Elizabeth Fremantle on Writing Historical Fiction

Watch the Lady by Elizabeth FremantleI’m so pleased to have Elizabeth Fremantle here today talking about her writing and the challenges of historical fiction. Elizabeth has been called “a brilliant new player in the court of royal fiction” (People magazine) and is the author of Queen’s Gambit, Sisters of Treason and the newly released Watch the Lady.

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’?

Elizabeth Fremantle: For me it is all about character. Obviously characters must exist in a context, which is often one of highly dramatic and politically significant events, but if the people at the heart of those events are not well drawn, compelling and complex individuals, a reader might as well read about the period on Wikipedia.

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

EF: I suppose it depends on the kind of historical novel we are talking about. A literary novel, wherever or whenever it is set, exists to explore ideas and raise questions about what it is to be a social being. Take Jim Crace’s Harvest for example, which is set in a non-specific moment in the past but works as an allegory for modern consumerism.

There is a tendency in historical novels that do not aspire to be experimental, to privilege fine detail and world-building as a way to demonstrate period and often narrative detail is necessary to ensure the reader understands the context and back story. This means that the mode of the historical novel is often closer to Realism rather than Modernism, which is the style, or at least a primary influence, of much contemporary fiction.

This is a simplistic view and there are always exceptions. Take Sarah Waters for example, whose work often has the characteristics of Realism and yet is literary and contemporary in its outlook. This could also be said of Hilary Mantel’s historical work.

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

EF: My particular aim is to give a voice to the women whose stories have been obscured in history. So Katherine Parr, of Queen’s Gambit, was not the dull nursemaid of popular reputation but a successful author and a dangerous political operator. In Watch the Lady I explore the adultery that ensured Penelope Devereux’s story was ignored for centuries and shine a light on her controversial political dealings.

I’m interested in women who are rule-breakers, or who in some way show defiance in the face of a culture that limited them to the domestic arena.

MKT: 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?

EF: I try and go back to original sources as much as possible and tend to read any available biographies of the characters in my novels. I will draw more general information from all sorts of places: recipes, etiquette manuals, artifacts, architecture, contemporary accounting books and portraiture, to name a few.

I am not a writer who seeks to re-create authentic period dialogue but I aim to create a modern equivalent. Letters and plays are a good place to gain a sense of the way people spoke and behaved. But absolute accuracy will always remain elusive.

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

EF: For me less is more, so one small but specific authentic detail, like the experience of walking up a tightly spiraled stone staircase, constricted as the inside of a seashell, is more useful than the description of an entire building.

Again though it comes to character and how an individual responds to the setting they are in. So for one person that staircase might induce a paralyzing claustrophobia and in another it might be a place to hide – a refuge.

MKT: Do you see any particular trends in HF?

EF: A number of writers I know, of both fiction and non-fiction, are focusing on the Stuart period, which has been rather unpopular for some time, though why is a mystery to me, as it was a time of highly dramatic and pivotal events. Perhaps though I have only noticed this because I am writing four Stuart books and so my radar is picking up on it.

Watch the Lady UK coverMKT: Please tell us a little about your latest novel Watch The Lady.

Watch the Lady is set in the declining years of Elizabeth’s reign, when the aging Queen’s intransigence and refusal to name an heir are beginning to destabilize the country. Political factions at court are polarized with the Cecils and the Devereuxs at loggerheads. My heroine Penelope Devereux, sister to royal favorite, the Earl of Essex, and muse to poet Sir Philip Sidney, inhabits the heart of this world and the novel follows her in her mission to ensure that her family is placed to best advantage when Elizabeth finally comes to an end.

Penelope is a woman who refuses to be limited by her gender and finds ways to manipulate her restricted world to suit her ends.

Many thanks for offering these insights on historical fiction, Elizabeth. I hope Watch the Lady will be another winner in the marketplace!

FOR MORE INTERVIEWS WITH AUTHORS AND POSTS ON READING AND 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, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE is set in WWI France and is available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. Her debut novel, UNRAVELLED: Two wars. Two affairs. One marriage. is also available from these retailers.

Mary can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads.

Reader Interview Series – Denise has her say

Woman Reading - Pierre-Auguste Renoir
Woman Reading – Pierre-Auguste Renoir

I’m delighted to have Denise on the blog today talking about her reading habits and historical fiction. Denise sounds like a remarkable woman. She’s studied many languages, been a pastry chef and worked in the antiques trade. How cool is that! Leave a comment, I’m sure she’ll be happy to respond.

