Theme in Historical Fiction by Lucille Turner

Lucille Turner has been on the blog before talking about Mona Lisa – 500 Years of Mystery, The Fall of Constantinople, and most recently offering insights on Research in Historical Fiction. Today she talks about theme in historical fiction. Welcome back, Lucille.

Theme in Historical Fiction by Lucille Turner

Writing is a very subjective activity. A writer becomes immersed in the fictional world he or she creates for the time it takes to finish the book, be it a few months or a few years. But however dedicated a writer you are, one of the greatest challenges you face is how to communicate the core of what your book is really about to the reader, because not every reader emerges from the same book with the same understanding of it. This can be frustrating; it can mean negative reviews, or even no reviews at all. Sometimes the significance of a book can be entirely lost on a reader. The plot may be thrilling, the characters may seem real, but the reader still needs to make sense of the book at a deeper level in order to enjoy it, and this is particularly true for literary and historical fiction, which are often driven by character and setting more than by plot.

What is theme, really? It is easy to say that theme is the central idea of the story, but in fact theme is not so much an idea as what the book has to say about an idea. Several ideas may emerge from a good novel, but where do they lead the reader, and how strong are they? A weak theme leaves you feeling there is something you have missed, or something the author has missed. A strong theme delivers that deeper level of enjoyment and understanding; it is the key to the book, which must be unlocked by the reader. Once unlocked, it will take the reader to that core of the book: its message, which is what the reader takes away once the book is finished.

In my recent historical novel, The Sultan, the Vampyr and the Soothsayer, one central idea that arose from the book was the struggle between good and evil. As the characters evolved and the plot moved forward, the emerging theme and message (hopefully) became apparent: that the struggle between good and evil is not played out in a church or a mosque or a monastery, but in the hearts and minds of individuals; it is about the choices that we make throughout our lives, and how we act on them.

A good historical novel uses setting to power theme. Setting is not just where and when events happen, it is also why they happen. It is the underlying context to events. Without the context of the American Civil War, for example, Gone With the Wind would be nothing more than a love story. Instead, the setting of the novel shapes the character of Scarlett O’Hara, making her the bearer of a message and a theme: to survive a civil war you must be ruthless and strong-willed; if you cannot change with the times you will die with them. Gone With the Wind, like the Civil War itself, was about the death of one way of life and the rebirth of another. The theme was so powerful and the message so relevant, that the book soon became a classic.

To grasp the message of any book requires a little bit of thinking, but not too much. Ideally it should dawn on the reader slowly during the course of the book; it should linger longer than the plot and longer than the characters, who cease to exist as the book ends, even if we will them on as readers long after the final page is read. A character cannot live on beyond the scope of the book, but fortunately a message can, and only a well-developed theme or themes will deliver one.

For a writer, theme doesn’t always reveal itself at the moment a story is conceived. It usually arises during the writing of the novel, organically. Imposing a theme from the outset can be a mistake because it means putting the cart before the horse. The best themes are those that work themselves into the story naturally, as a result of other elements. While setting may deliver the background to a theme, it still has to be played out by the character(s) of the novel. They are the ultimate drivers of theme, deciding on a left turn over a right one, and so leading the outcome one way or another towards this conclusion or that one. When Scarlett O’Hara decides to get Rhett Butler back at the end of Gone With the Wind, she is not only being true to herself, but also to the theme of the book, which demands the kind of strength and purpose only true adversity can fuel. Many things may be ‘gone with the wind’ but Margaret Mitchell’s Southern heroine will certainly not be one of them.

Further thoughts on theme in historical fiction can be found at 8 Steps for Outlining a Novel and Author Tips on Writing Historical Fiction.

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.

Research in Historical Fiction by Lucille Turner

HOW DO YOU BEGIN — and more importantly, when do you stop?

Lucille Turner, author of The Sultan, The Vampyr and the Soothsayer, offers her thoughts on the hows and whys of researching for historical fiction. Lucille has been on the blog before talking about the Mona Lisa and the fall of Constantinople. Over to you, Lucille.

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For a writer of historical fiction, it can be hard to know when to put down the research and pick up the pen. Do you read absolutely everything you can lay your hands on about your historical period, to the point that there is no stone left unturned — or can you do too much research, so that you end up with a stack of facts but no actual story? I would say you can; I would even venture to add that if at some point you don’t turn away from those fascinating facts, they will swallow you whole along with your story (or what you thought you had of one) because the real substance of historical fiction lies in between the lines, not on them; it lies with what drives history rather than what dates it: people.

In historical fiction, character is everything. It is character that helps a writer understand events and interpret them, simply because every historical event, with the exception of natural disasters, is man-made. History is a consequence of human nature, and it is individuals that make history happen. Even if there may be an entire social and geographical context to a battle or a war, it often takes just one individual to set the flame to the tinder, one act to set history in motion. The assassination of the heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire sparked World War I, even if the seeds for conflict had already been sown. Hilter was uniquely able to tap into public opinion and gain the unconditional support he needed to enter into conflict with the rest of Europe two decades later. These are examples of major historical upheavals, but the same applies to the smaller ones. There is always one individual who tips the apple cart, opens up Pandora’s box and sets off a chain of events that will define the lives of hundreds of people for years to come. Conversely, there are also individuals who have had a positive, rather than a negative effect on the course of history. Think of Nelson Mandela, Ghandi, and politicians such as Gorbachev, who ended Communism and made the world a safer place, if only for a while. Those who claim that one person, man or woman, cannot change the world are patently wrong. History tells us that much.

