Novels are made of tiny details

I often write the broad strokes of a story first with the basics of setting, the primary actions that occur and the dialogue that moves the story along while revealing each character’s emotions and motivations.

On another pass, I add emotional reactions, inner dialogue and telling details. Like any other genre, historical fiction readers appreciate small details of setting, clothing, facial expressions and so on and, in particular, those that transport them in time and place.

I added a few such details just last week during a final pass at Paris in Ruins before sending it off for a copy edit. Below are just a few to give you a sense of what I mean.

“Bertrand turned west onto rue Faubourg Saint Honore and they fell silent. Most of the small shops were shuttered for the night, but the cafés were lively with patrons sitting both inside and out sharing laughter and boisterous conversation, consuming beer and wine and cognac, smacking their lips and eating with gusto. Here and there a ragged child lingered at the edges of these groups, holding out a hand for a coin or a crust of bread.” 

I wanted to illustrate the inequalities in Parisian society so readers can begin to understand the factors leading to the Paris Commune.

~~~

Camille watched her father drop a dollop of jam on his croissant. He seemed just as calm as usual despite the mounting crisis unfolding around them. They were in the breakfast room, which was located across the hall from the main dining room and much less formal. The room’s pale green walls, floral drapes, and tall windows that opened outward to let in the morning air reminded her of summers by the sea.

Camille is one of two main characters in the story. These details help paint the scene and provide a little background of Camille’s upbringing that was wealthy enough to include summers by the sea.

~~~

After her eighteenth birthday, and with her mother’s encouragement, Mariele had redecorated her bedroom, stripping out all but a few childhood possessions, and replacing the décor with more adult choices including a canopied bed, a new dressing table, and a chaise for reading. Mariele picked up the book of Victor Hugo’s poems that lay on the chaise and added it to her bag.

Mariele is the other main character in Paris in Ruins. The furnishings and reference to Victor Hugo are to help situate the time period. I chose to reference his poems rather than famous works like The Hunchback of Notre Dame to give an insight into her personality. Serendipity led me to Victor Hugo’s poetry – I wrote about one of those poems last week .

~~~

By Unknown author – Le Monde illustré, 17 juin 1871 (Gallica), Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=65283878

The gates of Paris had closed. No one allowed in or out without permission and the proper documents. Fortified by a wall thirty feet high, a moat ten feet wide, and an outer ring of forts comprising a forty-mile circumference around the city, most Parisians were convinced of their impregnability. The Prussian army, however, had gradually surrounded Paris with a fifty-mile ring of troops and was now digging in, building their own fortifications while assembling the necessary tools of siege warfare: cannons, provisions, bridges, access to water, living quarters, fuel, medical facilities, and equipment. If assessments were accurate, the siege could be long and difficult. Some would not survive.

I wanted to know just how big those walls were and thought readers would too. Their massive size contributed to the cocky attitude of Parisians. On the map below you can see the walls as well as the forts beyond the walls.

Walls and outer forts of Paris 1870

~~~

He lowered the newspaper and peered at her. “Volunteered? At a hospital run by Sarah Bernhardt? What do you know about hospitals? Or about Madame Bernhardt, for that matter? And why would I allow my daughter to do such a thing?”

Camille bristled at his words but knew not to spark a quarrel. Her mother always cautioned with an old proverb: Le miel est doux, mais l’abeille pique. Honey is sweet, but the bee stings.

