Dazzled by a green door

Dear all – this is the first post in a new series I’m calling transported … hope you enjoy it.

Almost two years ago – hard to believe – my husband and I spent three weeks living in a Paris apartment. We walked the streets searching for evidence of Paris 1870, the setting for Paris in Ruins, an as yet unpublished novel. The idea was to live like Parisians do, while absorbing the culture and feel of the city which still reflects that time period.

Historical fiction has the privilege and challenge of transporting readers in time and place. Readers say that’s the number one priority of historical fiction. Walking the streets, I focused on discovering little details that might create exactly that feeling for readers.

One day I was dazzled by this green door. What emotion does it evoke? What time period does it represent? Who fashioned the almost sinister-looking knocker? What would the knocker sound like? Look at how the shadow extends the length of the fingers. Did you notice the woman’s hand bears a ring and the wrist is framed with a ruffle? What sort of people passed through the door? Why is there a grill at eye level?

Imagine the scene: Exhausted and bedraggled, Mariele lifted the brass knocker shaped like a woman’s hand and let it fall. She smiled limply at her mother and knocked again. Maman’s cheeks were sunburned and her hair, normally tightly coifed, now lay like thick ribbons down her back. Their clothes were dirty, their hands scratched from climbing fences, their legs so fatigued they could barely stand. Mariele wore no boots, her feet bound in strips of cotton torn from her petticoat, were cut and blistered, the cloth damp with blood. – from Paris in Ruins 

Or maybe this could happen: Claire was curious about the door, not only its vivid green colour but also the brass knocker shaped like a woman’s hand. Stefan had told her to meet him at the shop with the green door but he’d said nothing about the knocker or the small grill that allowed the owner to scrutinize visitors before letting them in. “Details are the lifeblood of espionage,” Captain Lucas always said. If she made a mistake now, the mission would fail.

Or this: Breathless and with blood oozing from the wound to her side, Lisette lifted the knocker – the one Michel fashioned in the shape of her very own hand. She let it fall once and then twice before collapsing to the ground.

Every time I see this photo, I’m transported to another time and place.

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.

Successful Historical Fiction – with Pat Wahler

Pat Wahler is an award-winning writer who has been a frequent contributor to the Chicken Soup for the Soul anthologies, Sasee Magazine, Not Your Mother’s Book anthologies, Storyteller Magazine, and other regional, national, and international publications. Pat was kind enough to respond to my questions on successful historical fiction.

Q: What’s your definition of successful historical fiction?

A: Successful historical fiction draws me into the story and allows me to connect with the characters. The story must successfully immerse me in the time period by giving a strong sense of setting without unnecessary info dump.

Q: What attributes are most important to you when designating a novel as ‘successful historical fiction’.

Accuracy – Strong sense of place/setting – Good storyline – Appealing characters

Q: Which authors do you think create the most successful historical fiction? (please restrict yourself to a small number of authors!)

I enjoy reading anything by Susanna KearsleyStephanie Dray & Laura Kamoie did a very nice job on America’s First Daughter. Margaret Mitchell, of course, for Gone With the Wind. Jennifer Chiaverini (Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker, among others)

Q: What makes these particular authors stand out?

They excel at the things I mentioned earlier: accuracy, strong sense of place/setting, good storyline, and creating strong appealing characters.

Q: In your opinion, what aspects prevent a novel from being designated successful historical fiction?

Inaccurate details, overwritten (info dump), characters with whom I cannot connect, weak or uninteresting plot, poor worldbuilding.

Q: Are famous people essential to successful historical fiction?

No, although it can add interest. However, such use should complement/add to the story, not be an attempt to simply drop names.

Q: Does successful historical fiction have to say something relevant to today’s conditions?

Yes. History often repeats itself. We can learn from the past, if we study it.

Q: What role does research play in successful historical fiction?

It’s very important. I find it jarring when I run across things I know are not accurate representations of the time period. It takes me out of the story.

Q: Please comment on how these elements are critical to successful historical fiction? Characters. Setting. Plot. Conflict. Dialogue. World building. Themes.

I believe they are all important, as outlined above. If you would like them ranked, in my opinion (from most to least important) we would have: Plot, Conflict, Setting, Dialogue, Characters, Worldbuilding, Setting, Themes. Essentially, a good story propels the reader along, but must be supported by authenticity and accuracy.

Q: Do you judge historical fiction differently from contemporary fiction?

In some ways, yes. Worldbuilding isn’t as important in contemporary pieces. For a reader to be transported to the past, they must be able to “see” where they are and how the people live—which is outside their modern day-to-day life experience.

Many thanks for your input, Pat and best wishes for your writing.

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.

Davide Mana on Successful Historical Fiction

Recently I posted several questions on the topic of ‘successful historical fiction’ and invited readers and bloggers to respond. Davide Mana is a writer, translator and game designed based in Italy. He’s been blogging about books, historical adventure and historical fantasy for some time on his blog Karavansara.live. Davide – or Dave as he signed his last email – lives in Castelnuovo Belbo, a 900-souls community in the hills of the Monferrato area of Northern Italy. Over to you, Davide.

