Inside Historical Fiction with Gwendolyn Womack

Gwendolyn Womack is the author of The Memory Painter which released in April 2015. She was also at the Historical Novel Society conference in Denver this year where I learned of her intriguing novel. Today she’s sharing her thoughts on what makes historical fiction unique.

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 magical ingredients are all of those wonderful details and bits of truth that create the experience of the time period – ingredients sprinkled like spices throughout to enhance the story. In my opinion the best historical fiction writers sweep you away with their characters and make you feel like you are experiencing the story right along with them. Transporting readers to a different time period but making it feel effortless is getting it right.

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

I don’t think they’re inherently different. The methods and research might differ for creating a historical setting versus a contemporary one, but trying to bring characters to life and capture the conflict within those lives takes the same effort. Both types of novels have to create believable worlds and characters that we will become invested in.

What aspects about the past do you specifically try to highlight in your novel(s)?

I try to highlight all the things that I find fascinating in my research. It’s really an intuitive process. Things jump out at me that I feel will either give shape to the time period or more insight into a character. I’m constantly reading and jotting down interesting details and then I work to embed them into the action. The Memory Painter spans a lot of history and has chapters in ancient China, Japan, Rome, and Egypt among others and I had multiple notebooks for each time period. It was challenging but a lot of fun to weave them all into a single story.

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?

I research a lot before I start writing and saturate myself as much as possible with books, documentaries, articles and actual writings from the time period, which is always the most helpful. And as far as staying true to the time period, I do try to make sure any historical fact or event I’m relying on is as accurate as possible. But the important thing is also to let the ‘fiction’ in ‘historical fiction’ have its way. So I do enjoy a lot of freedom in crafting the plot and conflicts and let my imagination go.

Do you see any particular trends in HF?

I personally don’t but I also haven’t tried to find one. There are just so many different kinds of historical novels out there. I’m a member of HNS and went to Denver this summer for their conference, which was fantastic, and in the bookstore and at the Author Signing I saw a wonderful breadth of stories.

Please tell us a little about your latest novel.

My debut novel The Memory Painter came out this year. The novel is a love story and a thriller that revolves around a famous painter who has the ability to paint memories of his past lives. There is a Chapter 1 excerpt at www.GwendolynWomack.

Before signing off, I want to share the news that my publisher is running an e-book promotion for The Memory Painter for only this week until 10/4. So if you like to check out new books by e-reader then please take a look. Thanks!

And thanks to you, Gwendolyn for sharing your views. Good luck with The Memory Painter.

The Memory Painter by Gwendolyn WomackThe Memory Painter by Gwendolyn Womack

What if there was a drug that could help you remember past lives?
What if the lives you remembered could lead you to your one true love?
What if you learned that, for thousands of years, a deadly enemy had conspired to keep the two of you apart?

Two lovers who have traveled across time.
A team of scientists at the cutting edge of memory research.
A miracle drug that unlocks an ancient mystery.

Writing Historical Fiction with Veronika Pelka

Undone by Fate's Hand by Veronika PelkaVeronika Pelka is the author of Undone by Fate’s Hand – now isn’t that a great title – and has graciously agreed to tell us about her writing process. Veronika was born in Europe and educated in the U.S. She holds history degrees from the University of Illinois and the University of California and has contributed numerous book reviews to the Historical Novel Society’s magazine.

What are the ‘magic ingredients’ that make historical fiction unforgettable and irresistible? And in your opinion, what do the best historical fiction writers do to ‘get it right’?

For me, the main ingredient is the storytelling power of the author. If the writer possesses the skills to create engaging characters and a unique world in which I loose myself for hours, I consider that pure magic. The best historical writers (M.M. Kaye, Dorothy Dunnett, John Fowles, William Styron) are (and were) gifted storytellers who engage us quickly, give us memorable characters and leave us with emotional insights to the human condition that we could never have arrived at on our own.

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

I judge contemporary novel writers by the same standard as authors of historical novels. Here too, the author has to engage my curiosity or offer me an escape. (Some of the best writers also teach with skill–i.e. Louise Penny.) If the main characters are not redeemable, if the setting is only concerned with the daily grind of modern living, and if the theme is preoccupied with one of the seven deadly sins, I will likely return to a good biography or historical novel for my reading pleasure.

What aspects about the past do you specifically try to highlight in your novel(s)?

To date, I have limited my writing to 19th century Europe. One thing I try to show is how political institutions and society were changing and yet they were more complex and sophisticated then we realize.

The fact that everyone in Napoleon’s time spied on his or her neighbor is meaningful. As is understanding that elaborate government spy networks existed in many countries. People had few personal freedoms and even fewer legal protections. Long periods of military conscription were common and many a mother never saw her son again once he left home.