An early reader recommended that I show the way young women were confined in 19th century Paris by their parents and by society’s rules. The proverb tells us something about Camille and her mother. 

~~~

“You don’t have to do this,” he [André ] said. “It could be dangerous work and I certainly wouldn’t think less of you if you declined.”

Camille squared her shoulders. “I’m doing it for Paris, for my family and friends, for France. It’s important and I want to do something important. I’m privileged, monsieur. Privileged to be part of an educated, wealthy class. With privilege comes responsibility.” Her lips formed a rueful smile. “That’s what my sister would have said, if she were still alive.”

André has asked Camille to collect information about the Montmartre Vigilance Committee, a radical group of women calling for revolution and led by Louise Michel (a real person) and report her findings to him. I wanted to add depth to her motivations for doing so.

I hope you enjoyed these few snippets. As you can imagine, there are many more!

DON’T MISS OTHER POSTS 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.

The Love for Three Oranges by Mary F. Burns

What roles do serendipity and synchronicity play in writing historical fiction? Mary F. Burns is here to explain her experience. Mary’s second mystery involving John Singer Sargent and Violet Paget is called The Love for Three Oranges.

The Love for Three Oranges by Mary F. Burns

There are at least two things that I experience when I write, especially when I write historical fiction: Serendipity and Synchronicity.

Serendipity does not come from Latin or Greek, but rather was coined in 1754 by Horace Walpole, suggested by The Three Princes of Serendip, the title of an Indian fairy tale in which the heroes “were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things they were not seeking.” It has come to mean “good luck in finding valuable things unintentionally” but I want to emphasize the word “sagacity” in addition to just accident. We’ll get back to this word in a few moments.

Synchronicity is the simultaneous occurrence of events which appear significantly related but have no discernible causal connection. This term was created by Carl Jung in the 1950s to describe the occurrence and connection between two or more events that cannot be explained as a question of cause and effect, but of a falling together in time, a kind of simultaneity, connected by meaning. A very simple example would be thinking of an old friend one morning, and then later coming across a photograph of that friend stuck in a book you take down at random from the bookshelf, and then getting a phone call from the friend that same day. No one of these events is either a cause or an effect, but they are connected by meaning, Jung would say.

Historical fiction, in its very essence, is a way of falling together in time—a story is set in the past, but it is being written from the present, so, for me, the process of writing such a story is in itself a synchronizing of different times. In the mystery series I am writing that feature John Singer Sargent and Violet Paget, I have structured the stories so that there are two distinct time periods in each book. In the first book, The Spoils of Avalon, the reader can time travel between 1877 Brompton, a northern town, and 1539 Glastonbury, every other chapter, and there’s even a third time reference, in the quotations at the beginning of each chapter from Tennyson’s Idylls of the King, which is the story of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, long held to be medieval, but historically, if Arthur lived at all, it was around the year 600 of the Common Era.

In Jung’s terminology, the “meaning” or the synchronicity, that connects these three eras, in my story, concerns the testing of human loyalty, of faith or the lack of it, the mystery of the sacred as it interacts with the secular, and the effects that has on human character and fate. I was very alive to the dramatic contrast between the newly-industrialized, Darwinian, secular Victorian Age of Sargent and Paget—and the still-medieval, agrarian and sacred/seasonal time-in-eternity life of people in Europe in the early 16thcentury. Of course, on the one hand, it’s just a story about a murder and who committed it and why, and how the past is connected to the present through this event—but on the other hand, if you let all the character’s experiences and thoughts and actions roll in and wash over you, I believe you can get a real sense of what it was like to live in both those times, and how understanding the one can help you understand the other, as well as your own present time.

In this second book, The Love for Three Oranges, John and Violet find themselves summoned to Venice in the winter of 1879 to help an artist friend of Singer Sargent’s, whose palazzo is beset with death and ghosts and all sorts of troubling events. The second time period harks back some 140 years to 1739, where we are introduced to a famous Venetian playwright of that time, Carlo Gozzi.

