A Ball of Golden Thread

Deborah Lincoln is the author of Agnes Canon’s War and An Irish Wife. She specializes in fictional retellings of almost-lost stories from her own family’s past, with characters both well-known and obscure. To get a sense of the stories she writes, consider this quote that I borrowed from her website.

In historical fiction, great events bring a poignancy to the lives of everyday people, to their efforts to survive and prosper. My work celebrates those brave, smart and anonymous women and men, honors their triumphs and hardships, and pays tribute to their memories.

Today, Deborah shares thoughts on creating the natural environment for a story.

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When I first read The Scarlet Letter, I was captivated by the idea that within a very few miles of the new world’s coastline stretched a dense and primeval forest (Hawthorne’s lovely descriptions) and I imagined myself an eagle flying over that forest that stretched forever, untouched. I wanted so much to see it, know it the way it was then and would never be again. I rebuilt it in my mind, smelled its scents, absorbed its sounds. Imagined the busyness of its small and large inhabitants and their absorption in the immediacy of their moments. And I wanted to build that world so others would see it, too.

Country cemeteries are wonderful places to wander to absorb atmosphere. 
This is the Bethelboro cemetery where Agnes, Harry and their family are buried.

That is the sense of place that I find crucial to telling a story, especially a story based in the rural past, in which the characters are so much closer to the natural world than we can be today. I want to call up the childhood, even racial memories lying deep inside us all that can be triggered by the rank rich smell of a humid summer’s day or the chorus of crickets at dusk. My characters need to be shaped by the land and elements because they are so much more dependent on them for their safety and sustenance. “For once we no longer live beneath our mother’s heart,” says Louise Erdrich, “it is the earth with which we form the same dependent relationship, relying completely on its cycles and elements, helpless without its protective embrace.” If we, the human race, still felt that, we would perhaps not be in the climate crisis we’re now experiencing.

Vegetation and wildlife are important to developing a sense of place.

In my writing I’ve tried evoking the sense of place first by visiting the area I’m writing about, as most writers do. For my first book, AGNES CANON’S WAR, that was the village of Oregon in northwest Missouri, as well as Virginia City and the Gallatin River valley in Montana. I grew up in the Midwest, so the humid summers, crisp, frigid winters, the flash of lightning bugs and the whine of mosquitos in the dark were all memories that I drew on to evoke an atmosphere.

I refreshed my memory of the vegetation, the birds and the animal life—and did my research to be sure those species existed in the mid-nineteenth century, the setting for my story. It wouldn’t do to insert a family of nutria in the creek in 1855 when they weren’t introduced into the United States until 1899. 

Oregon, Missouri: The town of Lick Creek, setting for AGNES CANON’S WAR

For my second book, AN IRISH WIFE, I needed to go beyond my own stomping grounds, east to the foothills of the Allegheny Mountains of Pennsylvania, a different setting from the flat farmlands I grew up in, and get a sense of the distances, what the horizon looks like, the sunsets and rainclouds over the hills and the geology, including what might lie underground. I toured a slope-entry coal mine to feel the weight of a mountain pressing in on me and to soak up the sense of dark and closeness, of menace, that working below the surface might provoke. I studied maps of mines, examined diagrams of geological strata, collected photographs of miners and their equipment taken deep underground. Odd as it sounds, annual reports of the Pennsylvania Bureau of Industrial Statistics dating from the mid-1880s were fascinating. Thank goodness for the Internet.

Experience what your characters would have experienced. Inside an abandoned coal mine. (Photo by Brian Moran)

Sense of place gives equilibrium,” Eudora Welty writes (On Writing, 1956), “extended, it is sense of direction too.” A writer can achieve an unflinching authenticity when she conveys a sense of place, and as Mary’s survey of her readers discovered, those readers want a time and place to be brought to life. As Welty says, “. . . it is the sense of place going with us still that is the ball of golden thread to carry us there and back and in every sense of the word to bring us home.”

Thanks, Deborah, for sharing your thoughts on creating a time and place for readers. I’ve read An Irish Wife and can still feel the dirt and despair of the coal mines of Pennsylvania, the deep prejudice against Irish Catholics, and the blossoming of young love amidst the nearby forests. A highly recommended story!

