Reflections on Writing Historical Fiction – Stephanie Dray

Many of you will know New York Times bestselling author Stephanie Dray from her wonderfully crafted novels My Dear Hamilton and America’s First Daughter, both written with Laura Kamoie. She has also written a series set in ancient Egypt and three novels cowritten with author groups. Today, Stephanie reflects on her career writing historical fiction.

How would you describe the historical fiction you write? Has this changed over time?

When I started as an author, I wrote historical fantasy, or perhaps more precisely, historical fiction with magical realism. These days I write primarily biographical historical women’s fiction. A subtle shift, but an important one! When I started out, I wanted to explore history, but also religion and allegory and myth. These days I’ve become much more concrete. Part of this is because of the market, but some of this is also because of the subject matter; it’s one thing to write historical fantasy about Cleopatra’s daughter. It’s quite another to try to inject magical elements into a story about the founding fathers and mothers of the country. Given their contemporary importance, people might find it disrespectful, and in any case, the kind of story I wanted to tell had changed.

Is there a particular time period you concentrate on? If so, why? If you’ve switched time periods, why?

I started out in the ancient world; I love the operatic drama and pageantry of it. I also like the fact that it’s so far removed from the political baggage of our own world while still being entirely relevant. That’s the case because the ancient world was struggling with how to govern themselves in the same way we are now.

I was a government major in college and I’ve always been fascinated by the rise and fall of republics. It’s so much more complicated than the usual vying for power between kings and all the inevitable executions and battles that come with that. The rise and fall of republics bring characters to the fore from so many different cross-sections of society. It’s very exciting from a novelist’s standpoint!

So I found that republic and revolutionary excitement in ancient Rome. I didn’t find that so much again until the 18th century. So it might have seemed like a big jump from say, Cleopatra to Thomas Jefferson, but it made perfect sense in my brain.

My most recent work is set in three time periods–during the French Revolution, World War One, and World War Two–all united by the singular legacy of Lafayette and the women who safeguarded his castle during three of history’s darkest hours.

Again this felt like a natural jump because a republic was on the rise during the French Revolution, and deeply threatened in both world wars. I’m always fascinated by the way women are discounted in these great movements, even though they not only contribute to them–sometimes, as my co-authors and I tried to show in RIBBONS OF SCARLET, women even start these movements.

What do you consider the purpose/value of historical fiction? Have your thoughts on this changed with time?

I believe deeply that historical fiction is an art form and doesn’t need to have a purpose or value beyond that. Full stop.

And yet… how astonishingly wonderful that it actually can have additional purpose and value.

Historical fiction has the capacity to educate, to comment on contemporary events without the baggage of those contemporary events, and sometimes–if you’re lucky–you can even make a contribution to the historical record because novelists ask different questions than historians tend to.

In my forthcoming work I stumbled upon some old love letters and unraveled a “code” from World War One that revealed an unknown relationship, and working with the family, helped uncover some fascinating aspects of a woman who was already interesting. So to the extent that there is value in solving historical mysteries, I love that this genre lets us do that too!

What advice do you have for new authors?

Network with other writers. Your author-besties can often be your lifeline in this business. Another thing that’s important to do is cultivate the capacity to simultaneously believe that your work is something special and worth protecting, while also believing that your work is deeply flawed and must be edited. This will get you far!

What are you passionate about in terms of historical fiction?

I’m passionate about protecting the biographical historical novel as an art form. It always makes me so sad to see historical fiction authors having to justify themselves. Along with many of my colleagues, I’ve often been asked “If you’re going to do all this research, why write a novel and not a biography?” The tone of this question always implies that I’ve done something lesser. And it’s maddening, truly, if only because some stories can only be told responsibly in novel form.

