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.

Fact or Fiction?

Tessa Harris argues that historical novelists can take liberties with the facts if necessary, but they must admit to it. Please welcome Tessa Harris, author of the just-released novel Beneath a Starless Sky as well as the Doctor Thomas Silkstone mysteries and the Constance Piper mysteries to the blog.

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When the UK’s Culture Secretary asks Netflix to flag up that its hugely successful drama series The Crown is actually just that – a drama, not a documentary – and several historians weigh in to criticise the depiction of events and characters, the ensuing wider debate surely must include historical novelists, too. 

If you’re one of the tens of millions of viewers of The Crown, the drama based on the life of Queen Elizabeth II and the royal house of Windsor, then you will know that the screenwriters have, on occasion, bent the facts for dramatic purposes. Writers of historical novels sometimes do the same thing. But that begs the question: is it acceptable to sacrifice the truth for the sake of a more compelling story? 

While The Crown may be well researched, and based on real historical events, it is also a work of drama and storytelling. It is not a documentary. As royal historian Robert Lacey recently wrote in the Radio Times: “What you see is both invented and true.”

So how do you balance historical fact versus fiction? How far can you go to fill in the blanks left by contemporaneous accounts? What liberties are acceptable? International best-selling author Bernard Cornwell once put it this way: “If you are wanting to write historical fiction I always say, you are not an historian. If you want to tell the world about the Henrician reformation, then write a history book but if you want an exciting story, then become a storyteller. Telling the story is the key.” 

Personally, I always think of writing historical fiction as a bit like crossing a river over steppingstones. It’s up to the writer to bridge the gaps between the stones by imagining and creating plausible settings and scenes between the protagonists. Private moments, conversations and even the relationships between the characters, who may or may not have existed, can breach the gaps that exist between these steppingstones of fact.  

This is what I’ve tried to do in my new novel, set in the 1930s in the build-up to war and spanning Western Europe and America. It features, among other real-life characters, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Fred Astaire and Adolf Hitler.  I was, of course, treading a well-worn path, but I was very much indebted to some brilliant biographers who had travelled before me. Reading original letters and diary entries also proved invaluable in shaping my portrayal of the real characters. Like most writers of serious historical fiction, I try my best to stick to the facts but sometimes there just aren’t any, so we novelists invent them. On other occasions, in order to move a story on, or to allow for unity of place, events may be concertinaed, or settings relocated. 

Sometimes, the truth can also be stranger than fiction. In my new novel, for example, if I had invented a plot line whereby the former king of England was about to be kidnapped by the Nazis, or bribed to act as Hitler’s puppet king, most readers would think it too fanciful. And yet secret documents discovered by the Americans after the war, reveal that this was exactly the case and that the plan was codenamed “Operation Willi.” 

In the episode of The Crown where the queen confronts her errant uncle about his past misdeeds and the existence of the Marburg Files, the facts were spot on, but of course it’s not always the case. When the novelist does tinker with recorded history, however, all is not lost because we writers of historical fiction have a secret weapon at our disposal. I’m talking about the author’s notes.

In an interview with the Guardian newspaper, Bernard Cornwell also recently confessed: “I do play merry hell with history at times, but I always admit to it.” To many readers historical fiction is a gateway to reading real histories and biographies. An author’s notes can be seen as a memorandum informing the reader if any historical facts have been altered and, if so, how. The notes can also signpost further reading. In my Dr Thomas Silkstone mystery series, for example, I included a glossary of archaic terms and interesting historical snippets and recommended factual books.  

One of the major problems for The Crown is that the later episodes are still relatively fresh in peoples’ memories. The same problem occurs the later the historical novel is set. You are much more likely to have readers complain if you get your facts wrong if your story is set after World War 1, for example. That’s why Simon Jenkins, again writing in the Guardian, argues that because The Crown’s latest series deals with  contemporary history and people who are still alive, its liberties with the facts are less a case of artistic license than an example of “fake news.”

The Crown’s creator, Peter Morgan, has never met Her Majesty. I have – twice. In private, she struck me as human, but aloof, although she did have an enchanting laugh when surrounded by those with whom she feels at ease. Like all writers of historical fiction, she also has to tread a fine line between believing it is her God-given mission to rule over her ‘subjects’ until her death and being a down-to-earth head of state. The creators of The Crown, in my opinion, have done a good job in distilling the essence of the constant battle between personal and public that besets the monarchy. Writers of historical fiction must do the same, but always own up when they take liberties with the facts. When ambivalence exists over whether a book deals in fact or fiction, publishers may helpfully print the words “a novel” underneath the title on the cover. Maybe in this case, something similar on the opening credits might read: The Crown, a drama.  

Beneath a Starless Sky, by Tessa Harris, is published by HQ and will be out on E-book on December 9, 2020, price $3.99 and 99p in the UK.

Beneath A Starless Sky is out in e-Book, price 99p on December 9 and in paperback and audio on February 4, 2021, price £ 8.99.

To celebrate the release of the gripping and utterly heart-breaking Beneath A Starless Sky, author Tessa Harris will be going live on HQ Stories facebook page in conversation with Mandy Robotham, the international bestselling author of The Berlin Girl, on 9th December at 3pm GMT. Don’t miss it! Set your reminder here: http://ow.ly/lnr050CBRsL

Tessa will also be talking about why historical fiction matters on 10th December. Follow this link to register

Many thanks for sharing Fact or Fiction with us, Tessa. Best wishes for Beneath a Starless Sky.

Beneath a Starless Sky by Tessa Harris

Munich 1930. Lilli Sternberg longs to be a ballet dancer. But outside the sanctuary of the theatre, her beloved city is in chaos and Munich is no longer a place for dreams.

The Nazi party are gaining power and the threats to those who deviate from the party line are increasing. Jewish families are being targeted and their businesses raided, even her father’s shop was torched because of their faith.

When Lilli meets Captain Marco Zeiller during a chance encounter, her heart soars. He is the perfect gentleman and her love for him feels like a bright hope under a bleak sky.

But battle lines are being drawn, and Marco has been spotted by the Reich as an officer with great potential. A relationship with Lilli would compromise them both.

DON’T MISS OTHER POSTS 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 AmazonNookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on FacebookTwitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.