An Irish Wife by Deborah Lincoln ~~ In the brilliant society of 1880s America, King Coal fuels fortunes and drives prosperity for the privileged as it also destroys lives and the dreams of the unfortunate. Harry Robinson, coming of age in southwestern Pennsylvania, is the hope of his family for the next generation, expected to ride Gilded-Age momentum to the American Dream.
When he meets Niamh, an immigrant Irish woman married to a coal miner, he falls in love for the first time. Niamh’s arranged marriage brought her to America with the hope of giving her brother Patrick opportunities for a better life, and she asks Harry to continue the boy’s education. He agrees, hoping to stay close to Niamh and dreaming about ways to make her his own.
Through Niamh and Patrick, Harry begins to realize the extent of the prejudices that stalk Irish Catholics and all immigrants. When Niamh’s husband beats her and she escapes, Harry is determined to take her away, though it means overcoming her religious scruples and the disapproval of his family. But Niamh and her brother disappear.

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M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, PARIS IN RUINS, is available on Amazon USAmazon CanadaKobo, and Barnes&Noble. An earlier novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from AmazonNookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on FacebookTwitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.

Interview with Mark Sullivan author of Beneath a Scarlet Sky

beneath a scarlet sky by mark sullivanMark Sullivan, author of the newly released WWII novel Beneath a Scarlet Sky, has graciously agreed to give his perspective on writing historical fiction. Mark is the bestselling author of 18 novels – imagine that 18 novels! – including the popular Private series. His works have been named a New York Times Notable Book and a Los Angeles Times Best Book of the Year.

Q: What are the magic ingredients that make historical novels so unforgettable and irresistible? And in your opinion, what do the best historical writers do to “get it right”?

A: The best historical novels transport the reader to another time and place so convincingly that it is like being swept away. If it’s done right, a historical novel can be an unforgettable experience, truly magical. There’s the sheer novelty of the setting and characters, and you can feel that the author understands her world cold. But that alone won’t do it. The best historical writers get in the minds of their characters in accordance with their times and then plumb the human emotions that are timeless.

Q: Are historical novels inherently different from contemporary novels, and if so, in what ways?

A: I don’t think they are inherently different. All novels function as dramas no matter the setting. The key in either historical or contemporary novels is to show the characters being active in the context of their culture. Now, one author’s book might take place in the long ago, and another’s might unfold the day after tomorrow, but the challenge for both is to illuminate the human spirit in ways we have never seen before.

Q: In writing Beneath a Scarlet Sky, what research and techniques did you use to ensure that conflict, plot, setting, dialogue, and characters were true to the time period? Do you have any particularly memorable anecdotes from the research you did for this book?

A: I was lucky that Beneath a Scarlet Sky is based on a true, untold story of World War II Italy. I was also blessed that Pino Lella, the hero, was still alive.

I first went to Milan to hear his tale in late March 2006. I spent nearly three weeks with Pino, who was 79 at the time. We went all over northern Italy so I could see where many of the incidents he described had occurred. We drove high into the Alps and visited the site of a Catholic boys’ school that served as a staging facility for Jews escaping Nazi-occupied Italy. Pino was the guide who led them over the Alps into Switzerland during the winter of 1943-44. I climbed and skied the escape routes myself. In Milan, we met with a retired priest who’d been a forger in the underground railroad that led Jews out of Italy, and we walked the streets of the fashion district where Pino had grown up. We talked to Holocaust historians, war historians, and old men who’d been part of the partisan resistance.

Over the course of the next nine years, I spent two weeks in the German war archives in Berlin and Friedrichsburg, a week in the U.S. National Archives, and three more weeks in Germany and Italy trying to get it right. The culmination of that effort took place in 2015, when I was able to interview the dying daughter of the powerful Nazi general who complicates the heart of Pino’s story, and I understood for the first time why the general was not tried for war crimes at Nuremberg. 

