Characters Stranger than Fiction by Maryka Biaggio

Maryka Biaggio is a psychology professor turned novelist who specializes in historical fiction based on real people. Maryka told me that she enjoys the challenge of starting with actual people and dramatizing their lives and motivations while recreating their emotional world through dialogue and action. With the release of her latest novel, The Point of Vanishing, she reflects on the characters she’s discovered whose lives are stranger than fiction. Over to you, Maryka!

Who hasn’t tossed out the adage “truth is stranger than fiction” after hearing some absurd but true tale? In fact, the saying has turned cliché from overuse. But when it comes to fiction writers, reanimating the lives of real people is a serious matter. And many readers find their interest especially piqued by novels based on actual persons. Could it be that we are compelled to compare ourselves to others, and, when those others are real people, that their tales are even more captivating? 

If we agree that one particular fascination stories hold for us is the means of measuring ourselves against others, it is not at all difficult to understand the attraction of stories based on real characters. Unbelievable as their motives may be, far-fetched as their actions and circumstances may seem, these people actually lived. Witness the popularity of a spate of novels based on real characters: The Aviator’s Wife by Melanie Benjamin gives us a behind-the-scenes glimpse of Anne Morrow Lindbergh and her resilience in seeing her and her husband through their strange history; Ariel Lawhon’s I was Anastasia tells the fascinating story of Anna Anderson’s battle to be recognized as Anastasia Romanov; and The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd is based on the true story of a young woman given ownership of another human being in the early 1800s.

I specialize in writing historical fiction based on real people. My own recently released novel, The Point of Vanishing, recounts the tale of the gifted writer Barbara Follett, who disappeared without a trace at age 25. My debut novel, Parlor Games, tells the tale of beautiful and cunning May Dugas, who conned her way from America to Shanghai, London, and points in between. I continue to be amazed by the number of readers who tell me that knowing May was a real person made the novel all the more fascinating.  And I expect those who are interested in Barbara Follett’s story will feel the same about The Point of Vanishing.

So I believe readers take a particular delight in the stories about real people. For if some real character could mastermind the most daring plot to separate a millionaire from his money, what adventures might be in store for any of us? If another could rise from poor beginnings and attain greatness, what might the meekest among us achieve? 

According to Italo Calvino, it all began with the first chronicler of the tribe: “The storyteller began to put forth words, not because he thought others might reply with other, predictable words, but . . . in order to extract an explanation of the world from the thread of every possible spoken narrative.” We humans are meaning-making machines, and it is stories that grease the gears of our turning minds. In its most basic form, story is about confronting life’s questions and quandaries. Writer E.A. Durden claims that “it is the job of fiction to portray the full spectrum of human possibility, to remind ourselves of everything we are capable of—from exploring the heavens to breaking out of the clink.” What better way to explore the possibilities than through actual lived experiences?

Of course, comparing ourselves to others doesn’t happen only in fiction, or even in such other narrative forms as biography or memoir—witness the popularity of polls, those ubiquitous instruments of public opinion and habit. And if there is any doubt about this need to compare, consider what happened when Alfred Kinsey released his highly technical and research-laden 1948 book “Sexual Behavior in the Human Male.” Thinking this tome would be of interest only to the scientific community, W.P. Saunders printed just 5,000 copies. Against all expectations, this book so intrigued the public that the publishing house had to keep two presses rolling to meet the demand. Within fifteen weeks of its release, the 800-page volume had shot to near the top of the bestseller list. Of course, the fact that the topic was sexual behavior helped propel sales, but this doesn’t undermine the point. In fact, it confirms a variant—the more taboo or personal the content of the “story,” the more appeal it will hold for our story-hungry minds. 

I don’t expect the urge to compare ourselves to others, to take the measure of people who created their own success—or demise—will ever end. There will always be a demand for novels based on characters stranger than fiction. 

Congratulations on the release of your newest novel, Maryka. And thank you for sharing thoughts on the eagerness readers have for fiction based on true characters. I love novels based on real people and can’t wait to read your latest. Readers can also enjoy my conversation with Maryka about what makes historical fiction tick.

