Frank Rockland and I share a passion for WWI and as fellow Canadians, I’m delighted he agreed to provide his perspective on historical fiction. Take it away, Frank.
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’?
I’m drawn to historical fiction that has a touch of humour. A couple of my favourites are the Flashman series by George MacDonald Fraser and The Bandy Papers series, the WW1 novels by Donald Jack who is Canadian.
In both novels, you have a rogue who manages to get into one funny scrap after another while crossing paths with actual historical figures. The authors created likeable characters while simultaneously making you appreciate why the other characters in the novels want to strangle them.
I always had a strong interest in history but I like the fact that you can be historically accurate and not take oneself too seriously.
Are historical novels inherently different from contemporary novels, and if so, in what ways?
I don’t think so. I like to read a wide variety of books besides historical such as science fiction, fantasy, and mysteries novels. A good book is a good book.
What aspects about the past do you specifically try to highlight in your novel(s)?
Both my novels have a political aspect which I have tried to weave into them. What interests me is that Canada was transitioning from a colonial government to one that was more assertive in their independence. The transition wasn’t smooth by any means. Add to this the social stresses the war put on the home front and the battlefield there were a lot of interesting things happening.
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 use a variety of research methods from internet searches, history books, especially Canadian ones, as well as primary sources. Since I live in Ottawa, I spend several hours per week going through boxes at Library and Archives Canada. I like doing primary research since it can generate interesting ideas and new directions which I can incorporate into the novels.
What aspects do you feel need to be included when you are building a past world for your readers?
It depends on the novel.
In my first book, the suspense novel Fire on the Hill, I incorporated a lot of details about the original Centre Block of the Canadian Parliament Buildings. The Centre Block was destroyed by a suspicious fire a hundred years ago, on Feb 3, 1916. There are very few photos of the original building available.
I also included the political and social life on Parliament Hill during the period. Details of the activities of the Dominion Police’s Secret Service, who had their offices on the Hill, were added. Since part of the novel also takes place in New York City, the cat and mouse games being played there by the British and the German secret services were portrayed.
In my latest novel, Forging the Weapon, about the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF) in 1914, I provided details of some the chaos and confusion the soldiers had to endure while they were training at the Valcartier and Salisbury Plain camps.
Do you see any particular trends in HF?
In my case, I’m trying to write for a Canadian audience so there isn’t much data available for trends since it can be hard to identify historical novels that have primarily Canadian settings or characters except for those that may occasionally hit the bestseller lists.
The Canada History Magazine features some Canadian historical fiction and there a few publishers such as Fireside Publishing who produce historical novels involving Canadian prime ministers for YA.
Some of this is simply because the Canadian market is rather small and it takes time to develop an audience. It’s quite an interesting challenge.
Please tell us a little about your latest novel.
My latest novel, FORGING THE WEAPON, is the first in a series about the CEF during WW1.
The series plans to follow Prime Minister Sir Robert Borden and Minister of Militia and Defence Colonel Sam Hughes war efforts on the home front. As well as it follows Captain James Llewellyn, Gunner Paul Ryan, Nursing Sister Samantha Lonsdale as the CEF transforms from a force that in 1914 had a reputation for hard drinking and poor discipline into one of the most formidable fighting forces in WW1.
Many thanks for adding your thoughts, Frank, and for bringing a Canadian perspective to the mix.
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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, Nook, Kobo, Google Play and iTunes. Her debut novel, UNRAVELLED: Two wars. Two affairs. One marriage. is also available from these retailers.