Reflections on Writing Historical Fiction – C.W. Gortner

Today, I’m delighted to have Christopher Gortner — C.W. — to bring his perspective on writing historical fiction. I’ve just finished MARLENE, his novel based on the life of Marlene Dietrich – what a fascinating woman! I was particularly drawn to her experiences during WWII. Without further ado, here’s Christopher.

How did you get started writing historical fiction?

Since childhood, I’ve always loved history. I was drawn to the past, so turning to historical fiction felt like a natural progression of this fascination. I wanted to uncover the emotions behind the facts, the flesh-and-blood people who lived the events. History can teach us so many things about who we were and where we may be headed; but the inner lives of those who came before us aren’t easy to decipher, particularly if they’ve left scarce evidence of their personal thoughts. Historical fiction, when well researched, can help bridge the divide between what facts tell us and what the people who lived through those facts may have felt. Writing historical fiction gives me the means to meld my obsession with history and my desire to interpret it through the eyes of the personalities who shaped it.

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

I began my career as an historical novelist writing first-person accounts of famous women of the Renaissance, an era that’s always held immense attraction for me. Recently, I’ve branched out to depict women of the 19thand 20thcenturies; I could say it was market-driven, as interest in Tudor-era stories waned, but in truth, it was more that my own promiscuity expanded. My first novel not set in the 16thcentury was MADEMOISELLE CHANEL, about fashion designer Coco Chanel. I wrote it entirely on spec (without an initial publishing contract) because one of my other passions in life is fashion; I used to work in the field eons ago, and it occurred to me, out of the blue, that Chanel’s tumultuous life would be ideal for a novel. However, because I’d established myself with novels about Renaissance queens, I decided to write Chanel under the table, so to speak, because I wasn’t sure I could do it. Once my agent sold the book, however, it proved very successful, so I felt at liberty to pursue other eras. As a writer, I relish the freedom of exploring disparate time periods. It keeps the oft-arduous process of writing a novel exciting; there’s always something new to discover, if you’re moving around and not staying in one place.

What themes appeal to you? What themes resonate with readers?

I’m fascinated by how history shapes us. Obviously, I gravitate to famous women in particular because women of the past have largely been relegated to clichés, though they were instrumental in shaping their worlds. Whether I’m exploring Isabella of Castile’s Reconquest or Marlene Dietrich’s career in Hollywood, their lives illuminate aspects we can all relate to, such as love of country or the quest for fulfillment. The obstacles they faced might not be the same as ours— few of us must unite a fractured realm or get caught up in a world war started by our fascist nation— but their humanity is universal. My characters contend with tragedy and triumph, twists of fate that willingly and unwillingly mold them into the person they become. I think these themes are what most of us look for in historical fiction, to delve beyond the façade into the inner life and discover something we can see in ourselves. My characters are never infallible; they overcome tremendous challenges and make catastrophic mistakes. This is what captures my interest: the duality between strength and weakness.

What have you learned over the years?

As a writer, I’ve learned that writing is something you never truly master. Every book brings unique challenges and every character will test your skills, if you’re not resting on your laurels. Writing historical fiction demands that you constantly remain open to learning something new and constantly question what purports to be fact, because there are always two sides to history. It can be frustrating at times when sources fail to agree, or if you fail to agree with sources, but that’s also part of the fun: you’re taking on a subject where prior opinions are cemented. Your job is to develop your own opinion, by sifting through reams of research to discover your character. As a published novelist, I’ve learned that no matter how hard we try, we can never satisfy everyone. Each reader will come to our work with their own preconceptions, their desire on how they wish see a character, especially if that character is well-known. All we can do is stay true to our vision and accept that there will be some, or many, who’ll disagree with our interpretation. I strive to maintain humility in this regard: just because I believe Isabella of Castile’s label as a fanatic fails to take into account the prevailing beliefs of her era or that Lucrezia Borgia’s reputation as a man-eating poisoner is unwarranted doesn’t mean I’m right.

What do you consider the purpose/value of historical fiction? 

