Reflections on Writing Historical Fiction … with Kate Quinn

I’m launching a new series today and delighted to have Kate Quinn here to kick things off. The series? I’ve asked a number of well known authors to reflect on their years of writing historical fiction. Some of these authors have been writing successfully for more than thirty years. Some are based in the US, others in the UK. And they all have wonderfully successful novels.

Today, Kate Quinn discusses several topics and offers an in-depth look at what it’s been like to switch time periods.

Changing Horses Mid-Stream: An Ancient World Author Jumps To The 20th Century

“What’s a girl like you doing in a time like this?”

It’s a question I’ve grown familiar with, as a historical novelist who has made a recent, monumental jump in time periods. My first love was the ancient world, and that was where I gravitated when penning my first novels, eventually writing four set in early Imperial Rome. I made a two-book jump after that to the Italian Renaissance and the delicious cesspit that was the rule of the Borgia pope, yet it was still Italy, still Rome, still comfortably pre-modern. But my latest books “The Alice Network” and “The Huntress” pole-vault all the way into the 20th century, telling respective stories of a World War I spy ring and the World War II all-female bomber pilot regiment known as the Night Witches—and a jump that big will give you whiplash, believe me. Why, readers asked, did I make such a big change in subject and research matter?

Part passion, and part practicality. I have always been a writer with far more story ideas teeming in my head than I can ever get round to writing, and there were always some 20th century notions lurking among the plots about Roman empresses and Renaissance courtesans. I started giving those fledgling ideas some serious consideration when I looked at the market and saw the recent boom in 20th century historical fiction. 

Now, I can’t write what I don’t love—I don’t think any author can—but the question here wasn’t “Can you write in an era you don’t love?” It was “Can you learn to love a new era?” The answer turned out to be “yes.” I like the 20thcentury a lot, and once “The Alice Network” bloomed into a full-fledged story in my mind, it positively begged to be written. “The Huntress” followed right on its heels.

Making a jump this big does have its scary moments, though. After writing four books in ancient Rome and two in the Renaissance, I was very comfortable in those worlds. I know the courtship customs, the vocabulary, the period-appropriate coinage and clothes and food, and I have it all at my fingertips without needing to look much of anything up. Writing in a historical era you know well is like lounging around in your favorite Pjs, or dog-paddling through the shallow side of the swimming pool. Taking on an entirely new historical era feels like being tossed head-first into the deep end: I was researching everything in a frantic effort to acquire the kind of familiarity with the era that novel-writing requires. Because it isn’t getting a battle’s date wrong that will sink your story; concrete dates and bare-bones facts are for the most part easy to look up—it’s the tiny details like not knowing if a zipper would be on the back or the side of a woman’s dress in 1947, or how much afternoon tea would cost with rationing laws in place. Those are the things that are hard to dig up, and I sweated bullets researching “The Alice Network” and “The Huntress.”

But it was worth it. I’m proud of my 20th century novels, and I hugely enjoyed writing both. I still love ancient Rome and the Italian Renaissance, and I plan to pen more -stories set there . . . but for the time being, I’m enjoying my jump to the 20th century, and have no plans to leave just yet!

What aspects do you love about writing historical fiction? It’s a way to examine universal human issues through a lens of the past–and a way to make people realize that humanity has not changed, even if it dresses in different clothes and uses different language than we do in the modern era!

What advice do you have for new authors? Embrace the suck–i.e., give yourself permission to be bad! Because all first drafts are bad, and that’s ok, but I see many new writers get so paralyzed by the inner voice that says “This is so terrible, I can never show it to anyone” that they never really get off the ground. It’s ok if your first draft is bad; it will get better. And you don’t have to show your work to anyone until you’re ready, so just write without fear of what anyone will say–especially that critical inner voice.

What are you passionate about in terms of historical fiction? I want to see more diverse hist-fic, not just European history. I want to see stories out of Asian history and African history, Native American history and South American history. There’s so much out there waiting to be told.

What are you working on now? My next book is titled THE ROSE CODE, about the female codebreakers of Bletchley Park. It should release early 2021. 

Many thanks, Kate. I love your perspective on changing time periods. I should mention that my book club had a lively discussion of Kate’s The Alice Network on Monday – everyone loved it! You can also read an earlier post featuring Kate Quinn and The Alice Network.

STAY TUNED FOR MORE AUTHORS REFLECTING ON THEIR YEARS OF WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION. 

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.

 

10 Books to Recommend

A Writer of History is NOT a book blog – however, I have written reviews from time to time on books I’ve chosen to read or books selected by one of my book clubs. Below are ten to recommend with links to each more detailed review.

Before We Were Yours by Lisa Wingate – I powered through this novel in two and a half very satisfying days. The story is “based on one of America’s most notorious real-life scandals—in which Georgia Tann, director of a Memphis-based adoption organization, kidnapped and sold poor children to wealthy families all over the country.”

Educated by Tara Westover – Book club unanimously endorsed Tara Westover’s well-received novel of growing up in a survivalist Mormon home in the hills of Idaho.The words used to describe it included: compelling, horrifying, unbelievable, shocking, inspiring, and head shaking.

Becoming Mrs. Lewis by Patti Callahan – author Patti Callahan has written a poignant and clear-eyed story about these two well-known writers and I had the pleasure of reading the novel for an article published by the Historical Novel Society.