THE POINT OF VANISHING by Maryka Biaggio is based on the true story of author Barbara Follett. On a December night in 1939 Barbara Follett fought with her husband and stormed out of their Boston home never to be heard from again. Now novelist Maryka Biaggio provides a captivating account of Barbara’s enigmatic life—and disappearance.

Barbara had all the makings of promise and success. Early on, her parents recognized her shining intellect and schooled her at home. At age twelve, she published the novel The House Without Windows to much acclaim. When she was fourteen, her charming account of a sailing journey, The Voyage of the Norman D, was released. But when tragedy struck the family, Barbara floundered. Watch the trailer for more!

DON’T MISS OTHER POSTS ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION.  FOLLOW A WRITER OF HISTORY

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, PARIS IN RUINS, is available for pre-order 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.

Fact or Fiction?

Tessa Harris argues that historical novelists can take liberties with the facts if necessary, but they must admit to it. Please welcome Tessa Harris, author of the just-released novel Beneath a Starless Sky as well as the Doctor Thomas Silkstone mysteries and the Constance Piper mysteries to the blog.

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When the UK’s Culture Secretary asks Netflix to flag up that its hugely successful drama series The Crown is actually just that – a drama, not a documentary – and several historians weigh in to criticise the depiction of events and characters, the ensuing wider debate surely must include historical novelists, too. 

If you’re one of the tens of millions of viewers of The Crown, the drama based on the life of Queen Elizabeth II and the royal house of Windsor, then you will know that the screenwriters have, on occasion, bent the facts for dramatic purposes. Writers of historical novels sometimes do the same thing. But that begs the question: is it acceptable to sacrifice the truth for the sake of a more compelling story? 

While The Crown may be well researched, and based on real historical events, it is also a work of drama and storytelling. It is not a documentary. As royal historian Robert Lacey recently wrote in the Radio Times: “What you see is both invented and true.”

So how do you balance historical fact versus fiction? How far can you go to fill in the blanks left by contemporaneous accounts? What liberties are acceptable? International best-selling author Bernard Cornwell once put it this way: “If you are wanting to write historical fiction I always say, you are not an historian. If you want to tell the world about the Henrician reformation, then write a history book but if you want an exciting story, then become a storyteller. Telling the story is the key.” 

Personally, I always think of writing historical fiction as a bit like crossing a river over steppingstones. It’s up to the writer to bridge the gaps between the stones by imagining and creating plausible settings and scenes between the protagonists. Private moments, conversations and even the relationships between the characters, who may or may not have existed, can breach the gaps that exist between these steppingstones of fact.  

This is what I’ve tried to do in my new novel, set in the 1930s in the build-up to war and spanning Western Europe and America. It features, among other real-life characters, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Fred Astaire and Adolf Hitler.  I was, of course, treading a well-worn path, but I was very much indebted to some brilliant biographers who had travelled before me. Reading original letters and diary entries also proved invaluable in shaping my portrayal of the real characters. Like most writers of serious historical fiction, I try my best to stick to the facts but sometimes there just aren’t any, so we novelists invent them. On other occasions, in order to move a story on, or to allow for unity of place, events may be concertinaed, or settings relocated. 

Sometimes, the truth can also be stranger than fiction. In my new novel, for example, if I had invented a plot line whereby the former king of England was about to be kidnapped by the Nazis, or bribed to act as Hitler’s puppet king, most readers would think it too fanciful. And yet secret documents discovered by the Americans after the war, reveal that this was exactly the case and that the plan was codenamed “Operation Willi.” 

In the episode of The Crown where the queen confronts her errant uncle about his past misdeeds and the existence of the Marburg Files, the facts were spot on, but of course it’s not always the case. When the novelist does tinker with recorded history, however, all is not lost because we writers of historical fiction have a secret weapon at our disposal. I’m talking about the author’s notes.

In an interview with the Guardian newspaper, Bernard Cornwell also recently confessed: “I do play merry hell with history at times, but I always admit to it.” To many readers historical fiction is a gateway to reading real histories and biographies. An author’s notes can be seen as a memorandum informing the reader if any historical facts have been altered and, if so, how. The notes can also signpost further reading. In my Dr Thomas Silkstone mystery series, for example, I included a glossary of archaic terms and interesting historical snippets and recommended factual books.  