For example, the lack of primary sources that exist for many important historical women is downright depressing. Take Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton, wife of our first secretary of the treasury. She was the subject of my co-authored novel, MY DEAR HAMILTON. She was an amazing woman! A true founding mother. Strong, devoted, loyal, patriotic–a person who made a real contribution to the country. But her life has to be extrapolated largely from the extant primary sources of the men surrounding her. Her father, her brothers, her husband, her sons…

This is flimsy stuff upon which to base a scholarly biography because much has to be surmised. But so much of it can be surmised, so much of it is obvious, in fact, that even if it won’t meet academic standards, a picture becomes clear enough to paint in a novel.

Eliza Hamilton deserved to have her story told, we told her story in perhaps the only way that could be told and I’m so proud that we did.

Aside from the issue of source material, there’s also the undeniable point to be made about reach. It’s the rare scholarly biography that can reach as wide an audience as a novel can. This genre has the unique capacity to send readers scrambling to learn more; we not only feed an audience for those excellent scholarly books but we also create an audience for them.

The interplay between Hamilton: An American Musical and Ron Chernow’s excellent biography on the same subject is a case in point. Lin Manuel Miranda’s musical is absolutely historical fiction–and some of the best ever written. But nobody ever asks him Why didn’t you write a biography? Nor should they. I’m honored to be even a small humble part of a genre that can do for civics what that musical did. What we’re doing is valuable and important and I don’t think any of us writing in this genre ought to shy away from the fight.

Great wisdom about our genre, Stephanie. And great encouragement for those writing historical fiction. On another occasion, I would love to hear your thoughts on writing as part of a team. Many thanks.

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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.

10 Books to Recommend

A Writer of History is NOT a book blog – however, I have written reviews from time to time on books I’ve chosen to read or books selected by one of my book clubs. Below are ten to recommend with links to each more detailed review.

Before We Were Yours by Lisa Wingate – I powered through this novel in two and a half very satisfying days. The story is “based on one of America’s most notorious real-life scandals—in which Georgia Tann, director of a Memphis-based adoption organization, kidnapped and sold poor children to wealthy families all over the country.”

Educated by Tara Westover – Book club unanimously endorsed Tara Westover’s well-received novel of growing up in a survivalist Mormon home in the hills of Idaho.The words used to describe it included: compelling, horrifying, unbelievable, shocking, inspiring, and head shaking.

Becoming Mrs. Lewis by Patti Callahan – author Patti Callahan has written a poignant and clear-eyed story about these two well-known writers and I had the pleasure of reading the novel for an article published by the Historical Novel Society.

The Girls in the Picture by Melanie Benjamin – This compelling look at two famous women – actor Mary Pickford and screenwriter Frances Marion – entertains and informs while transporting readers to the magical kingdom of the movie industry. Highly recommended.

The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng – the verdict at book club was resoundingly in favour of this powerful novel of memory and forgetting, war and peace, love and hate, which was nominated for the Man Booker prize.

The Splendor Before the Dark by Margaret George On every dimension – superb writing, feeling immersed in time and place, characters both heroic and human, authenticity, and compelling plot – The Splendor Before the Dark is a winner.

My Dear Hamilton by Stephanie Dray and Laura Kamoie Beginning in 1777 with a victory against the British at Saratoga, My Dear Hamilton tells the story of Alexander Hamilton through the eyes of his wife Eliza. Superb historical fiction.

Mary – Tudor Princess by Tony Riches – I thoroughly enjoyed reading about Mary Tudor, sister to Henry VIII. The history is fascinating and Tony’s superb writing brings Mary’s character to life with a strong and sympathetic voice.

The Perfect Summer by Juliet Nicolson – This work of non-fiction “chronicles a glorious English summer a century ago when the world was on the cusp of irrevocable change … That summer of 1911 a new king was crowned and the aristocracy was at play, bounding from one house party to the next. But perfection was not for all. Cracks in the social fabric were showing.”

The Alice Network by Kate Quinn – In the two years since reading The Alice Network, I’ve recommended it to dozens of people. Why? Because it grabbed me from the very start and wouldn’t let go. And what special ingredients does it have? Flawed, heroic, and intriguing characters – check. Tension that builds and builds – check. A superb sense of history and setting – check. Strong writing – check. An immersive experience – check. A flawless weaving of two timelines – check. What more could you ask for?