The Girls in the Picture by Melanie Benjamin – This compelling look at two famous women – actor Mary Pickford and screenwriter Frances Marion – entertains and informs while transporting readers to the magical kingdom of the movie industry. Highly recommended.

The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng – the verdict at book club was resoundingly in favour of this powerful novel of memory and forgetting, war and peace, love and hate, which was nominated for the Man Booker prize.

The Splendor Before the Dark by Margaret George On every dimension – superb writing, feeling immersed in time and place, characters both heroic and human, authenticity, and compelling plot – The Splendor Before the Dark is a winner.

My Dear Hamilton by Stephanie Dray and Laura Kamoie Beginning in 1777 with a victory against the British at Saratoga, My Dear Hamilton tells the story of Alexander Hamilton through the eyes of his wife Eliza. Superb historical fiction.

Mary – Tudor Princess by Tony Riches – I thoroughly enjoyed reading about Mary Tudor, sister to Henry VIII. The history is fascinating and Tony’s superb writing brings Mary’s character to life with a strong and sympathetic voice.

The Perfect Summer by Juliet Nicolson – This work of non-fiction “chronicles a glorious English summer a century ago when the world was on the cusp of irrevocable change … That summer of 1911 a new king was crowned and the aristocracy was at play, bounding from one house party to the next. But perfection was not for all. Cracks in the social fabric were showing.”

The Alice Network by Kate Quinn – In the two years since reading The Alice Network, I’ve recommended it to dozens of people. Why? Because it grabbed me from the very start and wouldn’t let go. And what special ingredients does it have? Flawed, heroic, and intriguing characters – check. Tension that builds and builds – check. A superb sense of history and setting – check. Strong writing – check. An immersive experience – check. A flawless weaving of two timelines – check. What more could you ask for?

I hope some of these add to your reading piles! If you have feedback on any of them, please add your voice to the comments.

FOR MORE ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION  FOLLOW A WRITER OF HISTORY

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.

Double Trouble #HNS2019

Beatriz Williams and Kate Quinn were obviously having a blast at their session Double Trouble at #HNS2019. The topic was all about crafting the dual timeline historical novel and having written two of them — Time and Regret and the as yet unpublished The Admiral’s Wife — I wanted to hear their advice. They ran the session like a conversation which worked extremely well.

According to Beatriz and Kate, dual timeline novels are hot, and I wonder whether this is because they can appeal to both fans of contemporary and fans of historical novels. But let’s hear from the experts!

BW: a dual timeline story is a dialogue between past and present and as such it connects us to the past

KQ: Kate’s editor suggested writing a dual timeline novel, apparently saying that it had the advantage of getting your books shelved in two spots which will broaden your reach. Kate said that historical fiction is a more difficult sell in the market and that dual timeline makes the ‘sell’ easier.

BW: historical fiction doesn’t feel relevant to many readers; with the present being so challenging (!) and dynamic, many people have less respect for the past. It’s very important to create HF stories that are relevant to readers. Dual timeline has been around for a long time and is a respected structure for a novel.

KQ: there are many varieties of dual timeline. For example, you can position the same character at different points in his/her life. The Summer Wives by Beatriz Williams follows that model. The contrast between a character at time A and time B creates tension, interest, questions, and drama.

BW: you can show how the time — the era and its events — affected the character. And the points of inflection in a character’s life. Stories like these are a bit more demanding of the reader. In terms of technique – you can write one narrative at a time or go back and forth between the narratives.

Both: Beatriz prefers to write one narrative at a time in order to feel immersed in the era. Kate said she wrote The Alice Network going back and forth between the narratives. Both said there is no ‘right way’ to do it and you can/should make connections between the timelines as you switch.

BW: every book has its own personality.

KQ: there are various devices to link the timelines. Characters, objects/artifacts, locations, dead bodies, antiques can all serve as links between timelines. Kate mentioned that old letters from the past are a bit overdone as a technique.

On the topic of pitfalls and problems:

BW: you need to ‘get into’ each character with enough depth and detail to give them the richness they deserve and make them come alive.

KQ: in The Huntress, three main characters gave variety in time, setting and character. In the process, this created much more research, challenges with language and slang, and a huge requirement for fact checking.

BW: you need to create difference as well as consistency of voice. She finds this challenge easier if she writes one timeline at a time. Recommends that you create variation in your characters in terms of ages, gender, backgrounds, experiences. As a writer, you need to slip into the being of your character, which in turn will help your readers do the same.

KQ: likes to write ‘fish-out-of-water stories’. For example, a night witch with a Nazi hunter. This technique creates conflict, tension, dissonance. Kate recommends 2000 to 5000 words before switching timelines. She also recommends creating some parallels in points of inflection for each timeline. These become the beats of the novel.

I thoroughly enjoyed listening to Kate and Beatriz and will take their advice into my next dual timeline! By the way, I’ve read both The Summer Wives and The Huntress – highly recommended and superbly crafted.

If you want more information about dual timeline novels, Susanna Kearsley did a session on them at the 2017 conference. I wrote about it in Weaving the Twin-Stranded Story.

Other posts about #HNS2019: Tips on Writing a Series,  The State of Historical Fiction and When You Don’t Quite Fit.

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.