Tell us a little about yourself.   I am a female, who just turned 60 years old. I live in Canada, in the rural part of Hamilton, Ontario. I graduated from McMaster University with a BA in French and German and then from the University of Toronto with a Bachelor of Education. As well as French and German, I studied Italian, Russian and Polish. Of course when I graduated, there were no teaching jobs, so I joined the family business of antique dealers. In the 80’s I went back to school to get a degree in Culinary Management from George Brown College. When in school, I won in a chocolate competition and a First Place in the Taste of Canada competition. I then worked as a pastry chef for several years and returned to the family business, when my mother became paralyzed. I love to garden, cook and read.

Please tell us about your reading habits and preferences.   I never really counted how many books, I read per year, until I learned to use a computer and joined Goodreads (about 2 years ago). I learned to read as a 3 year old, when my mom would read books to me and point to each word as she read. From that time on, I collected books, many, many, many books. I live in a 16 room house and I still have few book shelves. Almost every room is filled with books. In the room I eventually hope will be my library, I have counted over 300 boxes of books! I am lucky, since being in the antiques trade I was able to buy boxes of exceptional books from estate sales and also from private homes. When we shipped containers of antiques from England, I was able to obtain real treasures, very early editions of Dickens, bound in leather with gold edging.

I collect and read all sorts of books, fiction and non-fiction, classic literature (all the Victorian classics in England, France, Germany and Russia), not so much American although I do read John Steinbeck, Ernest Hemingway, and the American mystery writers, Erle Stanley Gardner, Michael Shayne and the Thin Man, Dr. FuManchu stories, etc.. I love traditional English mystery writers, such as Agatha Christie and Patricia Wentworth and company and now the modern English style mysteries such as Ian Rankin, Quintin Jardine, Peter Robinson, Elizabeth George, Anne Perry, Elizabeth Peters, Bartholomew Gill, etc. I love all history books, some science too, gardening books, biographies most definitely, travel books, plays, signed first editions, special editions, and of course cookbooks! My books are in many languages, even Chinese and Arabic (neither of which I read) and Harry Potter in Icelandic. I prefer novels and plays over short stories, although novellas aren’t bad. Medium length books, 400 pages or less over those over 800 pages, since the story in long books has to be exceptional for me to finish all at once. If it isn’t, I get bored sometimes and have to start another book. Also, with arthritis in the hands now, those 800 pagers can be too heavy and cumbersome. I don’t finish one book completely, as a rule, before I start another. I have been known to have up to 6 books on the go at once, a habit formed in university, when you read books from many courses during the same time period. Sometimes, I will read in a marathon, say all the books a writer wrote or at least a dozen before I switch to another topic.

Forty years ago, before the advent of computers I would actually catalogue my books in ledgers. As I read a book, I would check it off. Now, I have started doing this on my laptop in Goodreads.

From Goodreads, I see that I read well over 150 books a year. This year, I have already read over 90 books. Now, I usually read at night, in the living room or kitchen. I typically read 400 pages per day. Almost all my thousands of books are hardcover, my preferred book choice, although, now the trade paperbacks are better quality than the old regular ones. Last year I read under 10 ebooks, since I was reading them on the computer. For Christmas my husband bought me a Kindle Fire HDX, so I am now reading more ebooks. I have over 600 downloaded. But I still prefer hardcovers. Unfortunately they are getting harder to find in local bookstores. I can’t ever see myself choosing strictly ebooks over real books, like some of my cousins have done. I love the feel of the pages too much, the dust jackets, the different textures of bindings ( I even have some books bound in suede, cloth and wood!) and the smell of books, old and new! On my tombstone, maybe will be, “She died from Librarian lung!” Yes, there is such a disease!

How do you decide which books to buy? What influences your purchases?    Well disposable income, naturally, is the biggest factor. Since used is cheaper than new, I buy that way, in stores catering just to used books, from charity shops like Value Village, from antique shops, from auction sales, from garage sales, online from Ebay. Sometimes though, you see a new book that you just have to have. I can’t pass a book store without going in! And then there is Amazon! And that one click buying! And those beautiful covers of real artwork from the Masters! They just scream, “buy me, buy me!” I’m a sucker for maps too! And those gorgeous, colour pictures in non-fiction books!

Books are at the top of my gift list, both to receive and to give. The local bookstore is my one stop place to buy all my Christmas gifts for others.

My grandmother grew up on a farm in pre-World War I in Poland. When the war came, there was no school, since they were located on the front. She never went past elementary school. When she would see me with all my books, she would shake her head. My reply to her was, ”Books are food for the mind! A necessity of life!”

What do you like about historical fiction? What don’t you like?    Historical fiction is a category, that I have just started to delve into. Although strictly speaking, that isn’t true. In public school, I read “the Odyssey and the Iliad”. Then in high school, there was Rosemary Sutcliffe and books about Mary Tudor (sister to Henry VIII) and Desiree. Amongst the old books from auctions were many historical fiction works like James Fenimore Cooper’s Leather Stocking tales, Jack London, Pearl S. Buck and many book club books from the 50’s were historical fiction.