I write novels; my ultimate goal is to entertain. I hold a degree in Renaissance History, but that’s beside the point: in the end, my books are fiction, not biographies. That said, I hope my novels encourage readers to see my characters in a different light, to find empathy with what these women went through in their lives. I don’t care if you dislike her, but I want you to understand her, even if you don’t agree with her behavior. Empathy is a gift that few of us exercise; our first impulse is to rush to judgment based on personal experience. But if we can move past it and understand that most of us think we’re doing right at the time, even when we’re not, then we can find empathy. We may not agree with Catherine de Medici’s role in a massacre or Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna’s dislike of her daughter-in-law or Chanel sleeping with a Nazi, and that’s okay. I often don’t agree with my characters either. But I always set personal judgment aside when I slip into my character’s skin; the moment I start judging her, the novel becomes about my feelings toward her, rather than her feelings toward herself. I practice empathy when I write because I seek to understand why. If I can uncover her motivations, that’s the key to unlocking her heart. In final say, for me the value of historical fiction is developing empathy between how these women are viewed today and how they may have seen themselves.

How do you choose the stories you tell?

I often feel the stories I tell choose me, which sounds airy-fairy, even if I’m the least airy-fairy person on the planet. Chanel burst upon me out of nowhere one night as I was debating what to write next; I started hearing her in my head and sat down at the computer. The first chapter poured out of me; it was instinctual. And during the entire process of writing MADEMOISELLE CHANEL, she never deserted me. She drove me crazy sometimes because I’d be at my computer for hours on end, exhausted and famished, and she kept right on rattling in my ear so that I feared leaving the keyboard lest she turned her back. With other characters I’ve wanted to write but had to abandon, she refused to collaborate. Again, this sounds airy-fairy because it’s so hard to describe. I must feel as if the character invites me in. I’m a dude writing in the voice of these women, so I have to feel her permission to tell her story. I must hear her voice. To cite an example: THE ROMANOV EMPRESS was originally designed to be about Tsarina Alexandra. I spent well over a year researching and thought I’d found that empathic thread needed to portray her, but then I struggled for months to craft her voice. She didn’t care to participate—I now smile as I recall this, because given her personality, it shouldn’t have surprised me. However, whenever her mother-in-law the Dowager Empress strolled into the room, my writing leapt to life. Eventually, I switched my approach, though it required massive upheaval because I had to go back to square one to depict Maria Feodorovna. But hers was the story I was meant to tell. More generally, I think I choose characters who are difficult to pin down because I relish upending legends. None of my characters are macaroons, crusty on the outside and sweet on the inside; they’re deceptive, intriguing, complex, seductive, treacherous, and ornery. I prefer women with rough edges.

What would you do differently if you could start again? What advice do you have for new authors?

I combined these two questions because both speak to the same issue for me. I’d lower my expectations when it comes to publishing. I had a full-time job I enjoyed and never thought of making my living as a writer until my father read one of my manuscripts and suggested I find an agent. He told me, I had talent. Well. That set me off on a 13-year crusade to get a publishing deal, through six agents, over 300 rejections, and no end of cul-de-sac byways and heaps of despair. The more I heard no, the more I resolved to obtain that elusive yes, until I finally got it: a huge yes, with an auction sale to a major publisher. However, during this journey, I forgot the writing itself is what fills me with joy, that I’ve always written for pleasure. Publishing can alter that. You become embroiled in market trends, sales, reviews, your marketing, or lack thereof, your ambition to be a New York Times bestseller (or at least, I did). If things don’t turn out as hoped—and in publishing, they rarely do—you can end up dejected. Publishing is paved in disappointment. You must retain a safe space that nothing can touch in order to write, but I neglected to do that, thinking I’d finally reached author Valhalla. I had a rough time motivating myself to stay the course once I realized some of my books won’t sell as well as others, some reviews will be nasty, etc. Today, writers command less clout and books are subjected to our internet free-for-all of public opinion. Historical fiction especially seems to attract rabid clans of self-anointed experts eager to criticize everything. It can be distracting to our creativity and damaging to our confidence. Lowering our expectations by understanding that while writing is an art, publishing is a business, and not predictable at that, will help mitigate the inevitable rollercoaster of being an author. Oh, and set aside at least 15% of your advance for marketing because you’re going to need it.

What are you working on now?

My new novel THE FIRST ACTRESS, about French theater star and our first international celebrity, Sarah Bernhardt, is coming out on May 26. Sarah is one of my ladies with rough edges and inhabiting her was a tremendously gratifying experience. She lived a very extravagant life. I also recently sold a proposal about Jennie Jerome, Lady Randolph, the American mother of Winston Churchill. At the moment, I’m neck-deep in research and writing the first draft, which is always tough for me. Once I have this disaster of a first draft finished, I’ll slip into my editorial couture and refine it into the novel I envision. I’m in my safe space, so it’s all good.

