Setting – Authors’ perspectives and techniques

This is the last post dealing with setting – one of the seven elements of historical fiction. Over the years, authors have shared thoughts on transporting readers in time and place. I’ve pulled together a number of their perspectives in today’s post.

Katharine McMahon offers an introductory comment: research underpins the vividness of the story telling, but an emotional connection to the past is critical to successfully write historical fiction. The reader and I both know that I’m going to interweave the two – fact and fiction – as seamlessly as I would if I were writing a contemporary novel.

As does Judith Starkston: Developing an immersive world is hard work that has to feel seamless to the reader. And isn’t that one of the most profound transformations for fiction to accomplish—to place ourselves into another way of seeing the world and to try on how it feels to be another person?

Let’s hear from other authors ~~

Research: Jane Johnson’s approach to research: I need to immerse myself in the research – each novel usually requires a year of research – before I write the book. It’s partly a matter of confidence – knowing what I’m talking about! – partly the need to feed the compost heap from which the story emerges. All those facts, all that information needs to be piled up and then to mulch down to a rich material that will allow the story to grow straight and true (or twisted and strange!) but with its own integrity and power. I don’t want to have to fact-check three times in every sentence, or even every page: it breaks up the flow. I always go back to primary sources first, since I’ve learned only too well that even academics wing it sometimes and I’ve caught a number of so-called experts out in fudges and errors. I want the work to be accurate and to reflect as truthfully as possible the times I’m trying to portray. The story and characters are of course paramount, but if you’re going to write fiction which purports to be ‘historical’ I think you owe it to the period and to the readers to get it as right as anyone can. I want to offer readers verisimilitude and good value: and I don’t want anyone to suddenly stop and say ‘hang on, I don’t think that’s right’ – that’s the easiest way to lose the trust between an author and a reader. https://wp.me/p29Qar-hC

Perspective: R.N. Morris — I think you have to convince people that you have actually been there, into the past in a time machine, and that you’re writing from direct observation. That’s not the same as showing that you’ve done the research. You have to do the research, of course, but you have to process it and write it as though it’s from first hand observation. https://wp.me/p29Qar-kG

Technique: Blythe Gifford — As I get into the story, I’m always searching for the sensory details that will allow me to walk around in that world and experience it.  I have a map and a calendar at hand to keep me grounded, and in some ways, I find images better research than words.  But the physical sensations, scent, touch, sounds, really put me in touch with my characters.  The “everydayness” of real historical life is, of course, the most difficult thing to pin down, particularly before literacy was wide-spread.  https://wp.me/p29Qar-lK

Technique: Anne Easter Smith — if your historical characters are real people, you must know where they were and when and what occurred at these points in time; Anne Easter Smith offers her approach: First of all I get down on the floor with a big flip chart and make a graph with my main characters along the top and a monthly/yearly timeline down the side. Then I go to my favorite–and trusted–books on the period, turning to the index and finding my character (or her leading man, because as we know history is about men and written mostly by men!) I systematically go through every entry marking on my chart where she (or he) was at any specific time and what they were doing there. Once I have a goodly number of entries and have finished Part One of the book, I write down a list of all the places I have not been to and begin to plan The Research Trip. I need to walk the walk and see what my characters would have seen. Once I’m home again with a bag full of photos, brochures, maps and notes then I feel ready to start writing. https://wp.me/p29Qar-m9

Technique: Helen Bryan — Research is the easy part. In the main, this consists of burying myself in the British Library, to read about whatever period I plan to write about, and making notes by hand. While I can’t imagine writing on anything but a word processor, handwriting research notes tends to fix information in my brain, and significantly, at this stage the landscape of the novel starts to take shape.

