Writing biographical historical fiction

I’ve always wanted to tackle biographical fiction but so far, I haven’t taken the plunge. Susan Higginbotham has made this a specialty and today offers insights into the writing of her latest fictionalized biography – The First Lady and the Rebel. 

~~~

Part of the fun of writing (and reading) biographical historical fiction is the supporting cast–those people, some famous and some obscure, whose lives intersect with those of the main characters. While The First Lady and the Rebel is concerned chiefly with the lives of two sisters, Mary Lincoln and Emily Todd Helm, a number of other historical figures make appearances. Some, like Mary’s dressmaker, former slave Elizabeth Keckly, will be familiar to many readers; others will probably be new to most. Here is just a handful of the people you’ll meet in my novel:

  • Major Benjamin F. Ficklin: Kicked out of the storied Virginia Military Institute, he returned to graduate near the bottom of his class. He was one of the founders of the Pony Express and briefly owned Monticello–yes, that Monticello.
  • Princess Agnes Salm-Salm: Born in Vermont (or maybe Quebec) as Agnes Elisabeth Winona Leclerc Joy, she may or may not have gone on the stage during her youth, and probably did not work as a circus rider, but she indisputably turned up in Washington, D.C., in 1861, where she met Felix Constantin Alexander Johann Nepomuk, Prince Salm-Salm, a Prussian nobleman whom she married the following year. Following her husband, an officer in the Union army, into camp, she impressed onlookers with her abilities as a equestrienne, but made a very different impression on Mary Lincoln.
  • Phil: The enslaved manservant of Emily’s husband, Benjamin Hardin Helm,he spent his free years working as a hack driver in Louisville. One of his passengers was Sarah Bernhardt, whose strong perfume forced local police to admit that she had indeed ridden in his carriage.
  • Cranston Laurie: The wife of a civil servant, Mrs. Laurie was a spiritualist who hosted séances at her Georgetown residence. Her guests included Mary Lincoln, who attended on New Year’s Eve, 1862. Mrs. Laurie’s revelations, which included the information that “the cabinet were all the enemies of the President,” fortunately did not interfere with the Emancipation Proclamation, which Abraham Lincoln issued the next day.
  • Thomas Conolly: An Irish MP who dabbled in blockade running, his misadventures earned him a front-row seat to the demise of the Confederacy, which he enlivened by keeping the cocktails flowing at Richmond’s battered Spotswood Hotel.

While none of these characters were so rude as to steal the show from the main characters (as did Jane Dudley, Duchess of Northumberland, who appropriated half of an earlier novel, Her Highness, the Traitor, for herself), each could well carry a novel on his or her own. For the writer of biographical historical fiction, there’s never a shortage of stories to tell-whether they be of a first lady, a rebel, or even one’s own grandparents.

Many thanks, Susan. I’m sure these characters will enliven your latest novel. And with Mary Todd Lincoln (hello – my name is Mary Tod!) and Emily Todd Helm, it sounds like a perfect one for me! Wishing you lots of success.

The First Lady and the Rebel by Susan Higginbotham ~~ The story of Mary Todd Lincoln and Emily Todd Helm, two sisters on separate sides of history, fighting for the country they believe in against the people they love most.

When the Civil War cracks the country in two, First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln watches from the White House as the blows of a divided nation shake her people and her husband, President Lincoln, to their very core. As the news of wartime enter the Oval Office, Mary waits with bated breath, both for the hopes of a Northern victory as well as in distress of a bloody Southern defeat.

Mary, like many people during this time, have a family that is torn between North and South. her beloved sister Emily is across party lines, fighting for the Confederates, and Mary is at risk of losing both the country she loves and the family she has had to abandon in the tides of this brutal war.

Available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Indie Bound

FOR MORE 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 Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.

Favourite Historical Fiction

In 2015, I asked readers to list their favourite historical fiction titles for the first time. Being a little more experienced I limited participants to three choices – clearly a challenge for many. What has emerged is more than 1700 different titles – and no, I won’t be listing them all today – and some clear favourites.

Favourite titles >40 mentions

I’ve grouped them into three parts: titles with more than 40 mentions, titles with 20 to 39 mentions and titles with 10 to 19 mentions. Given variations in spelling and the ability of readers to recall exact titles, it’s been a challenge to count the entries and I’ve spent weeks checking and double-checking to be as accurate as possible. I have chosen to put the titles in order but not to show actual counts since I remain concerned about absolute accuracy. For your information, FC means the book is concerned primarily about fictional characters, while FHF refers to famous historical figures.Favourite titles 20 to 39

** Despite a comment advising participants that Jane Austen did not write historical fiction, Pride and Prejudice attracted more than ten mentions.Favourite HF from 10 to 19

Participants could not restrain themselves from mentioning series and so I have done my best to accommodate them in the final counts.

No doubt there will be questions – such as: how much influence did the series Outlander and Wolf Hall affect the result? Does the inclusion of All the Light We Cannot See reflect participants’ ability to recall titles from the past compared with new releases? And then there are questions of how the list varies with gender, nationality, and age. I hope to crank the numbers some more, however, right now I have a manuscript to edit 🙂

If you spot any inaccuracies, please let me know.

FOR MORE ON INSIDE 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.