Inside Historical Fiction with Piper Huguley

piper-huguleyPiper Huguley was named in 2015 as a top ten historical romance novelist in Publisher’s Weekly. A great accomplishment. She writes historical fiction featuring African American characters and has very recently released a novella The Washerwoman’s War. Today, we are chatting about the uniqueness of historical fiction.

What are the ‘magic ingredients’ that make historical fiction unforgettable/irresistible? And in your opinion, what do the best historical fiction writers do to ‘get it right’?  Worldbuilding is completely crucial. It’s important for the author to build a world where readers feel transported. So to me, the best historical fiction authors build in the details of everyday life, dress, food, culture, and what’s going on around them. The best historical fiction authors do all of this, without the reader noticing. That, to me, is the tricky part.

Are historical novels inherently different from contemporary novels, and if so, in what ways? They are different because the times are different. However, I think the ongoing struggle with historical fiction is to build a bridge of connection between the author and readers. So to me, there has to be an element of how historical and contemporary novels might resemble one another. When an author can build that bridge, then readers are more willing to read historical fiction.

What aspects about the past do you specifically try to highlight in your novel(s)? My novels don’t sugar coat the past. I want to bring forward a more complete history. There is a lot in the narrative that has been overlooked, so my stories are an attempt to restore some of those voices that have not been heard from for a richer, fuller depiction of history. Rather than focusing on African Americans as victims, my stories show how hard they worked and how they had strong faith in a brighter future for generations to come.

In writing historical fiction, what research and techniques do you use to ensure that conflict, plot, setting, dialogue, and characters are true to the time period? I rely on as many primary sources as I can. This isn’t easy, because there were long periods of illiteracy for African Americans. But they exist. So I go to them. I read the history and literature of the time period as well. As a literature professor, I have to teach this history to my students before they can appreciate the literary work, so it’s work I keep having to review. The history remains fresh and interesting to me in that way.

What aspects do you feel need to be included when you are building a past world for your readers? All of the aspects I listed before as what the best historical fiction authors do to get it right. It’s so important to make historical fiction accessible.

Do you see any particular trends in HF? I’m hopeful there will be more stories of ordinary people. I love the royalty stories as well, but there are a lot of them out there. This tight focus on a small group of people means that historical fiction appears closed off and limited. That kind of rigidity will not help to increase the numbers of readers. There has to be more variety so that more readers might enjoy this rich history in the coming years.

Please tell us a little about your latest novel.

My newest novella, released October 26, 2016, uses the Black Washerwoman’s strike of 1881 in Atlanta as a backdrop.

When Mamie Harper arrives to substitute teach for the Atlanta Baptist Female Seminary school, she witnesses terrible injustices with some of the older students who are washerwomen. Mamie’s upbringing as the daughter of the most famous Black suffragette in America means that she cannot be silent. She takes it upon herself to help the washerwomen find their voice and protest their mistreatment.

Reverend Gabriel Harmon is the summer pastor at one of the most influential Baptist churches in Atlanta. When the Black Washerwomen go on strike, he’s brought in to mediate a solution but then realizes the feisty leader of the opposition is the young teacher from Milford who rejected his attempts to court her the year before. When these two collide over explosive events during a hot Atlanta summer, only one side will be able to win the battle. As they clash, they learn there is another war, the war of the heart, that’s worth winning as well.

Many thanks for being on the blog, Piper. I’m sure readers will find your perspectives very interesting. Stories about ordinary people are a passion of mine as well.

Piper G Huguley, named 2015 Debut Author of the Year by Romance Slam Jam and Breakout Author of the Year by AAMBC, is a two-time Golden Heart ®finalist and is the author of “Migrations of the Heart,” a three-book series of historical romances set in the early 20th century featuring African American characters, published by Samhain Publishing. Book #1 in the series, A Virtuous Ruby, won Best Historical of 2015 in the Swirl Awards. Book #3 in the series, A Treasure of Gold, was named by Romance Novels in Color as a Best Book of 2015 and received 4 ½ stars from RT Magazine.

Huguley is also the author of the “Home to Milford College” series. The series follows the building of a college from its founding in 1866. On release, the prequel novella to the “Home to Milford College” series, The Lawyer’s Luck, reached #1 Amazon Bestseller status on the African American Christian Fiction charts. Book #1 in the series, The Preacher’s Promise was named a top ten Historical Romance in Publisher’s Weekly by the esteemed historical romance author, Beverly Jenkins and received Honorable Mention in the Writer’s Digest Contest of Self-Published e-books in 2015.

Her new series “Born to Win Men” will debut in December 2016 with A Champion’s Heart as Book #1. Piper blogs about the history behind her novels at http://piperhuguley.com. She lives in Atlanta, Georgia with her husband and son.

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.