Another good thing about research is that it’s possible to do it almost indefinitely without actually writing anything, while looking impressively busy. However, research isn’t limited to books. Useful information for a writer can crop up anytime, anywhere – newspaper stories, a snatch of conversation overheard in the street, a color, the weather, a landscape, any small detail that will pull a reader into the story. In particular, I am always on red alert for names. Characters must have exactly the right name, and only then do they begin to be real for me.  That’s when I begin writing, fitting them into that landscape. https://wp.me/p29Qar-mf

Technique: Indu Sundaresan — For The Twentieth Wife (and a few other novels following) my notes are in big binders, categorized as ‘food,’ ‘clothing,’ ‘transportation,’ maybe ‘roles of women,’ ‘court etiquette.’  This all forms a practical binder—what I absolutely need to know. For each novel, I also have a timeline binder.  I begin from the first recorded mention of my character(s) and continue through until their death, in between I jot down everything I’ve read about them—wars, battles, who they loved, whom they hated and why (or possibly why) and who mentions them and why. https://wp.me/p29Qar-yj

Technique: Jessica Brockmole — General history books are excellent starting points. They can help us plan our novels from the onset, letting us wade through much history in order to zero in on the few essential tidbits. They can also point us in the direction of other resources. I always follow footnotes to the end bibliography in search of more to read, especially published primary sources. I’ve come across some gems that I may not have found on my own. In researching WWI and WWII, I read collections of letters between soldiers and sweethearts, war diaries, and memoirs.

Research: Marina Oliver — find books on “historical slang, synonyms and foreign phrases … dictionaries of quotations, books of names, books on furniture, costume and houses, second-hand copies of Who’s Who and Whitaker’s Almanack, hotel and tourist guides and maps”. Oliver says there are different levels of research. First there is the general background … then you will need more specific information, relating more closely to the location and the time, and finally tiny details to illustrate something in the story, to back up some action or make a plot development possible.

Technique: Delaney Green – Readers want to be transported.  Humans know where they are by taking in information through their five senses. Therefore, I try to see, hear, touch, taste, and smell past places by finding out what there was to see, hear, touch, taste, and smell. https://wp.me/p29Qar-QM

Technique: Margaret Evans Porter: I rely on portraits of people and places as they were at the time the novels take place. I study maps, floor plans of building. I hunt for objects used by or connected with my real-life characters. I study types of clothing worn, and because I worked in the theatre for many years, I have the advantage of having performed in the costumes of every era I’ve written about—so far. I read recipe books, dictionaries, conduct books published at that time. I listen to music that might have been familiar to my characters, read the poets and authors they would’ve read, and study the plays they attended.

Technique: Leah Klocek: offers several suggestions she uses for research.

Eyewitness to History is exactly what it sounds like. A rather plain and ad-filled website hides a valuable collection of excerpts from first-hand accounts from all throughout history. It’ll give you some great ideas and at least one cited source per page for you to follow.

Best of History Websites is definitely strongly tilted towards teachers, but it’s still quite helpful to the rest of us. It’s an index of websites organized by time and place in history. Each website listed within the larger index includes a description of what it holds and a review of the website for usability and accuracy – and there are some amazing websites in there. It also has a section specifically aimed at researchers containing advice and tools to assist both beginners and experts.

The Internet History Sourcebooks Project contains collections of public domain and copy-permitted historical texts. Here you will find an index of a wide variety of primary source documents from just about everywhere and everywhen. The page is old and not often updated, but don’t let this stop you.

And finally, The Avalon Project is a digital library of historical documents related to law and diplomacy dating back to the beginning of written history. It’s a veritable cornucopia of documents ranging from Roman Republican agrarian laws to the 9/11 Commission Report. As many, if not most, historical plots intersect with conflict, law, or diplomacy, bookmarking The Avalon Project will not be a decision you regret.

Technique: Elizabeth St John. — What was most fascinating to me were the footnotes, for from there emerged the original source documents. That was my second research methodology – going deep into the contemporary documents of the times. Subscribing to British History Online and the National Archives opened up the world of digitalized manuscripts; and Google Books unlocked the Calendars of State Papers. Now I was humming! The hunt was on for every single character that would be making an appearance in my book, and the riches provided by these online sources were boundless. I quickly realized the need to have a pretty accessible filing system to be able to store and retrieve all the documents that were emerging – letters, pleadings, court appearances, dispatches. Some were written by my characters; others mentioned them in passing. Each provided a clue to the personality and motivation of the people of my book.