I hope some of these add to your reading piles! If you have feedback on any of them, please add your voice to the comments.

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.

Social Media Mistakes with Laura Kamoie – #HNS2019

Laura Kamoie amazes me with her ability to co-write such wonderful novels as America’s First Daughter and My Dear Hamilton with Stephanie Dray. Combine that talent with a talk on the dos and don’ts of social media and I was lining up for this presentation at #HNS2019.

Laura gave us her qualifications immediately: she used to write romance and that genre is very good at social media so she learned from some of the best!

#1 Mistake – too much time on social media and not enough time writing. Don’t get overwhelmed by social media. You don’t have to do it all. Figure out what you’re comfortable with and be authentic. And if you’re going to be selective, according to Laura, Facebook is where readers hang out, particularly the 40+ crowd. Twitter is where influencers and industry folks hang out.

Laura offered the group several tangible ideas to keep in mind as we work on our social media presence.

EASY TO FIND = EASY TO PURCHASE

First, make sure you have a social media presence such as a website with your name prominently displayed. Use the PIN feature on Facebook and Twitter. Include retail links – all of them, not just Amazon to make it easy and to reduce clicks for readers. Include the covers of your books to create a branded look.

YOUR ONLINE PRESENCE SERVES READERS

Make sure that what you write and what kind of stories you write serve readers. Again, Laura mentioned retail links. Include quotes about your book(s). Find ways to take people through the stages of new to you ==> reader ==> fan ==> superfan. Superfans will bring other readers to you.

PURPOSE OF ONLINE PRESENCE IS TO SELL BOOKS

Goals of social media book promotion are to gain exposure for you as an author and what you write. To foster discoverability. To build you name, brand, and book recognition. To build relationships with existing readers so that readers will feel invested in you and feel some sort of kinship with you. To network and build relationships with authors, bloggers, reviewers. These relationships will get others talking about your books. (See, I did that at the beginning of this post!) To find new readers. And ultimately, to sell books.

Mistakes on Facebook and Twitter:

  • your posts are either too sell/buy or too personal/diluted
  • you don’t engage/interact – remember that social media shrinks the distance between author and readers; you need to engage and readers want you to engage
  • you don’t post regularly enough – Laura recommends 2-3 times per day
  • you have no custom URL on Facebook
  • you have no branded cover image
  • you don’t have an author page on Facebook (as distinct from your personal page)
  • you have no description and/or no links on your Facebook cover image
  • you don’t pin a post to signify its importance and to prompt shares
  • check out Laura’s Facebook page for ideas; click on her header image for Ribbons of Scarlet to see what she has included;

AT A GLANCE YOUR WEBSITE SHOULD CONVEY

  • your genre
  • your personality
  • whether visitor’s interests match your offer
  • Laura recommends checking out the websites of: Kristin Hannah, Steve Berry, Geraldine Brooks, Christina Baker Kline, Susan Meissner, Alma Katsu, Jennifer Robson

Mistakes on Website:

  • unclear branding/messaging about who you are and what you write and what kind of emotional reading experience your books offer
  • missing retail links
  • no master book list, no information on what’s coming soon
  • out of date/stagnant information
  • inactive blog
  • hard to spell/difficult to remember URL

Website Must Haves

  • newsletter signup
  • about page to convey who you are in an engaging way with headshot and short bio
  • separate page for each book that includes cover, buy links, short description, social proof

In closing, Laura reminded us not to be overwhelmed and to do what you are comfortable with. In her own case, Laura is on Twitter at least once a day; on Facebook 2-3 times a day; she has a virtual assistant; and posts about her backlist on TBT (Throwback Thursday).

Well, if you aren’t exhausted, I was at the end of that session (I know I didn’t capture everything!!) and as I prepare this post I admit to feeling daunted all over again by the work involved with social media. I already spend many hours to sustain my blog — clearly that’s not enough if I want to serve and engage with readers!

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.