Footprints in the Forest – writing about the Holocaust

footprints-in-the-forestAuthor Jeannette Katzir offers her perspective on writing historical fiction. She is the second child of five children born to two Holocaust survivors. Jeannette rode horses for almost thirty years until a fall put an end to something she truly loved doing and has now turned her energies and passion to writing.

Footprints in the Forest, is her second book in this genre. Her first book, Broken Birds, the Story of My Momila, received positive reviews, and was spotlighted by Jesse Kornbluth of Head Butler and The Huffington Post. She lives in Los Angeles.

What are the ‘magic ingredients’ that make historical fiction unforgettable/irresistible? And in your opinion, what do the best historical fiction writers do to ‘get it right’?

Memorable historical fictions have the ability to artfully interweave a manufactured story thread into an actual historical event, all the while, maintaining the integrity of that historical occasion. This new thread must be skillfully written, so it feels real while remaining within the constraints of an event already known to us.

Are historical novels inherently different from contemporary novels, and if so, in what ways?

They are different because when a reader opens an historical fiction novel, they already know the beginning and the ending. In contemporary novels all of those events are manufactured with any and all endings possible.

What aspects about the past do you specifically try to highlight in your novel(s)?

I consider myself a Holocaust-aholic and so in my book, Footprints in the Forest, I highlighted the horrors of that atrocity. I then shined a light onto those perseverant souls who survived at the cost of losing almost everything and everyone they held near and dear.

In writing historical fiction, what research and techniques do you use to ensure that conflict, plot, setting, dialogue, and characters are true to the time period?

Fortunately for me, I speak a smattering of Yiddish and German, so I was able to infuse the spoken language(s) of the day onto characters who were based on people I knew and grew up with, (my momila (mother) and tatinke (father). I also had a time-line sitting on my desk so that I could make sure I always backed into the dates and events that occurred. This can be helpful and also limiting. It caused me to be sure and plant storyline seeds along the way so in the end, the book made historical as well as fictional sense.

What aspects do you feel need to be included when you are building a past world for your readers?

The spoken language of a particular period of time is crucial to a book, as reading is not a visual medium. In my particular case I felt it was important for the reader to feel what our heroine was feeling. They needed to trudge along side Chana as she marched through a near pitch-black forest. They needed to understand the additional terror of slogging through a waist high marsh when you can’t swim a stroke.

When she was in 1948’s Brooklyn, I wanted the reader to experience a drastic difference. I wanted them to travel back in time with her to a place outside our current time. I wanted them feel her conflicted feelings when she had the opportunity of getting what she most wanted, if she was willing to give up something she never thought she’d have to.

Do you see any particular trends in HF?

I am pleased that much of the historical fiction has become so personalized. History can sometimes be rather dry, but historical fiction allows us to step into history and feel the feelings of that time. We are invited along that thrill ride, all the while pretty much knowing how it will all turn out.

Please tell us a little about your latest novel.

Footprints in the Forest, is about a fourteen year old Jewish girl who is ripped from her mother’s arm and thrown into a Russian otriad, Partisan group. Our heroine, Chana, comes of age under the worst of conditions, and even though she is underweight, starving, and running from a terrifying enemy, she finds love. There is a concurrent story line of her as a young woman assimilating to Brooklyn New York in the late 40’s. She feels a out of place as she is still governed by the rules and laws of her upbringing. But she must let the past go if she is to find love.

Many thanks, Jeannette for sharing your thoughts on historical fiction. Best wishes for your latest novel and future writings.

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 Lure of Historical Fiction with Alexandra Curry

the-courtesan-alexandra-curryI’m delighted to have Alexandra Curry on the blog today. Alexandra’s debut novel, The Courtesan, is based on the real life story of Sin Jinhua, a famous courtesan who lived during the Qing dynasty (late 1800s). 

MKTod: What are the ‘magic ingredients’ that make historical fiction unforgettable/irresistible? And in your opinion, what do the best historical fiction writers do to ‘get it right’?

Alexandra Curry: I love history of all kinds, but for me historical fiction enters the realm of the magical when I, as a reader, don’t feel—at all—as though it is history. When for a few hundred pages I wouldn’t dream of not wearing the whalebone corset that makes it hard for me to breathe, or I am sweating in a Confederate soldier’s grey woolen frockcoat that is far too warm on a summer day, or my brocade Geisha’s obi makes me feel beautiful and almost legendary. For just a while, I am the classmate of a little girl in a South African school whose life has changed, right now, because the curls in her hair have caused her to fail the infamous pencil test of racial purity. It’s magical when I can almost feel the thigh-flask of bathtub gin that’s underneath a character’s skirt, and I see myself with bobbed hair and finger waves and tassels and sequins—and am on my way to Harlem to hear music that makes my shoulders, hips and feet move in ways that some people say is shocking. None of these experiences belong to my place or my time, but as a reader of historical fiction I feel the discomfort, the heat, the heartbreak—the excitement of another era. I know everything I need to know about these ways of being human and these times that have passed and just a little more than that. I know these things through the eyes of characters the author has created and I trust her or him to have given me the truth as those characters lived it. Fiction like this lets us see the intriguing, the shocking and the universal. It leaves us with a new frame of reference about how things connect through time, and at its very best when we read the words THE END on the very last page we understand why what happened then matters now.