Perspective: Geoff Micks — Any writer in any genre needs to know the rules of their world well enough to know which rules can be broken, bent, or ignored. Writers of historical fiction need to go even further, because it is their responsibility to train their readers from the very first page about how that world works differently from the one we live in today. By the time the characters and conflicts are made manifest, readers need to be able to imagine what is happening for themselves without heavy-handed spoon feeding of exposition, explanation, and context. That kind of fluency and familiarity only comes from a deep understanding of what you, the writer, are going to write about. For me,  https://wp.me/p29Qar-139

Perspective: Myfanwy Cook, author of Historical Fiction Writing – A Practical Guide and Toolkit, says that setting provides a stage on which the characters can act out their drama.

Setting is not just a colourful frame in which to showcase an author’s characters, but is in many ways an extra character … it deserves to have a detailed ‘character sketch’ of its own, which is as accurate and suitable for the subgenre of historical fiction as possible.”

I hope you’ve enjoyed this deep dive into setting. Now I have to decide which element to tackle next: character, plot, theme, dialogue, conflict, or world building.

Links to earlier posts on setting:

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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.

The Whirl of Launching a Novel

TodMK-TimeandRegret-22790-CV-FTLaunching a new novel is a very exciting time in any author’s life. In preparation I booked two virtual tours, one with Amy Bruno’s HFVBT and the second with Emma Cazabonne’s France Book Tours (starting Sept 1). Beyond the book tours, many friends  helped publicize Time and Regret on blogs, Twitter and Facebook – I am very grateful for their support!

Several bloggers agreed to host a guest post, which meant that during the month prior to launch I was busier than the proverbial one-armed paper hanger writing articles. I thought I would gather them together here. Many thanks to these wonderful bloggers and authors.

Tony RichesThe Writing DeskWriting a mystery – more challenging than expected 

… a mystery is a very different beast. Mystery lovers have expectations, specifically the expectation that you will keep them guessing until the last possible moment and equally the expectation that the smart reader should be able to figure it out. They expect clues strategically sprinkled throughout the novel, many red herrings, a few plot twists, and more than one potential culprit. They expect the excitement to build and build, and the protagonist to have his or her own life problems to add depth to the story … to read the article click here

Elisabeth StorrsTricliniumWhy I used a first person narrator

Time and Regret is the first novel I’ve told using a first person narrator. In other words, the operative word is I. According the Elizabeth George in her non-fiction book Write Away, “When a writer uses this, she stays with one narrator throughout the novel. She’s in that character’s head and no one else’s.” To read the article click here

Jaideep Khanduja – life.paperblog.com – Millennial Readers – What do we know about them?

Millennials have demonstrated the tendency to read more—and buy more books—than other generations. In fact, Millennials buy 30% of books, compared to the 24% purchased by Baby Boomers.” To read the article click here 

Meg WessellA Bookish Affair Essentials of a Good Mystery

… Plot is everything. You have to have a great story; one that engages readers from the outset offering twists and turns and unexpected developments. For example, a character your readers expect to be the culprit dies before the novel ends. Or perhaps your heroine loses the very clue that promised to solve the mystery or her lover is revealed to be working against her. To read the article click here

Elizabeth St. John – author blog – Through the Eyes of a Historical Fiction Writer

I look at the sweep of land, the flowers and shrubs that border the roads, the rivers that meander or rush, the cows huddled beneath a tree; I watch the people, noting gestures and the rhythm of speech, facial features, colouring, the slope of someone’s brow, the way their eyes flash or their chins lift. I wander through markets imagining similar cheeses and meats, flowers and vegetables on narrow stalls crammed one against the other in the town squares of one hundred years ago. A small cat twitches her tail, a dog barks, church bells ring, a cock crows. Sounds too are important, as are smells. The intent is to immerse myself as completely as possible in the world that will become my story. To read the article click here

Debra Brown – English Epochs 101 – Bringing One Soldier’s Experience to Life

For the past six or seven years, I’ve been fascinated with World War One. So much so that I’ve written three novels centred on that horrifying world conflict. And still it haunts me. To read the article click here