One of the major problems for The Crown is that the later episodes are still relatively fresh in peoples’ memories. The same problem occurs the later the historical novel is set. You are much more likely to have readers complain if you get your facts wrong if your story is set after World War 1, for example. That’s why Simon Jenkins, again writing in the Guardian, argues that because The Crown’s latest series deals with  contemporary history and people who are still alive, its liberties with the facts are less a case of artistic license than an example of “fake news.”

The Crown’s creator, Peter Morgan, has never met Her Majesty. I have – twice. In private, she struck me as human, but aloof, although she did have an enchanting laugh when surrounded by those with whom she feels at ease. Like all writers of historical fiction, she also has to tread a fine line between believing it is her God-given mission to rule over her ‘subjects’ until her death and being a down-to-earth head of state. The creators of The Crown, in my opinion, have done a good job in distilling the essence of the constant battle between personal and public that besets the monarchy. Writers of historical fiction must do the same, but always own up when they take liberties with the facts. When ambivalence exists over whether a book deals in fact or fiction, publishers may helpfully print the words “a novel” underneath the title on the cover. Maybe in this case, something similar on the opening credits might read: The Crown, a drama.  

Beneath a Starless Sky, by Tessa Harris, is published by HQ and will be out on E-book on December 9, 2020, price $3.99 and 99p in the UK.

Beneath A Starless Sky is out in e-Book, price 99p on December 9 and in paperback and audio on February 4, 2021, price £ 8.99.

To celebrate the release of the gripping and utterly heart-breaking Beneath A Starless Sky, author Tessa Harris will be going live on HQ Stories facebook page in conversation with Mandy Robotham, the international bestselling author of The Berlin Girl, on 9th December at 3pm GMT. Don’t miss it! Set your reminder here: http://ow.ly/lnr050CBRsL

Tessa will also be talking about why historical fiction matters on 10th December. Follow this link to register

Many thanks for sharing Fact or Fiction with us, Tessa. Best wishes for Beneath a Starless Sky.

Beneath a Starless Sky by Tessa Harris

Munich 1930. Lilli Sternberg longs to be a ballet dancer. But outside the sanctuary of the theatre, her beloved city is in chaos and Munich is no longer a place for dreams.

The Nazi party are gaining power and the threats to those who deviate from the party line are increasing. Jewish families are being targeted and their businesses raided, even her father’s shop was torched because of their faith.

When Lilli meets Captain Marco Zeiller during a chance encounter, her heart soars. He is the perfect gentleman and her love for him feels like a bright hope under a bleak sky.

But battle lines are being drawn, and Marco has been spotted by the Reich as an officer with great potential. A relationship with Lilli would compromise them both.

DON’T MISS OTHER POSTS 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 AmazonNookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on FacebookTwitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.

REAL LIVES ARE STRANGER THAN FICTION

I met Curt Locklear at this year’s Historical Novel Society conference. He’s an author, historian, teacher, education consultant, and public speaker. He also plays the banjo. Welcome, Curt!

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Real Lives are Stranger than Fiction by Curt Locklear

One of the great things about research for historical fiction is coming upon a surprise and knowing immediately that you can use it in your story. In my discovery of the amazing lives of the Fox Sisters, it was not just a neat tidbit to insert to add flavor to a good story. Their lives, or should I say antics, became a driving element in the plot of all three of my Civil War novels.

The Fox Sisters were the first and most notable, or notorious, spiritualists. The  phenomenon they helped engender – the “Spiritualist Movement” – swept through the nation.  This movement, proclaimed by even church leaders as religious in nature, clutched the United States and Great Britain in its grubby paws. Twelve years prior to the Civil War, in upstate New York, two young sisters, Kate Fox, age12, and Maggie Fox, age13, began their elaborate hoax innocently enough. Their father was devout Methodist minister, but the girls had no qualms about their extended effort to deceive their parents and neighbors.

