Reflections on Writing Historical Fiction with Ben Kane

Ben Kane was born in Kenya and moved to Ireland when he was 7. With a veterinarian for a father and a love of animals, Ben did the logical thing and became a vet. All his life he’s been an avid fan of military and historical fiction. In 1998 he set out to travel the world for three years. It was during this time that he first had thoughts of writing military historical fiction. As Ben tells it: “What started as a hobby soon became an obsession, and about four years later The Forgotten Legion emerged into the light.” His latest novel is LionHeart.

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

My first thirteen novels were set in ancient times. I have long wanted set books in other time periods, however, because my interest in history is not confined to Rome and its enemies. When my publisher offered me the opportunity to write a non-Roman novel, I seized it with both hands. Why Richard the Lionheart? Because he has fascinated me since childhood, and because there aren’t that many books out there about him.

Why historical fiction? Why not contemporary stories?

History is my one true love; I have adored it since childhood. While I have toyed with the idea of writing contemporary stories (and may yet do that too), history is what really lights my fire – all time periods!

What are you passionate about in terms of historical fiction?

See above! In short, everything. Getting it right regarding how people lived, spoke, behaved, ate, drank, fought, died. Filling the pages with tiny brush-stroked detail so that the reader is transported to the time and place that the book is set in.

How do you choose the stories you tell?

With one eye on the story and the other on the market. I wish I could just write novels about whatever takes my fancy, but my book sales keep a roof over my head, and feed my kids. (I am, fortunately, a fulltime author.) I could write the best-written work about the pottery making people who lived in southern India in the fifth century BC, but no one would buy it. The title and subject have to appeal to the reader.

How has your writing style changed over time?

It has improved immeasurably – I am so much better at writing than I was ten, twelve years ago.

What would you do differently if you could start again?

I would re-write my first three novels knowing what I know now, and edit thousands of overwritten sentences. Things like, ‘he shouted loudly’ really grate with me now!

What are you working on now?

I am in the finishing stages of Crusade, which is the sequel to Lionheart. It’s been a blast to write – so many contemporary accounts of Richard’s crusade have made my job pure joy.

What advice do you have for new authors?

For the vast majority of us, it takes years of writing to hone your craft well enough to publish. Do not assume that because you have finished a novel that it is ready for publication. Set it aside for a month or two when you have ‘finished’ it, and then go back and re-read the whole thing. You will see it through different eyes, and your edit then will be worth a dozen of the ones that went before. PAY for a professional editor to edit the book before you publish – and make sure they are high-quality. Only then should you consider publishing. Never give up!

Many thanks, Ben. You can read another blog post featuring Ben Kane here

Lionheart by Ben Kane ~~ 1179. Henry II’s Norman conquerors have swept through England, Wales – and now Ireland.

Irish nobleman Ferdia has been imprisoned in Wales to ensure the good behaviour of his rebellious father. But during a skirmish on a neighbouring castle, Ferdia saves the life of the man who would become one of the most legendary warriors to have ever lived: Richard Plantagenet. The Lionheart.

Taken as Richard’s squire, Ferdia crosses the Narrow Sea to resist the rebellious nobles in Aquitaine, besieging castles and fighting bloody battles with brutal frequency.

But treachery and betrayal lurk around every corner. Infuriated by his younger brother Richard’s growing reputation, Henry rebels. And Ferdia learns that the biggest threat to Richard’s life may not be a foreign army – but Richard’s own family . . .

Available on The Book Depository and on Amazon.

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 with B.A. Shapiro

Barbara (B.A.) Shapiro is the NYT bestselling author of THE MURALIST and THE ART FORGER, both stories of art, mystery and history with a bit of romance thrown in. A few years ago, I had the pleasure of sharing coffee with Barbara as she was working on her latest novel, The Collector’s Apprentice. It’s a treat to have Barbara share some of her reflections on writing historical fiction.

How did you get started writing historical fiction?

I’ve written twelve novels over the past thirty years—eight of which have been published—and nine of these have been either totally of partially historical. I never had a plan to write historical fiction, it just worked for many of the stories I was interested in writing. And, of course, I got kind of addicted to living in completely different worlds. I also mix fictional characters with actual historical persons, and this is great fun.

What have you learned over the years?

When I wrote my first historical, I spent almost a year doing research before I began to write. My second about six months. My third about three, with much of the research going hand-in-hand with the writing process. What I learned is that, for me, it’s better to do a more cursory review of the time and place at the beginning, noting more where the information is than going into it in depth, and then returning to the specifics as I find I need them.

What do you like most about writing historical fiction?

To me, the great power of historical fiction is the genre’s ability to allow the reader to step back from their assumptions and explore the human experience with fewer preconceived notions. For example, in my novel The Muralist, the protagonist is struggling to get her Jewish family out of Europe in 1939, a plot line that engendered much sympathy for her and the immigrant experience. The book came out in 2016, just as the issue of immigration was becoming politicized, and I hope that my readers were more empathetic to the immigrants’ plight because they had empathized with Alizée’s.

What are you working on now?

Not surprisingly, after three heavily historical novels set all over the country and world, the new one is contemporary and is set in Boston, where I live. A girl’s got to have some variety.

What advice do you have for new authors?

I have two pieces of advice. First, get your butt in the chair and stay there. Second, let yourself write it wrong: that’s what rewrites are for.

Many thanks, Barbara. These days I so appreciate the way writing allows me to escape. Right now I’m in 1870 Paris rather than 2020 Covid-19 North America. But I am having trouble keeping my butt in the chair!

The Collector’s Apprentice by B.A. Shapiro ~~ It’s the summer of 1922, and nineteen-year-old Paulien Mertens finds herself in Paris—broke, disowned, and completely alone. Everyone in Belgium, including her own family, believes she stole millions in a sophisticated con game perpetrated by her then-fiancé, George Everard. To protect herself from the law and the wrath of those who lost everything, she creates a new identity, a Frenchwoman named Vivienne Gregsby, and sets out to recover her father’s art collection, prove her innocence—and exact revenge on George.

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 – 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.