Elizabeth Spann Craig – author blog – 8 Tips on Writing Dual-Time Mysteries

What do The Ashford Affair by Lauren Willig, The Labyrinth by Kate Mosse, The Light in the Ruins by Chris Bohjalian, The Muralist by B.A. Shapiro, and The Lost Sisterhood by Anne Fortier have in common? Answer: they are all dual-time mysteries. I love reading stories like these. But writing one proved to be a significant challenge and demanded a different approach from my previous historical novels … to read the article click here

Marie Burton – The Burton Review – Five WWI Novels that Influenced my Writing

… A huge leap is required to turn your life upside down and do something completely different and I had a lot to learn about war. Beyond the usual internet sources and history books about those times, five novels stand out for the beauty of their writing, their evocation of sights and sounds and the tidbits of historical detail that are seamlessly woven into the stories. I’ve read these five, reread them, unlined sections and even marked particularly interesting pages with little yellow stickies. They are my go-to source whenever I need an injection of WWI atmosphere to spark my writing. To read the article click here

Lorna Ferguson – Literascribe – The Making of a Novel

Each author creates and writes in her or his own way. There is no best approach; what matters most is whether in the end the story is compelling from a reader’s point of view. I tend to get an idea and then put flesh on it using a detailed chapter outline before I begin the real writing. The idea for my latest novel, Time and Regret, came while travelling in France with my husband Ian to visit the battlefields, monuments, cemeteries, and museums dedicated to World War One … to read the article click here

I also had the pleasure of being interviewed by Richard Sutton (Saille Tales) Sarah Johnson (Reading the Past) and Colleen Turner (A Literary Vacation)

To all of these wonderfully supportive individuals a VERY BIG THANK YOU.

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.

 

Truth or Dare

A few months ago, I read The Lady of the Tower by Elizabeth St. John, a wonderful story set during the time of James I. Today, Elizabeth weighs the balance of truth and fiction in historical fiction. Welcome to A Writer of History, Elizabeth.

TRUTH OR DARE: THE PARADOX OF HISTORICAL FICTION by Elizabeth St. John

“The trade of the historical novelist doesn’t seem so reprehensible or dubious; the only requirement is for conjecture to be plausible and grounded in the best facts one can get…Every time the author writes, “He thought that . . .” or “She felt that . . .”, she’s making it up. We never know what people thought or felt, unless they kept frank and full journals. And the world is full of people who lie to their own diaries.” – Hilary Mantel

When I first approached writing an historical fiction novel based on an ancestress’s diary fragment, my biggest challenge was not in the prose (that came later!) but in establishing which parts of the work would be truth, and which I would dare to fictionalize. After re-reading some of my favorite historical fiction authors (Hilary Mantel, Jean Plaidy, Anya Seton, George Garrett, Margaret George) I felt I had a good handle on how to navigate those dangerous waters. What I didn’t want, more than anything, was to be caught in an obvious fabrication of the facts, twisted to suit my own needs.

So, truth based in fact, and dare to be bold in interpreting emotions, motive and outcomes. That was a rule I established and scrutinized my writing against every day. Going a step further, I decided that I would approach my research from two perspectives. Firstly, immersively, where I would read any and every fiction and non-fiction book that caught my eye that was relevant to the period. I was fairly widely read in the preceding 16th century, but most of the action in The Lady of the Tower takes place in the 17th century. I needed to brush up on my Stuarts. This involved a voracious consumption of the driest text books (try Divine Right and Democracy – An Anthology on Political Writing in Stuart England) to the wonderful biographies of Antonia Fraser, Anne Somerset, Paul Sellin, and Roger Lockyer, to reams of good (and not so good) fiction.

What was most fascinating to me were the footnotes, for from there emerged the original source documents. That was my second research methodology – going deep into the contemporary documents of the times. Subscribing to British History Online and the National Archives opened up the world of digitalized manuscripts; and Google Books unlocked the Calendars of State Papers. Now I was humming! The hunt was on for every single character that would be making an appearance in my book, and the riches provided by these online sources were boundless. I quickly realized the need to have a pretty accessible filing system to be able to store and retrieve all the documents that were emerging – letters, pleadings, court appearances, dispatches. Some were written by my characters; others mentioned them in passing. Each provided a clue to the personality and motivation of the people of my book.