Q: When writing a novel based on a true story, what aspects of the past do you feel the need to remain faithful to when you are building that world for your readers, and what aspects of the truth are you allowed to stretch?

A: Again, in my case, I had the spine of the story Pino Lella laid out for me. And I was able to put in years of research before I started to write. Still, so many people had died by the time I heard the story, and the Nazis had been so efficient in burning their documents in the last days of the war, that I realized that there were certain events that I would never fully understand. In those instances, I relied on my informed suspicions to imagine events as they were likely to have occurred in order to give the book more narrative coherence.

Above all, I focused on the emotional experience of the story. I wanted readers to be moved in the same way I was hearing Pino’s tale for the first time. To that end, I used every skill in my possession to make the story even more compelling and moving.

Q: Can you tell us a little about Beneath a Scarlet Sky and what you find so compelling about the WWII era?

A: Beneath a Scarlet Sky is based on the true story of Pino Lella, a 17-year-old Italian boy who led Jews escaping the Nazis over the Alps, became a spy inside the German High Command, and fell in love with a woman who would haunt him the rest of his life.

The WWII era was a time when courage was common. There were also clear and defined enemies who forced one person after another to decide who they were going to be and how they were going to act in the face of evil. That, to me, is what makes it so compelling.

I was also fascinated by the story of the war in Italy and how little you hear about it. The more I learned, the more I was convinced I had to write this book.

Mark, you’ve given us a fascinating look at your writing process. Clearly, you are passionate about Pino Lella’s story. Thank you for sharing some of it with us.

BENEATH A SCARLET SKY is #1 New York Times bestseller Mark Sullivan’s riveting new tale of extraordinary courage and tragic star-crossed love during the Nazi occupation of Italy—“The Forgotten Front” of World War II.

New York Times bestselling author James Patterson raves that this novel is “an incredible story, beautifully-written, and a fine and noble book.”

Based on the true story of the unlikeliest of heroes, BENEATH A SCARLET SKY follows 17-year-old Pino Lella as he helps lead Jews out of Italy along an underground railroad through the Alps and, later, when he is recruited to become a spy for the Italian Resistance. Working undercover, Pino gains access to some of the most powerful men in Germany but also witnesses the atrocities of the war firsthand.

Mark Sullivan conducted hours of interviews with the real Pino Lella while researching this novel, and the two became dear friends in the process. Mark is the bestselling author of 18 novels, including the wildly popular Private series. His works have been named a New York Times Notable Book and a Los Angeles Times Best Book of the Year.

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.

Exploring Actual Locations for Historical Fiction with Tony Riches

Tony Riches has written a superb trilogy telling the stories of Owen (click here for an earlier post on Owen Tudor), Jasper, and Henry Tudor, King of England. He’s also been on the blog talking about writing a trilogy and the unique attributes of historical fiction. I’m delighted that he’s here today discussing his research process.

Exploring Actual Locations During Research for the Tudor Trilogy – by Tony Riches

When I set out to write the Tudor Trilogy I wanted to dig deeper and uncover new insights and details that would bring the early Tudors to life. For the first book, OWEN, I visited several locations including the beautiful island of Anglesey in North Wales, home of the first Tudors, as well as Pembroke Castle, where Owen spent his last years. (It helped that I was born in Pembroke, within sight of the castle, birthplace of Henry Tudor, and have now returned to live in West Wales.)

I had to piece together the details of Owen’s life by cross-checking different sources and ‘fill in the gaps’ from scarce records of the period. For the second book, JASPER, I continued his story in the third-person and was able to begin meaningful primary research, investigating events by visiting more actual locations.

There is only space here to provide a few examples, but one of the most interesting was when I investigated Jasper and the young Henry Tudor’s escape to exile. Pursued by the Yorkists, they had to flee for their lives through a secret tunnel to reach the harbour in the costal Welsh town of Tenby. Amazingly, the tunnel still exists, so I was able to gain access to see it for myself and walk in their footsteps deep under the streets.

Secret Tunnel Under Tenby

 

I was interested to see an ancient fireplace, littered with primitive glass bottles, and had a real sense of what it must have been like for the Tudors. I’ve sailed from the small harbour in Tenby many times, including at night, so have a good understanding of how they might have felt as they slipped away on the perilous voyage to Brittany.