In researching an idea for an historical novel, there are known facts you can’t change, such as dates, battles, outcomes etc. And if you are using real historical figures in your novel, there are certain things there too that you cannot alter, such as what they did, and how they were perceived as individuals by those around them. But that doesn’t mean it’s an open and shut case. On the contrary, the case is wide open and always will be, because history never tells the absolute truth. It can’t, because the facts are never enough. They have to be interpreted to be understood, and particularly at the level of the individual. This is where the writer of historical fiction makes a mark, delivering story through history.

What history tells us about the individuals that made it may often be read in biographies, many of them excellent. An historical fiction writer will always read a biography if there is one available to them. Sometimes, if the historical figure lived too long ago, there may be very little in the way of written records. Go even further back in time and all you might have is archaeology. But even if biographies do exist, the role of the historical fiction writer is not the same as the role of the biographer or the historian. A writer of historical fiction aims to bring the historical figure back to life as a living, breathing person. The historian or biographer usually aims to place the individual in the context of their time, not necessarily in the context of their skin. What was going on in the head of a particular individual in a particular context of time or moment of history is mostly about detective work. Sometimes even guesswork. The historical fiction writer must be a bit of a detective.

In my own historical novel, The Sultan, the Vampyr and the Soothsayer, Vlad Dracula’s father (Dracula and his family were all real historical figures) puts his sons’ lives at risk in a political game of cat and mouse with the Ottoman Sultan Murad II. At first sight, it seems like a case of paternal negligence or even betrayal, but what it represents is the meat of characterisation. Look into the depths of such actions and you find conflict at the heart of it. Use that conflict to build your character and you have a flesh and bone person, complete with dilemmas, motivations and baggage.

There are other examples of character building in historical fiction, which are geographically closer to home for a British writer. Thomas Cromwell for instance, has provided Hilary Mantel and others with a golden opportunity to re-create a fictional character of great complexity, a man who bends himself to the will of notorious English monarch King Henry VIII only to find himself betrayed in turn by the king he served so devotedly. The beauty of characters like Cromwell, is that the complexity is almost a given. The contradictions of Cromwell’s own life provide it in abundance. As the king’s henchman, Cromwell was renown for his cruelty. Mantel presents him as a man hardened by an early life of struggle. Cromwell the boy became Cromwell the killer because he was a survivor. His father beat him as a child. To escape his father he went to war young. To survive he had to be resourceful, ruthless, and these were the characteristics that made him so indispensable to the king. Why then, did he end up on Tower Hill with a blade to his throat? To find that out, the writer would have to look more closely at the character of the one who sent him to the block, King Henry. And so it goes on. There is a good deal of detective work involved, and inevitably a certain amount of guesswork, but once the characters start to move, almost of their own accord, towards the destiny that history has assigned them, you know you’re on the right track.

Many thanks as always, Lucille. And best wishes for your latest novel!

The Sultan, the Vampyr and the Soothsayer – 1442: The Ottoman Turks are advancing through the Balkans with Vienna in their sights and Constantinople, the Orthodox Greek capital, within their grasp. Dracul, ruler of Wallachia (present-day Romania), will pay almost any price to save his country, but he will not surrender to the blackmail of the cardinals of Rome; he will not betray the Greeks.

When Vlad, his middle son, begins to show signs of the ancestral sickness, Dracul vows to deliver him into safety. But time is running short. To some, Vlad Dracula is a strigoi, the worst of all evils; to others, he is the son of a righteous man. Confrontational, charismatic and manipulative, he tests family and enemy alike. Surely he is destined for power, but of what kind?

As the Ottomans plot to take Constantinople, the future of Vlad Dracula becomes a weapon for those who would preserve the Golden City of the Eastern Church. The Catholics are afraid of him; the Greeks hold the scrolls that tell of his past. And when the Sultan calls for the services of a soothsayer, even the shrewd teller of fortunes is unprepared for what he learns.

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.

The Fall of Constantinople by Lucille Turner

lucille-turner-tstvats-cover-smallLucille Turner’s first novel, Gioconda, was inspired by the life of Leonardo Da Vinci. Her second, The Sultan, The Vampyr and the Soothsayer, is set in Constantinople, the subject of today’s post. Many thanks for being on the blog, Lucille.