Do you have an interesting story to share about your writing?

I’m published in 28 languages and keep an open-door policy, so you can imagine the influx of stuff I get. Everything from requests to date me (really?) to long-winded suggestions of subjects I should write about, never mind that no publisher is interested in a novel about an unknown queen in Mesopotamia (they should be, but they aren’t). I try to answer every e-mail I receive, except the dating requests. One day, an e-mail came in from a lady who lived 45 minutes away by car; she’d read my book and claimed she had known Chanel personally. Trust me, I get so many of these—once, someone wrote to tell me a psychic had informed her she was the reincarnation of Lucrezia Borgia—I ignored the e-mail until the lady contacted my agent. Turned out, she’s the daughter of Marion Pike, a portrait artist who met Chanel in the 1960s, painted her several times, and became a lifelong friend.  We arranged to meet for lunch and she had all these amazing stories I’d never heard about Chanel, making me quake in fear that I’d gotten it all wrong. But when I finally dared to ask, she said, “I can’t believe you never met her. There were so many moments reading your book when I could actually hear her. How did you do it?” It goes to show, you never know whom your books might reach.

Many thanks, Christopher. Wonderful insights – love your perspective on inhabiting your characters as well as your thoughts on the challenging world of publishing. 

I’ve read quite a few of Christopher’s novels: The Last Queen, The Queen’s Vow, Mademoiselle Chanel, The Romanov Empress, and now, Marlene. Highly recommended. C.W. Gortner was also on the blog in 2012 (!!) after being chosen by readers as a top historical fiction author in that year’s survey (and in subsequent years, I might add.)

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.

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.

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.

8 Tips from Guest Post Authors

During 2019, A Writer of History had the good fortune of securing many guest authors to discuss a range of topics related to historical fiction. Below are 8 tips that stand out for me.

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.

Mary F. Burns, author of The Love for Three Oranges

In Keeping Historical Figures Real, Mary Sheeran discusses how to weave real historical figures into your novels. She says that:

“we can’t just report; all characters need to drive the story and have something of the writer in them.

A Surgeon’s Advice … on how to Write Books with Andrew Lam

Writers must choose topics that matter to people. Stories that center on a controversial topic, an important historical event, or a way to help others improve their lives are all more likely to succeed. If your book isn’t about something important, it won’t be important to readers. Make sure it matters.

 

Marc Graham whose novel Song of Songs is about the legendary Queen of Sheba, writes of the challenges in going far back in time.

While it’s simply not possible to recreate these tales with certain accuracy, harnessing the best available resources (archaeology, linguistics, epigraphy) and cross-referencing the myths among different cultures can help us frame our stories in a realistic world.

 

In Writing the Stories of History’s Powerful Women, Judith Cromwell tells us that:

such writing requires meticulous research.  Research resembles a mixture of jigsaw puzzle and mystery.  The writer must identify clues, track each to its source, evaluate each within the context of the subject’s life and character.  Original research brings the thrill of unearthing new information.

Donna Baier Stein, author of Scenes From the Heartland, discusses using actual images as a basis for building a story in her post Turning Images into Tales:

as a fiction writer, my desire was not to capture the truth of the actual image (the way a photographer might want to do), but to imagine a potential story behind this scene.

 

Luke Jerod Kummer is the author of The Blue Period, a novel about Pablo Picasso. He writes about examining the works of Picasso in order to gain a deep understanding of his character:

when I sought to reconstruct the look and feel of where and how a maturing Picasso lived in Barcelona and Paris, or what his households, friends or lovers were like, there were  paintings, pastels and drawings allowing intimate glimpses both of his surroundings and what was going on inside him.

 

Elizabeth Bell’s guest post The Importance of Warts brings out the theme of creating characters and stories that don’t gloss over the warts of historical events, culture and social mores. She says:

As historical novelists, we are tour guides and teachers … We do [readers] an enormous disservice if we’ve whitewashed that truth… If we don’t make our readers think, if we don’t make them at least a little uncomfortable, we’re not doing our jobs.

Important lessons. I’ll have a few more for you next time.

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.