The idea that experiencing war either as a civilian or a soldier leaves people psychologically damaged is not unique to our time. Nor is discrimination, tyranny, influence peddling and bribery, political intrigues and onerous taxation. The role of woman varied greatly in the 19th century, depending on her class in society. For those possessing little power or influence and no ancestry or fortune, life in the 19th century was often short, difficult and dangerous. And yet, men and women demonstrated bravery, had faith, found love and persistence in the face of such odds.

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?

Although I believe a writer has a great amount of creative license when it comes to creating his or her stories, I personally feel I must be as historical accurate as possible. Hence, by the time I start writing, I have already done considerable research. It is normal for me to spend days in a university and large public libraries searching for primary sources (i.e. government documents, letters, diaries, autobiographies, maps etc.) and secondary sources like biographies, journal articles and monographs. I am also a heavy user of the interlibrary loan services of my local library. If possible, I travel to the places I write about. For my novel “Undone by Fate’s Hand” I was able to walk the same streets of Paris and Vienna, as my characters. Lastly, I never go anywhere without a camera. Quite often, studying the photos on my return home helps with the rewriting process.

What aspects do you feel need to be included when you are building a past world for your readers?

Above everything else, I need to understand and communicate the culture in which the characters live. A good deal of conflict in stories comes from characters misunderstanding each other’s norms and customs. In the 19th century, a character’s social class, religion, education, family background or ancestry could predict much of their behavior.

I also tried to see a historical event as unique to that time and place. History is not linear nor is “progress” inevitable. Many cultures accept the notion of fate. In 19th century Europe it was often called Divine Providence. Although we like to create strong, determined characters, success does not always lead to more success. Nor, can men and woman always control their destiny. Not in history and therefore, not in the historical novel.

Do you see any particular trends in HF?

I hope the “Indie-publishing” trend continues and new historical time periods will begin to appear in our genre. I also hope that our novelists will find satisfaction in writing for smaller audiences.

Please tell us a little about your latest novel.

“Undone by Fate’s Hand” opens in Paris in 1810, eventually moves to the Congress of Vienna and ends after the battle of Waterloo. It is the story of an English woman whose French husband fails to return from the Russian campaign and a Polish soldier who survived the horrific invasion. Once Napoleon Bonaparte is exiled to Elba, and a new Bourbon King returns to the French throne, Paris becomes a dangerous place for former Bonaparte supporters.

Captain Alexander Dariusz Mazowski is intent on finding his brother’s murderer, when approached to undertake a secret mission for the exiled Emperor. Meanwhile, warned that she is about to be arrested, Johanna Bredonne leaves Paris only to be intercepted on her way to England by Mazowski’s men. And so begins the fated interaction of this two characters.

The story has numerous other characters including an English spy, an Austrian major, a French Madame and a villain from the childhood past of Johanna Bredonne and her friend Collette Dutasche.

Though the story takes place 200 years ago, I hope the reader will find much in common with these characters and their conflicts.

Many thanks for being on A Writer of History, Veronika. I’m jealous of your history degrees, no doubt that helps with the research process.

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, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE is set in WWI France and is available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. Her debut novel, UNRAVELLED: Two wars. Two affairs. One marriage. is also available from these retailers.

Mary can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads.

Inside Historical Fiction with Deborah Lincoln

AGNES-CANON'S WAR by Delaney GreenDeborah Lincoln says “I’m fascinated by the way events—wars and cataclysms and upheavals, of course, but the everyday changes that wash over everyday lives—bring a poignancy to a person’s efforts to survive and prosper. I hate the idea that brave and intelligent people have been forgotten, that the hardships they underwent have melted away like a rim of ice on a warm spring day.”

Today Deborah discussed the unique aspects of writing historical fiction.

What are the ‘magic ingredients’ that make historical fiction unforgettable/irresistible? Are historical novels inherently different from contemporary novels, and if so, in what ways?

Historic fiction, like fantasy or science fiction, transports a reader to a strange and exotic place where sights and sounds and smells and situations challenge our imaginations and conjure up a world that is both escapist and instructional. It requires an exercise of a different area of the imagination that modern novels don’t stimulate. Can I put myself in the place of a woman who is nine months pregnant in July with the temperature over one hundred, air conditioning unheard of, and a fifty-fifty chance that the doctor has no cure for the complications of birth? What does it feel like to dance a waltz in forty yards of skirt – and how does one manage the outhouse dressed that way? What was Thomas Cromwell really like, as a human being with family responsibilities, what was he thinking as he won, then lost, the political games of Henry’s court? Few of us will ever have the misfortune of experiencing war in our own backyards; how did our great-grandparents bear it when jayhawkers and bushwhackers swept through their neighborhoods and burned their homes? With all due respect to contemporary novelists, the modern world is often too familiar and often too dreary, to set one’s fancy free.

In your opinion, what do the best historical fiction writers do to ‘get it right’?