Are historical novels inherently different from contemporary novels, and if so, in what ways?

I have to give a ‘yes’ and a ‘no’ answer to this question—and do I dare add a ‘maybe’? This isn’t meant to be equivocal, but I think that reading is a hugely layered experience, and the burden of choice is on the writer and the reader of historical fiction, and it’s all good and all valid. Answering for myself, I want the very same things from all forms of story-telling: fascinating characters who allow me as a reader to peek into the intimate corners of their lives and well-told stories that leave me feeling that I absolutely have to know what happens next. When it comes to historical fiction, there is another layer, and that is the possibility of seeing the world through a different lens that is informed by what came before our time. I love the challenge of exploring that layer. I love the learning that happens so easily. I love seeing what is not as it is today, thinking about how history connects to where we are now, being profoundly changed in how I see the world because I have read a particular book that took me to another time. Is this inherent to historical fiction? I don’t know, but it makes for wonderful reading and gives us food for thought.

What aspects about the past do you specifically try to highlight in your novel(s)?

We live in a world that is incredibly global—and diverse—and familiar to us. There is so much we know—or think we know—and feel as though we have always known about other places and cultures. I have a very particular fascination with how this has happened over time. What was it like when we were not so familiar, when a European met a Chinese person for the very first time—or a Native American man went to France—or an Indian to Africa? How did these cultures react, one to the other? What surprised the Chinese person about the European? What brought conflict to the relationship, or sympathy, or misunderstanding? Or love? My first novel addresses these kinds of questions from the point of view of a traditional Chinese woman who journeys to Europe at a time when Orient and Occident are in the early days of getting acquainted. As you might imagine, the fact of this exposure has a breathtaking impact on her life that leaves her changed forever. My second novel, a work in progress, is the mirror-image and entirely different story of a western woman who travels, half a century later, to China. I am enthralled with the impact of these cultural meetups—in some cases collisions—and if I accomplish one thing in my novels, I hope it is to shine a light on worlds that are fascinating and complicated and universally human. If I can accomplish a second ‘thing’, it would be to give readers a large canvas kind of context, a way to experience history as my characters do and come away with a new kind of perspective on how the world actually fits together.

In writing historical fiction, what research and techniques do you use to ensure that conflict, plot, setting, dialogue, and characters are true to the time period?

My philosophy is Leave no stone unturnedand be very careful. For me as a writer the goal is full immersion for the reader in an intriguing, believable and truthful way—and to me believable and truthful are every bit as important as intriguing. I want my readers to trust me, which means No mistakes. It means that I have to know everything that matters and lots that doesn’t. So I read history. The more the better. The more obscure the better. I travel anywhere I can think of that offers specific ways for me to experience what that historical world was like. That means cities, countries, museums, reenactments, graveyards. Looking at old photographs or paintings. As a writer if you cannot see it you cannot write it. I am also a huge fan of primary sources. Diaries, memoirs, letters. What did people who lived at the time have to say about what it was like and how did they say it? And then, with all of this knowledge, there is the really difficult task of throwing out everything that doesn’t really matter to the story—getting rid of all that hard won background noise–which is a process that can bring a writer to tears. It certainly did me.

Please tell us a little about your latest novel.

The Courtesan is the story of two cultures colliding: the East and the West. It is also the story of a woman who lived in 19th century China. Her name is Sai Jinhua, and she was a real person. Even today, she is very well-known in Asia, a woman of almost legendary status. My version of her story finds her in 1881, orphaned and unwanted by her father’s first wife, who sells her as a child-courtesan. Sai Jinhua goes on to lead a rich and unexpected life as concubine to one of China’s first (and reluctant) ambassadors to Europe. She travels with her husband to Vienna, where she experiences firsthand the strange world of the ‘foreign devils’, as western people were known in China at the time. There she falls in love for the first time, and she greatly angers her very conservative diplomat husband as she plays with a freedom a woman does not deserve in the Chinese tradition. On her return to China, Sai Jinhua is greatly changed by her European life experiences at a time when intense conflict between East and West is boiling over. She finds herself right in the middle of a war known now as the Boxer Rebellion. This was a war that changed the course of Sai Jinhua’s life—and also changed the course of history.

Many thanks, Alexandra. I appreciate your thoughts on historical fiction. And best wishes with The Courtesan and the new story you are working on!

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.