And this is where my other special word—serendipity—played a huge part in the writing of this second mystery. Here’s the definition again: Serendipity is “Making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things one is not seeking.”

Before I even started writing these mystery stories, but after my first book about John Singer Sargent, in which Violet Paget has a very significant presence, Stu and I stayed in Venice for three days or so about seven years ago, with a small group of folks on a tour. We were lodged at a small, former palazzo on the western arm of the Grand Canal, just past the Rialto Bridge, called the Hotel San Cassiano, but also Ca’ Favretto. It had been the home of an Italian artist, Giacomo Favretto, from 1870 to 1887. He was of the Impressionist school, and several of his paintings were hung about the hotel. It was a charming place, and I took a lot of pictures of it.

When I got around to starting The Love for Three Oranges, I knew I was going to set the story in Venice, and I thought of that hotel, and Giacomo Favretto. So, I looked him up and lo and behold, it turns out he and John Sargent were good friends, and that Sargent stayed at the palazzo in Venice occasionally. What a happy discovery! I decided—with great sagacity—that it would be perfect to set the story in that location. Sagacity, for me, is the wisdom that comes from experience combined with the happy faculty of knowing a good thing when you see it.

So then I turned to the issue of the previous time period which would constitute the other half of the story—and you can imagine how hard it was to fasten on one particular century or era in the long, long history of Venice, with all her prominent artists, musicians, and writers! However, upon re-reading a biography of Violet Paget – aka Vernon Lee – I was reminded that in the year 1879 she was finishing up the manuscript for a book that would be published the next year—it was called “Studies of the Eighteenth Century in Italy”—and a significant amount of the book was concerned with one Carlo Gozzi, a playwright in the mid to late 1700’s in Venice. One thing led to another, and I found a complete copy online of Gozzi’s Memoirs. I read about his youthful days in Venice, living in one of the palazzos his family owned in Venice, his descriptions of its size and structure, its location on the Grand Canal, and its proximity to the Church of San Cassiano, which was his family’s parish, where many of his ancestors were buried. I looked at maps, I studied the streets and sotoportegos and campos of Venice, and I came to the conclusion that Gozzi’s former family home was none other than the Hotel San Cassiano—Giacomo Favretto’s home as well!

So there we had been, on the very spot where Carlo Gozzi had walked and slept and ate and dreamed—and where Sargent had visited his friend Giacomo as he lived and prospered and enjoyed life. And Gozzi the very person that Violet Paget was very enthusiastic and knowledgeable about, all right there. Three, or four, or five events in three time periods—all tied together by meaning, by the significance of their existence in relation to each other.

Serendipity and Synchronicity indeed!

Many thanks, Mary. The writing muse can be both strange and capricious!

The Love for Three Oranges: A John Singer Sargent/Violet Paget Mystery by Mary F. Burns

This second mystery finds John Sargent and Violet Paget afloat in murder in the fabled City of Venice during the darkest days of the year. Secrets and long-held grudges surface at Ca’ Favretto, an ancient palazzo on the Grand Canal, which has been recently purchased and refurbished by an Italian artist and good friend of Sargent–but will the ghosts of the past allow the new inhabitants to live in peace?

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.

Transported – with Sue Ingalls Finan

Sue Ingalls Finan is the author of The Cards Don’t Lie. She taught American history and literature in Chicago, Pittsburgh and Northern California, and now lives in Sonoma County with her history buff husband Jim. Sue writes for her local newspaper and volunteers at hospitals and libraries with Duffy, her Irish wolfhound therapy dog. Over to you, Sue.

Stephen King once said, “Books are a uniquely portable magic.”  Not only can we take books wherever we go (whenever we go), but they can serve as personal portals to times and places no longer accessible. For historical fiction writers, achieving the latter requires a combination of research, inspired invention and a translation of contemporary human emotions, goals, and desires to a bygone time, allowing readers to  vicariously celebrate or commiserate with the characters.

Some time ago I wrote a historical fiction short story (Home Away from Home) about a Prisoners of War camp in Sonoma County, California. This camp held approximately 250 German POW’s from 1944-1946.  I was intrigued by a local museum exhibit, which features photographs, newspaper reports, and paraphernalia such as wood carvings made from prune boxes. A long-time resident also donated a sixteen millimeter film of the prisoners marching from camp to the worksites of orchards and vineyards. The president of the historical museum, who owns the property where the camp was located, also interviewed the descendants of one of the guards, and happily shared the family’s stories.