I’d read that little happened during those fourteen years in exile – but of course Brittany was where Henry would come of age and begin to plan his return. Starting at the impressive palace of Duke Francis of Brittany in Vannes, I followed the Tudors to the Château de Suscinio on the coast. Luckily the château has been restored to look much as it might have when Jasper and Henry were there, and the surrounding countryside and coastline is largely unchanged.

Chateau de Suscinio in Brittany

Duke Francis of Brittany, began to worry when Yorkist agents began plotting to capture the Tudors, so he moved them to different fortresses further inland. I stayed by the river within sight of the magnificent Château de Josselin, were Jasper was effectively held prisoner. Although the inside has been updated over the years, the tower where Jasper lived survives and I was even able to identify Tudor period houses in the medieval town which he would have seen from his window.

Chateau de Josselin

Henry’s château was harder to find but worth the effort. The Forteresse de Largoët is deep in the forest outside of the town of Elven. His custodian, Marshall of Brittany, Jean IV, Lord of Rieux and Rochefort, had two sons of similar age to Henry and it is thought they continued their education together.

The Forteresse de Largoët

Entering the Dungeon Tower through a dark corridor, I regretted not bringing a torch, as the high stairway is lit only by the small window openings. Interestingly, the lower level is octagonal, with the second hexagonal and the rest square. Cautiously feeling my way up the staircase I was aware that, yet again, I walked in the footsteps of the young Henry Tudor, who would also have steadied himself by placing his hand against the cold stone walls, more than five centuries before.

When I returned to Wales I made the journey to remote Mill Bay, where Henry and Jasper landed with their small invasion fleet. A bronze plaque records the event and it was easy to imagine how they might have felt as they began the long march to confront King Richard at Bosworth. On the anniversary of the battle I walked across Bosworth field and watched hundreds of re-enactors recreate the battle, complete with cavalry and cannon fire.

Re-enactment of the Battle of Bosworth

The challenge I faced for the final book of the trilogy, HENRY, was too much information. Henry left a wealth of detailed records, often initialling every line in his ledgers, which still survive. At the same time, I had to deal with the contradictions, myths and legends that cloud interpretation of the facts. I decided the only way was to immerse myself in Henry’s world and explore events as they might have appeared from his point of view.

As I reached the end of Henry’s story I decided to visit his Tomb in Westminster Abbey. There is something quite surreal about making your way through Westminster Abbey. I stood on the spot where Henry was crowned and married before reaching his magnificent tomb in the Lady Chapel. His effigy is raised too high to see, so I climbed a convenient step and peered through the holes in the grille. There lay Henry with his wife, Elizabeth of York, their gilded hands clasped in prayer.

I’d like to think all this work and so many miles of travelling will help readers begin to understand the early Tudors – and see beyond the shallow ‘caricature’ of Henry as a miserly and soulless king. I’m pleased to say that all three books of the trilogy have become international best sellers, so I’d like to take this opportunity to thank all the readers around the world who have been on this journey with me.

As a wonderful postscript, on the 10th of June we are unveiling a life-sized bronze statue of Henry on the bridge outside Pembroke Castle, to ensure he is always remembered. Although this is the end of the Tudor trilogy, I am now researching the life of Henry’s daughter Mary and her adventurous husband Charles Brandon, so the story of the Tudors is far from over.

Many thanks for being on the blog, Tony, and for the support and encouragement you’ve given me. Wishing you great success with your latest novel.

Tony Riches is a full time author of best-selling fiction and non-fiction books. He lives by the sea in Pembrokeshire, West Wales with his wife and enjoys sailing and river kayaking in his spare time. For more information about Tony’s other books please visit his popular blog, The Writing Desk and website www.tonyriches.com and find him on Facebook and Twitter @tonyriches. The Tudor Trilogy is available on Amazon UK  Amazon US and Amazon AU.

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 and blogs about all aspects of the genre at A Writer of History. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union on August 16, 2016. 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.