The six St. John sisters who feature in The Lady of the Tower, from a Polyptych at St. Mary's Church, Lydiard Park
The six St. John sisters who feature in The Lady of the Tower, from a Polyptych at St. Mary’s Church, Lydiard Park

Now I could read their own words, or speeches that had been transcribed by clerks, and plot their character arcs. I could start to see why one married another, or how Barbara would always be a survivor, and Eleanor was a sweetheart. I was fortunate to have access to family portraits, and as I wrote, I chose desktops and images to constantly rotate on my computer to inspire me. Each day, they became more real, and their voices more insistent to be heard. The research that I had done fell into the background, a foundational knowledge that dared me to now allow my imagination to take flight, knowing that I had solid groundwork in accurate fact.

Next – the landscapes. I am fortunate inasmuch as having been brought up in England, so my sense of the countryside and climate are innate. But, I still didn’t know how long it would take to ride from Swindon to Castle Fonmon, and the route, and the scenery along the way. This is where Google Maps came in so handy – sitting at my desk in San Diego, I could drop into a footpath in Wiltshire and know exactly how my heroine would have seen the land.

More than anything I felt I owed it to my distant family to bring them to life in an honest account that would retain the atmosphere of the time, without making the writing too inaccessible to the modern reader. This is where, after several false starts, I determined Point of View (First) and a reading / language level that would appeal to my potential audience. I knew I wasn’t writing romance (although there are love stories intertwined), and I didn’t want twenty-first century attitudes and language to creep in. I settled in on…Jane Eyre. Although written a couple of centuries later than The Lady of the Tower, I felt the sentence structure helped convey a sense of an earlier time, while the restrained passion in the writing and the heroine’s character make us relate completely to her and her plight. Of course, lengthy run-on sentences suffered greatly in the editing, but they were fun to write in the first draft.

Finally, I have a confession. Back to the original diary fragment, I had a big problem. Mention is made of the heroine’s first love in the following way…describing his arrival as such… “all the suitors that came turned their addresses to her, which she in her youthful innocency neglected, till one of greater name, estate and reputation than the rest happened to fall deeply in love with her, and to manage it so discreetly that my mother could not but entertain him…”. The problem – his name was never mentioned. So I had a pivotal plot point in the book, but no character’s name. Back out came the research, and after a few weeks of digging around, I found an estate (Charlton Park) close by the location of my work, and a young man (Theophilus Howard, future Duke of Suffolk) that could match the hero. Then, I found that two of his children married into my heroine’s family. That, to return to Hilary Mantel’s credo, was enough fact to establish plausible conjecture. And thus, “Theo” was born.

To summarize, writing this work of historical fiction has been a glorious journey. I’ve read extraordinary books, delved into personal correspondence and diaries, visited their houses, castles, graves, and gardens, and gazed at portraits, daring the sitters to walk out of their frames and talk to me. And, during the three years that it took to write, edit and prepare The Lady of the Tower for publication, I felt that I had honored my ancestors and written a piece that brought them to life. As I say in my summary for the book … it may have been four hundred years ago, but they are not so different from you and me.

The-Lady-Of-The-Tower-by-Elizabeth-St-JohnThe Lady of the Tower by Elizabeth St. John – Orphaned Lucy St.John, described as “the most beautiful of all,” defies English society by carving her own path through the decadent Stuart court. In 1609, the early days of the rule of James I are a time of glittering pageantry and cutthroat ambition, when the most dangerous thing one can do is fall in love . . . or make an enemy of Frances Howard, the reigning court beauty.

Lucy catches the eye of the Earl of Suffolk, but her envious sister Barbara is determined to ruin her happiness. Exiling herself from the court, Lucy has to find her own path through life, becoming mistress of the Tower of London. Riding the coattails of the king’s favorite, the Duke of Buckingham, the fortunes of the St.Johns rise to dizzying heights. But with great wealth comes betrayal, leaving Lucy to fight for her survival—and her honor—in a world of deceit and debauchery.

Many thanks, Elizabeth. I can attest to your ability to create the sense of time and place so crucial to successful historical fiction. Your characters truly came alive for me.

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 will be 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.