They began their hijinks at night, tying a string on an apple and bouncing it on the floorboards of their upstairs room to sound like footsteps. Both girls later found they had an innate ability to make the joints in their big toes pop extremely loudly. They went on to invent a story about a peddler, Mr. Split-foot, who had been murdered. In the presence of their parents and neighbors, they would “ask” Mr. Split-foot’s ghost a question, and he would always rap the floors exactly correctly. No one doubted their story or discovered their ruse.

After a while, their mother sent them to stay with their much older sister, Leah. Rather than bring a halt to their connivance, the older sister saw the makings of a good income. If snake oil salesmen could sell their wares, Leah was certain that the sisters could market their uncanny ability of “speaking to the dead” to a nation of suckers. Their first séance, or spirit rapping, was held at Corinthian Hall – Rochester, New York’s largest venue. The price was one dollar.

The show was a success as were several more soon after. In a short while, “Spirit Societies” were formed all through New York state. The young sisters, in later seances, were speaking to Ben Franklin, Thomas Paine, and even Shakespeare. It was not long before other entrepreneurs figured out that a naïve and easily-fooled public would pay for séance shenanigans – wholly believing the purveyors of spiritual nonsense.

With newly burgeoning “science findings” sometimes flying in the face of some religious dogmas, many people searched for proof that immortality and the afterworld existed. Of course, skeptics immediately took on the hoaxes. A number of the shysters were found out. They were caught using small drums between their legs or having an accomplice behind a curtain, and so on.

Despite the skeptics, the spiritualist societies grew in number, most notably in Ohio.

The Fox Sisters, being more than once tied to chairs and monitored closely by renowned skeptics, were never found out. When the two spiritualists cracked their toe joints inside their shoes against wooden floorboards, the sound reverberated everywhere on the stage. No one guessed their ploy.

With their overbearing older sister forcing them into compliance, both Kate and Maggie became alcoholics and ended up broke at the ends of their lives. Both later admitted their lies.

The larger story is that many of the most respected individuals in the United States and Great Britain succumbed to the belief that certain people could openly consort with the deceased. Among them were Horace Greeley, the outspoken publisher of the New York Tribune and A. Conan Doyle, author of the Sherlock Holmes mysteries.

When the Civil War began, never had the American nation seen such loss of life. The effects of witnessing the inconceivable devastation first-hand when the battle arrived in their front yards; and the dire news delivered by newspaper almost daily, led to a sort of national insanity. Large cities had a steady stream of hearses and coffin-laden wagons, the deaths being more from disease than battlefield death. Sometimes, in a single battle, small towns lost almost every young man who had joined the army.

No wonder people sought some sort of relief from their anguish.

The panacea was a chance to speak to lost loved ones during a séance. Historians estimate that as much as one-fifth of the US population believed in Spiritualism (the ability of some people to speak to the dead.)

Perhaps the most notable person to consort with spiritualists was Mary Todd Lincoln, the wife of the president. Mrs. Lincoln held numerous seances in the White House after the untimely death by typhoid of their young son, Willie. Even the president sometimes attended. Mary Lincoln’s favorite spiritualist was Nettie Colburn, though she had Charles Colchester lead a séance as well. President Lincoln, his wife, and Charles Colchester play prominently in my third novel – Reconciled. The Fox Sisters are in all three novels and are involved in the dramatic climax in Reconciled.

Fascinating history, Curt. It’s my understanding that the famous French author Victor Hugo was also captivated by spiritualism. Best wishes for your Civil War novels.

Asunder Trilogy by Curt Locklear ~~ Thrust into the middle of Civil War battle, with both Union and Rebel protagonists and antagonists, Curt Locklear’s Asunder trilogy are stories of love and loss and of families torn apart.

Splintered is the second in the trilogy. From its heart-wrenching opening scene of stoic grief in a Lincoln White House on the day of his son Willie’s death to the final heart-wrenching battle scene and suprising assasination plot against Lincoln, Splintered proves itself a novel of sweeping, artfully rendered proportions, and one that is at times deeply moving, while always intelligent and socially conscious.

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.