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from AmazonNookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on FacebookTwitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.