Q: What’s your definition of successful historical fiction?

As a reader, I want stories that speak to me, stories to which I can relate. For me, a historical fiction is successful when it is both entertaining and involving, and both entertainment and involvement would not be possible without the historical element. Also, the historical element has to be seamlessly integrated into the fiction (or the other way around) and as accurate and convincing as possible or suitable.

Q: What attributes are most important to you when designating a novel as ‘successful historical fiction’.

I’m not sure if this counts as an attribute, but I want the author to make me feel the time and place they are describing. I can go so far as to say that perfect historical accuracy is not essential if the author is able to convey the full impact of the historical period through the characters. I want to empathize with believable characters from another time, and see their world through their eyes, so to speak, experiencing it like they experienced it. So in the end I’d say that the most important attributes are good writing and world building.

Q: Which authors do you think create the most successful historical fiction? (please restrict yourself to a small number of authors!)

Among my favorite authors, I admire the ability of George MacDonald Fraser, for his seamless blend of invention and historical events and his ability to portray through a despicable (but fascinating) character an unbiased and honest portrayal of a time and a culture. I’d also like to mention John Masters, who wrote about India between the 18th and the 20th century: his novels are successful as historical fiction because superb documentation is not an end in itself, it never gets in the way, but is always in the service of story, of psychological observation or of social commentary. He did not write about what happened in a certain time, but about why it happened, and how it felt being there.

For the same general reasons (strong research in the service of great literary style and engaging stories) I might also mention Bartle Bull’s African trilogy as an excellent example of successful historical fiction.

Q: What makes these particular authors stand out?

I think I bundled the answer to this one with the previous, but to recap: the historical background is very strong, and it integrates and reinforces a story about people from another time I can empathize with without them necessarily being “modern people in period clothes”.

Q: In your opinion, what aspects prevent a novel from being designated successful historical fiction?

Apart from poor research and obvious blunders, I’d say a story fails at being successful when history and story do not work together. A story that could be set in any time, with added period color and a few expository passages about historical events, may be entertaining fiction, but it is not a successful historical fiction to me.

Q: Are famous people essential to successful historical fiction?

Not for me, or not necessarily. My interests are broader, and if I can appreciate a time and place trough the eyes of a man or a woman of that time, they don’t need to be (or to hang out with) people from my school’s old history book. It can be fun having the characters have a brush with famous characters, but it is not essential.

Q: Does successful historical fiction have to say something relevant to today’s conditions?

It is certainly a bonus, but I don’t like being clobbered with the author’s agenda, so I like subtle hints and thought-provoking ideas in historical narratives. Pure entertainment (if such a thing really exist) is perfectly fine with me as long as it’s engaging.

Q: What role does research play in successful historical fiction?

Research plays a big role, but how research is used is probably more important. What I mean is that what sells me the book is not the bibliography or the years the author spent researching events and historical characters. I appreciate that a lot, granted, but it’s the way in which the author weaves facts and fiction to bring a time and place alive that is really critical. And that can be achieved by economically using small details.

Q: Please comment on how these elements are critical to successful historical fiction? Characters. Setting. Plot. Conflict. Dialogue. World building. Themes.

Characters are critical because they must belong to the time and at the same time appeal to a modern reader like me, and act as my guides through the time period. It’s a delicate balancing act.

The setting is probably what brought me to the book in the first place, so it has to be vivid, believable and historically correct.

Plot is critical because it is what keeps me reading. It can be clichéd (boy meets girl, boy loses girl, girl meets Napoleon…) or even predictable (… Napoleon turns out to be a self-centered egomaniac), but it must be engaging, have rhythm.

Conflict and Dialogue must be lively and carry their part of the story. Period accuracy in dialogue is appreciated but once again, I don’t like being clobbered with it (I’m staring at you, The Name of the Rose!), conflict has to be believable or, failing that, amusing.

World building is absolutely essential, and it is probably the deal breaker as far as I am concerned. I come to the book for the setting, I enjoy plot and characters, but if the world does not come alive for me as I read, I consider it a big let down.

Themes are fun, but not really essential for me. I think they can work in making the narrative more textured, but I do not normally read historical fiction for the underlying themes.

Q: Do you judge historical fiction differently from contemporary fiction?

I never thought about this point, but probably not: vivid worldbuilding, engaging and believable characters, good dialog in the service of a fun plot… the parameters are the same. In contemporary fiction the author has to capture me with a sense of place, and not with a sense of place and time, but that’s probably the only difference I perceive.

Many thanks for sharing your thoughts and insights, Davide. For those who are wondering, Karavansara is an ancient Persian word meaning caravanseray, a place of rest along the road. I invite you to have a look at Davide’s very interesting blog.

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.