THE FALL OF CONSTANTINOPLE by Lucille Turner

As the last jewel in the crown of Byzantine Greece, Constantinople represented a living link between the world of the Ancient Greeks and that of the old Roman Empire. It was named for Constantine the Great, the Roman Emperor from 306 to 337 AD who converted to Christianity. It was also the Patriarchate of the Orthodox Christian church, which lost its power and status when the Ottoman Turks conquered the city in 1453. Constantinople was more than just a Byzantine metropolis; it was one half of the Christian world, the eastern half, and it fell into dispute with the western half, the Roman Catholic Church, right from the start. Theological disputes between the Romans and the Greeks raged on and off like a storm until the day the city was taken by the Turks. In essence, when the Ottoman Turks entered Constantinople in 1453, they seized one half of the Christian world and brought it under Muslim rule.

In the run up to what is called the Fall of Constantinople, the Catholic Church was before a choice. Either it brought all its power to bear against the Turks and saved Eastern Christendom, the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate, or it cut off the limb that was weakening its body, and this, in the end, was what it did. The Roman Catholics did not give their support to the Greeks because of unresolved theological differences. As a result, thousands were slaughtered on a black day in the annals of Greek history, a day that fuelled hostility between the Turks and the Greeks for centuries. Fear of the Muslim armies resonated for generations to come in the minds of Western Europeans as news of the massacre on the streets filtered through Europe.

Today, Constantinople is known as Istanbul. It could have been the capital, but Ankara was chosen instead, partly perhaps to distance the new Republic of Turkey from its controversial Ottoman past. At the time of its conquest, the taking of Constantinople was considered as the unequivocal act of a great conqueror. It was almost impossible to assail, not only because the city walls were so formidable: 40 feet high by 15 feet thick, but because the Greeks had hauled a great chain beneath the surface of the water across the mouth of the Bosphorous straits to prevent an army from landing men directly at the foot of the citadel walls. Nevertheless, the Ottoman army took it, sending a shock wave rippling through the Christian world.

The last Greek Emperor to sit on the throne of Byzantium was Constantine Palaiologos. His brother John ruled before him, but Constantine was said to have had a premonition that he was to be the last Emperor, and that the city would fall under his reign. That did not mean he fled — far from it. On the day the Ottoman army entered the city gates, Constantine stripped away his imperial robes and stood before the invading army like a common foot soldier, drawing his sword for his people and his city like a hero from a Homeric tale. After his death he was immortalised as a legend. One day, the legend recounts, he would awake, like a sleeping king beneath a mountain, and take his city back.

The Palaiologos brothers were well aware that their world was under threat, although there was little they could do about it in the end, being as they were, an island of Greeks in a sea of Turks. Fearing the worst, they had already begun to strip their city of its treasures, often using the gold taken from the Hagia Sophia, the huge wonder of a church that still stands in the centre of Istanbul, to pay their diminished armies. But there were other treasures too in Constantinople. One had a value that could not be esteemed in terms of gold or coinage as it was nothing less than the greatest repository of human knowledge in existence at the time, the library.

The library of Constantinople housed almost all the scrolls of the ancient world. We do not really know for certain exactly how many and which ones, but there must have been works by Aristotle, Pythagoras, Galen and Euclid. Many of the scrolls housed there were Greek and Syriac works moved from the House of Wisdom of Baghdad to the libraries of Alexandria and Constantinople before the time of the Mongol siege in 1258, when the Mongol armies threw the remainder of the works of Arabic scholars into the River Tigris. So whoever acquired these works would have had the knowledge of centuries of brilliant minds in his hands to use as he saw fit.

It was Francis Bacon who was said to have coined the phrase knowledge is power, but I wouldn’t be surprised if a Greek hadn’t said it first. The fate of these hugely important scrolls became a source of fascination for me as I wrote The Sultan, the Vampyr and the Soothsayer. How could it not be, when the stakes were so high and the interested parties so numerous? But for me it was the image of Constantine, the last emperor of Constantinople, defending the city of his name to the bitter end, which set itself at the heart of the tragedy. But still, he was far from being the only hero of his day. There were others, equally heroic, except that they had acquired a reputation not as heroes but as something quite the opposite…

The Sultan, the Vampyr and the Soothsayer by Lucille Turner  (Amazon UK and Amazon.com)

1442: The Ottoman Turks are advancing through the Balkans with Vienna in their sights and Constantinople, the Orthodox Greek capital, within their grasp. Dracul, ruler of Wallachia (present-day Romania), will pay almost any price to save his country, but he will not surrender to the blackmail of the cardinals of Rome; he will not betray the Greeks.

When Vlad, his middle son, begins to show signs of the ancestral sickness, Dracul vows to deliver him into safety. But time is running short. To some, Vlad Dracula is a strigoi, the worst of all evils; to others, he is the son of a righteous man. Confrontational, charismatic and manipulative, he tests family and enemy alike. Surely he is destined for power, but of what kind?

As the Ottomans plot to take Constantinople, the future of Vlad Dracula becomes a weapon for those who would preserve the Golden City of the Eastern Church. The Catholics are afraid of him; the Greeks hold the scrolls that tell of his past. And when the Sultan calls for the services of a soothsayer, even the shrewd teller of fortunes is unprepared for what he learns.

What a great article, Lucille! Congratulations on your second novel. Readers can enjoy another article by Lucille Turner on the topic of her first novel, Gioconda.

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.