But now, I have started reading authors who write specifically for the historical fiction market. I tend to like authors who write historical fiction that is fairly true to real history and don’t re-write history to make it closer to a fantasy tale. For example, there was an author who made up historical events and wrote chapters about these events to add to the life of Mary Queen of Scots, how she visited the Pope in Rome and what happened there.

You can identify those, who have done a lot of research, in order to encompass all the sights and smells of the period. I don’t mind fictional characters in a story about real people, as long as the story is believable and does not become far-fetched. Historical fiction brings different dimensions to the personalities of people, who really lived. It makes you think about how these people actually were. You also learn your history.

What types of historical fiction do you prefer?    I like historical fiction from all time periods, from the ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Romans up to World War II. I like stories about war. I’m not squeamish! After all, war is war. You can’t sanitize, if you want to be credible. Male heroes and female heroines, young and old, I like them all. I don’t mind historical romance stories, as long as they are not short on history and closer to a straight romance story. I love the historical books with time travelling in them and no, it wasn’t invented by Diana Gabaldon. Daphne duMaurier, Jack London and others before them did it too!

Do you have historical fiction books or authors you would recommend to other readers? Can you tell us why?    There are so many great ones out there. Where to start?

  • Alan Furst and his spies stories about World War II and France
  • Elizabeth Fremantle, Queen’s Gambit
  • Anna Belfrage, the Graham Saga
  • Anne Easter Smith, A Rose for the Crown
  • R.W. Peake, his Marching for Caesar with Titus Pullus – He wore a complete Roman soldier kit (quite heavy) and marched in Death Valley for miles. How’s that for research?
  • Victoria Wilcox, her Doc Holliday Saga
  • Sarah Morris, Le Temps Viendra 2 volumes
  • Robert Parry, Virgin and the Crab and Wildish
  • Bernard Cornwell, Oh yes!
  • Maria Duenas, The Time in Between
  • Dornita Rogers, Faces in the Fire: The Women of Beowulf
  • Ben Kane, Spartacus series
  • Julie K. Rose, Oleanna
  • Maureen Jennings and Hugh Brewster, Deadly Voyage: RMS Titanic, two great Canadian authors, whom I had the pleasure to talk with
  • Heather Webb, Becoming Josephine
  • Bad Elephant, Far Stream by Samuel Hawley- the most heart wrenching book, I have ever read, about a circus elephant from 1903. I could not stop balling at the end. The elephant, named Far Stream, is the heroine and the story is told through her eyes.
  • And last but not least, your own book “Unravelled”, by M.K. Tod

In today’s world, there are so many opportunities to talk and learn about books – blogs, Twitter, Facebook, Goodreads, book clubs – can you tell us about your experiences, where you go to talk or learn about books, why you enjoy discussions about books?    I come from a very large family with all levels of education. Many in the family are avid readers, with all diverse interests and reading habits. When I finally learned to use the computer and went on Facebook, one of my younger, distant cousins, told me about Goodreads.

It was love at first sight! At first I just had a handful of relatives, who were my friends on it and I just used it to catalogue my extensive book collection. Then I started entering the giveaways. I won some books. After I wrote the reviews, some people would like them and asked to be friends. From there it blossomed! I joined some Goodreads book groups, learned about and read new books and re-read old friends. I wish I had more time to devote to all these groups.

I would add interests on Facebook, learn about and follow different blogs, start entering those contests and win a few, all the while learning about lots of new books, new authors and making new friends. To enter contests, I learned about Twitter and how to spread the word, always spreading the word! My cousins and friends would thank me for reminding them of books, that they heard about and wanted to read, but forgot about, or thanked me for suggesting books on topics I knew they liked.

I would join Facebook groups like the English Historical Authors group, Tudor History group, Richard III groups, Women in European History and then the re-enactment groups.

What advice do you have for writers of historical fiction?    Please research your books well. It shows. All the little details add to the enjoyment of the book and make the reader feel that they are actually living in the time period.

I was lucky to attend lectures given by local authors and to get the opportunity to talk with them afterwards, one on one, about their books. During the lectures I was amazed at the lengths historical fiction authors go to, in order to prepare for and to write their works.

If your book is about a historical personage, like Mary Queen of Scots, don’t tinker a lot with known facts. It will turn off history buffs, especially those readers who read your non-fiction historical works too. They will not want to buy more of your historical fiction.

Is there anything else about reading historical fiction that you’d like to comment on? Your works bring so much pleasure to your reading public. Thank you!

Well, not only are we learning about individuals’ reading habits but we are also learning a lot about their lives! Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts, Denise. For someone relatively new to using technology for reading, you have become very active. And for someone who began reading historical fiction more recently, you have a great list of favourites!