My key resource was a letter in the museum’s possession written by prisoner Horst Liewald to his wife Elfrida. Luckily my neighbor, who was born in Germany during the war and later relocated to Sonoma County, speaks fluent German and English. My neighbor translated Horst’s letter, which somehow was never mailed. This is how Horst became my character. I concocted a series of fictional letters from him to Elfrida, whom he supposed was still taking care of their family farm in Breslau, Germany. Based on information supplied by the museum, Horst’s letters recounted the day-to-day life in the camp, including sing-alongs, beer and baseball games, and buying Cracker Jacks at the canteen with his pay of eighty cents/day. (It was truly a laid-back camp – no guard towers and guns.)

But I also added what I conjectured to be Horst’s fears and anxieties about Elfrida’s safety: he discovers from the guards that Russians were invading Germany, and he has not heard from his wife for several weeks.  Through these details, the reader cares about the main character’s outcome, and can’t help but wonder: what happens after the prisoners are released? (Spoiler alert: In 1949, Horst and Elfrida emigrated to Sonoma County, sponsored by the owner of the farm where Horst had worked as a POW. Elfrida is still living in Oregon!)

In contrast, my current novel, The Cards Don’t Lie, demanded even more creative speculation. The Battle of New Orleans took place over two hundred years ago, and there is a lack of contemporary records regarding the role of females. We know the citizens of the city bonded; the barriers of race, religion, culture and class fell. The women nursed the wounded in the Ursuline convent as well as in private homes, collected weapons, made bandages, gathered blankets, bed linens, soap, food, and also sewed much-needed clothing for some of the last-arriving volunteers. All of these efforts required coordination and organization. My questions: who were these women? And what might they have had to contend with besides their husbands, brothers, and sons heading into battle?

Through visits to New Orleans, museums, statements of tour guides, and many books, I looked into the lives of the different strata of females of New Orleans, concentrating on the character creations of a free woman of color and a white plantation mistress.

Free women of color in New Orleans in the early 1800s were often involved in placages, or left-handed marriages with wealthy white men. Their mothers, thanks to their own placage benefactors, sponsored grand balls to arrange permanent financial settlements for their daughters. But! What if the placée doesn’t like her mother’s choice? What if the placée is in love with another man? Other questions came to mind: how does the left-handed wife feel about the legal wife? What if the male does not live up to the agreement? What if his white wife objects to his second family? And what happens when the British attack?  (Do read the book!)

Also documented is the high incidence of death when giving birth, and that many children did not live beyond their first birthday. My second character is having difficulties with both. But she is determined to bear a son for her beloved husband and will do anything to fulfill her goal. This typically capable character also hears voices and has out-of-body experiences triggered by traumatic events, including the burial of her first child and the departure of family and friends to a battle that will decide the fate of the city and its citizens.

My research for both the short story and novel transported me to different eras and areas. But no matter when or where I alighted, my characters’ goals and desires are authentically ubiquitous – courage and the concern for loved ones.

Many thanks for giving us your take on being transported in time and place, Sue. The Battle of New Orleans is a unique setting for a novel.

The Cards Don’t Lie by Sue Ingalls Finan

1814: It’s the third year of the United States second War of Independence. The British are on the verge of capturing the strategically important port of New Orleans. In the midst of the Americans’ chaotic preparations for battle, three women play key roles in the defense of the city: Catherine, a free woman of color, voodoo priestess, and noted healer personally summoned by General Andrew Jackson; Marguerite, a pampered Creole plantation mistress prone to out-of-body experiences; and Millie, a plucky, patriotic prostitute inspired by her pirate lover to serve in the most dangerous capacity of all. These three women’s lives and fates become intertwined as they join forces to defend their country.

To be published by She Writes Press in October 2018.

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.