Delaney Green has been a reporter, a copy editor, and a professional actress to name some of her pursuits. She has also taught English and now writes historical fiction of a speculative nature. Today Delaney has dropped by to talk about the unique aspects of historical fiction.
What are the ‘magic ingredients’ that make historical fiction unforgettable/irresistible? And in your opinion, what do the best historical fiction writers do to ‘get it right’?
Historical fiction that places the reader INTO the time period by including the five senses, an accurate historical viewpoint from each character, and tantalizing historical tidbits you mightn’t find on Google make HiFi work for me. My mom taught history, and she was always springing stuff on her students. For example, she might tell them on a given day what people used to blow their noses with. Her junior high school students particularly enjoyed learning about gnarly medical history. (Side note: we lived in a tiny town, and so my mom was my eighth grade history teacher. My biggest problem with this was figuring out what to call her in class.)
Are historical novels inherently different from contemporary novels, and if so, in what ways?
In some ways, historical and contemporary novels are not different. Both usually require research. But I do think a writer has a greater obligation with historical fiction to get his or her facts right, since a historical writer is, in essence, a teacher, and teachers are supposed to be the experts in their chosen field. Readers are busy. They aren’t inclined to verify the facts in a book. So a writer is honor-bound to be honest. You can’t fudge history—especially since your book may be the only exposure a reader has to a given time period. That’s not to say something couldn’t happen in the past that the writer has no reference to cite in support of that event, but whatever the writer inserts should be plausible for the period.
What aspects about the past do you specifically try to highlight in your novel(s)?
My main character, Jem Connolly, is interested in medicine, which in the eighteenth century was heaving itself into the modern world. Back then, some physicians still practiced using Galen-based theories of the four humors; others had studied in Edinburgh and had read the works of physicians and scientists on the Continent and were more aware of the actual workings of the human body. Another thing I have to be aware of is logistics: how long communication might take, how long a journey might take, and so on. In these days of instant communication across thousands of miles, it’s quite a mental adjustment to know a letter might take months to cross the ocean. For example, letters written back and forth by American amateur botanist John Bartram and English gardener Peter Collinson often crossed mid-ocean, and the gentlemen often were peeved with one another for not writing back soon enough.
In writing historical fiction, what research and techniques do you use to ensure that conflict, plot, setting, dialogue, and characters are true to the time period?
What do they say about real estate—“Location, location, location.” For a writer of historical fiction, alter that to “Research, research, research.” Spend your plenteous earnings (ha) on books. The internet is great for a quick look-up, but you won’t find everything you need to know there. I am very bad at keeping track of how much I spend on period books, to my accountant’s dismay, but I very much like to have IN HAND a book that I can layer in sticky notes. Besides, books often include juicy bits that an internet site will leave out. I recently visited Bartram’s Garden in Philadelphia, and my wonderful guide through the gardens recommended a book of Bartram’s letters I’d already purchased. Which brings up another point: if at all possible, a writer should visit the place in which his or her story takes place. At Bartram’s Garden, I learned that the greenhouse Bartram had built on his property was, in truth, very much smaller and darker in real life than what I imagined. His house, too, was smaller and more cramped than I expected it to be, and it was much closer to the Schuylkill River than I’d thought. The gardens were wilder. That kind of thing matters.
What aspects do you feel need to be included when you are building a past world for your readers?
Readers want to be transported. Humans know where they are by taking in information through their five senses. Therefore, I try to see, hear, touch, taste, and smell past places by finding out what there was to see, hear, touch, taste, and smell. In addition, when I am including an actual person from the past, I want to find out what kind of person he or she was. I want to get the person’s temperament right. In the case of Benjamin Franklin, for example, I read a couple of biographies and tried to fit some of the things he actually said into my fictional situations. In the case of Jem, a Novice in Philadelphia, which I’m working on now, I have a trickier situation: one of my main characters is Deborah Franklin, Ben’s wife, who stayed at home whilst Ben politicked (and frolicked) in London for years and years. We don’t know much about her other than that she missed her husband terribly and ran his business while he was gone and was a terrible speller. So I had to make up her temperament from the tiny tidbits I could unearth about her.
Do you see any particular trends in HF?
There appears to be an interest in writing first-person accounts, although Diana Gabaldon (and others) do insert third-person perspectives into first-person stories. First-person has advantages and disadvantages, of course, as I well know. But as far as time period is concerned, I think writers immerse themselves in a time that fascinates them, so I don’t see any trends regarding specific time periods. Same goes for readers: some like steampunk, some like togas.
Please tell us a little about your latest novel.
Jem, a Fugitive from London, continues the story of Jem that began in Jem, a Girl of London. In the second book, Jem has to leave Doctor Abernathy in London and journey to a remote farmstead in Cornwall to learn how to control her Second Sight, which has become a big problem—in fact, Jem’s life may be forfeit if she can’t learn to manage her power on her own. Jem’s tutor is the grandmother of the herbalist, Margery Jamison. Jem has to adjust to life on a farm, to Margery’s unusual grandmother, to the isolation of the moor, to awareness of her own personal foibles. It’s a coming-of-age story, really. You and your readers may remember your own first realization that you were not self-sufficient—that you needed other people and that you might NOT be able to triumph in every situation unless you relinquished your pride and developed your talents and bolstered your weaknesses. That is the focus of Jem#2. Jem finds out, too, that Patch is still hunting for her and that he may be in possession of his own brand of magic. I also am working on Jem#3, wherein Jem sails to America. But that’s down the road—or should I say across the water?
Many thanks for adding to the discussion of inside historical fiction, Delaney.
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M.K. Tod writes historical fiction and blogs about all aspects of the genre at A Writer of History. Her latest novel, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE is set in WWI France and is available from Amazon, Nook, Kobo, Google Play and iTunes. Her debut novel, UNRAVELLED: Two wars. Two affairs. One marriage. is also available from these retailers.