The details. Assuming there’s a great story, compelling characters, a good plot, et cetera et cetera, historical fiction relies on historical ambience developed through the skillful use of detail. And not details that slap you in the face (think Gore Vidal’s 1876) but details that are almost subconsciously absorbed by readers and put them in the time and place. A mother ties a diaper because safety pins don’t exist; Kansas City was called Kansas Town before 1853; whale oil, rather than coal oil, would have been used in lamps before 1850. An appropriate detail might not jump off the page, but an anachronism surely will.

I think it’s even more important to get the dialogue right for the era, the social status of the character, and the seriousness (or lack of) of the story. A number of my readers have commented on the tone of the language in my book, Agnes Canon’s War, its appropriateness for the time period. (It takes place between 1852 and 1866 in the American heartland.) I’m hard-pressed to give examples (using “fractious” to describe a child rather than “cranky”? “That amiable drunk in the White House” instead of “that good-natured drunk”?) except to say that the language has a rhythm that is not modern and inflections that are just slightly quaint. And it goes without saying but I’ll say it anyway: the writer must avoid using modern terms or slang. I once read a Civil War-era novel in which the leading lady called a couple of visiting soldiers “you guys.” Talk about jarring.

What aspects about the past do you specifically try to highlight in your novel(s)?

I try very hard to ensure the characters’ reactions are appropriate to their times. For example, writing about America in the mid-nineteenth century requires an understanding about racial attitudes. Only the most enlightened people thought the races could be equal in all ways (Thaddeus Stevens, a leader of the Radical Republicans during the Civil War, was married to a black woman), so even anti-slavery advocates rarely thought the Negro should be the social equal of European descendants. The consternation about Atticus Finch’s racism in Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman is, I think misplaced – he needs to be judged by his place and time, not by ours. We might not like the character once we’ve judged him, but we can’t be surprised by his attitudes.

Another aspect that fascinates me and I try to insert in my work (very subtly) is how often history repeats itself. I think it’s an important part of the teaching that HF can provide to emphasize that we rarely see a new phenomenon. For example, today’s outrage over the top one percent, the divide between the classes, played out in the U.S. (probably many times in the past) but manifestly during the 1870s and 1880s: the Gilded Age, without the social safety nets we have now. The Carnegies and Rockefellers of America amassed vast fortunes while the lower classes, often immigrants from Eastern Europe, sank deeper into poverty and distress; hence the rise of labor unions and bloody class conflicts. The controversy over immigration is an often-repeated conflict but with different targets: Catholics, Irish, Chinese, Eastern Europeans, now Mexican nationalists. Burke’s idea that “those who don’t know history are destined to repeat it” is a touch overused, but HF is an opportunity to let people know about history in a way that reaches a different audience than do history classes.

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 aspects do you feel need to be included when you are building a past world for your readers?

Building a world requires that every sense be included: sight (a shadow cast by coal oil footlights), sound (the unearthly Rebel yell: “Waa-wooo-yeeaaaay-yee!”), taste (venison steaks and potato balls and cheese straws), smell (the ever-present odor of dust and manure in the streets of town), touch (the rich softness of a deep velvet gown trimmed with the stiffness of blonde). Then a low-key reference to what’s going on at the time: the new book by Mr. Melville just arrived, they enjoyed a new beverage called a “lager.” I don’t know how writers did this without the Internet: did you know you can learn how to amputate a leg, without anesthetic, just by surfing the web? Of course you did. But reading books written at the time of my story is another way to get a feel for the time period and for the rhythm and language in use at the time. For nineteenth century America, immersion in books like Little Women and Uncle Tom’s Cabin and all of Mark Twain put an author in the mood of the era, and that all comes out in the writing.

Please tell us a little about your latest novel.

Agnes Canon’s War was published in October of last year, and is the fictionalized story of my great great-grandparents’ experiences during the Civil War in Missouri. I had access to the basic facts, which a cousin pulled together in the 1970s, and the characters were so exceptional, the events so extraordinary, that I didn’t want the story to die out. Agnes Canon was 28 and a spinster when she left her home in Pennsylvania in the spring of 1852 to join a group of cousins who boated down the Ohio and up the Missouri Rivers to settle in what was then the frontier, Holt County in northwest Missouri. There she met and married Jabez Robinson, a doctor who was born in Maine and had traveled to the California gold fields and the army posts of the Southwest during the Mexican-American War. In the decade before the Civil War actually broke out, both Kansas and Missouri were a battleground of politics and occasional acts of violence, and Agnes and Jabez were in the thick of it. This is the story of two people who watch their family, their neighborhood, everything that keeps a society civil, crumble into a chaos that they are powerless to stop.

I’m currently working on a sequel to ACW, which takes place in America during the robber-baron era of the 1870s and 1880s. I find that the more I delve into the stories of my ancestors, the more tales there are to tell. Historical fiction writers need never be at a loss for plot.

Many thanks for being on the blog, Deborah. So many interesting thoughts in your interview!

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, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE is set in WWI France and is available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. Her debut novel, UNRAVELLED: Two wars. Two affairs. One marriage. is also available from these retailers.

Mary can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads.