Reader Interview Series – Kris H.

Woman Reading - Pierre-Auguste Renoir
Woman Reading – Pierre-Auguste Renoir

A Writer of History is hosting a series of interviews with readers, particularly those who enjoy historical fiction. I hope these interviews will augment the survey data I’ve collected. Please welcome Kris, one of my Facebook friends as she tells us about her reading.

Tell us a little about yourself.     I was born in 1944, the illegitimate daughter of a divorced German soldier and a young Norwegian woman. Whether my mother left to follow her lover, or was forced by circumstances beyond her control is not clear, but 14 months later she gave birth to yet another daughter (by the same man), whom she left with her older, married half-sister. I had been left with her parents, then in their late 50’s. Having sold their farm (Holtan South) due to ill health, we lived in a small whaling village near Larvik.

I spent my first 5+ years with my grandparents who adored and spoiled me, especially my grandfather who read to me and told me all the old stories. By the time I was 4, my grandmother taught me to read, using the local newspaper and the older children in the village often would drag me around the shop windows and marvel at my ability to read the text on the advertisement. (Normally children did not start school until age seven).

When I was 5 or so, my mother returned and soon married a Norwegian whaler and my life in a home with no books began. Fortunately my grandparents lived nearby and I was able to visit almost daily to read (with my grandmother’s encouragement) despite my mother’s frustration at her failure to keep me home.

Throughout the school years I visited the local library, which was open every Wednesday, taking home as many books as I could carry. The woman who ran the little circulating library eventually learned to keep some goodies aside for me and did not restrict me from any book that struck my fancy.

I have never stopped reading since and thank my grandparents for this gift.

In 1964, following a unhappy love affair (no doubt a failure because it didn’t live up to my expectations based on my reading), I decided that Norway was too small and too small minded to contain my rebellious self. I left Norway for the US and, having lived on both coasts as well as in Ontario CA and the Midwest, I am currently living near Seattle, WA working full time as bookkeeper. Aside from spending time with my two adult sons when possible, my main interests are reading, travel and Fabric Arts.

Please tell us about your reading habits and preferences.     Based on my Kindle history for the past year, I can say I read between 3 and 5 books a week. I read in bed, on the couch while pretending to watch TV and while at lunch. I read Hard Covers in bed (prefer cheap paperbacks in the bubble bath); read my Kindle at lunch (and sometimes at work) and while travelling.

Since I am a fairly fast reader, I prefer longer tomes and usually read one book at a time.

Historical Fiction and what I like to call Crime Noir (Nordic Noir and Icelandic Noir) and the Police Procedurals set in the UK are my preferred escape from the sometimes emotionally gutting Historical Fiction I adore. Occasionally I will mix in some Contemporary Fiction (most recently The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin).

How do you decide which books to buy? What influences your purchases?    I use any avenue open to me: haunting libraries, Big Box Bookstores (not so much anymore), Independent Book Sellers, and, of course I visit numerous Literary Facebook Pages as often as I can, for example: Historical Novel Society, The Review and Before The Norman Invasion. In addition, I follow my favorite, old and new, authors’ FB Pages and Twitter accounts.

Before the Internet, I relied on the cover attracting my attention, Goldleaf and Reds rarely failed, then I read the inside cover. Once I find an author whose words speak to me and whose characters engage me emotionally (i. e. break my heart) I will track down every one of his/her published works.

What do you like about historical fiction? What don’t you like?    I like that a well written historical fiction takes me to the time and place described and makes me fall in love with the characters, real or fictional. I am not so fond of the hybrid historical fiction that incorporates Sci-Fi and/or Super Natural Elements (though I have been known to read them).

What types of historical fiction do you prefer?    My favorites are the ones that shed light on a time of importance in history, and flesh out the people of the era, especially when all the old myths and romantic notions are stripped away to show a very human side of a romanticised/vilified/mythicized figure.

Do you have historical fiction books or authors you would recommend to other readers? Can you tell us why?

Should not embarrass you but I have to list M. K. Tod’s Unravelled – because it is the first novel set in this time that I have read and I loved it. Loved it so much it led me to Charles Todd’s The Inspector Rutledge Series. [MKTod – I did not pay Kris to say this!!! Thanks for your very kind words, Kris. I’m honoured to be on your list.]

Dorothy DunnettThe Lymond Chronicles and King Hereafter are my favorites – because of her painstaking research, exquisite character development, intricate plotlines and luminous language.

Sharon Kay PenmanSunne in Splendor * The Welsh Trilogy -Because of her (again) meticulous research, believable character development of real historical figures and their relationships, and (again) flawless language and plot development.

Mary StewartThe Arthurian Saga – because she doesn’t fall into the mythology trap regarding Merlin and the Arthurian Legend.

Cindy Brandner The Exit Unicorn Series –   for her lyrical prose, excellent characters and riveting historical setting.

Sara Donati (Rosina Lippi)’s Wilderness Series – because of the fresh look on the almost unreadable James Fenimore Cooper originals.

Sigrid Undset’s Kristin Lavransdatter – because it was my first historical fiction, read in the original Norwegian as a teenager. This book opened my eyes to other worlds and other times.

Elizabeth ChadwickShadow on the Crown – for shining the spotlight on an influential woman of her time who has been long neglected in fiction.

Gillian BradshawThe Horses of Heaven – for its unusual setting.

Morgan LlywellynThe Horse Goddess & Grania– Wonderful look at Irish History/Legend

Then there is phenomenon that is Diana Gabaldon and the Outlander Series (with Auxiliary Novellas and Short Stories). I resisted picking this up for a long time because I was leery of the Time Travel element. When I finally (accidentally) picked up Dragonfly in Amber at the library I was captivated enough to buy the entire Series. For about a year and half I was a rabid fan. Unfortunately for Dr. Gabaldon the bloom is off the rose for me. I feel more and more like a victim of an evil marketing genius and do not like the feeling of being sucked into cult-like following. That is not to say she is not a wonderfully imaginative writer. The first three books are unforgettable … but after that I prefer the Lord John Gray Stories.

In today’s world, there are so many opportunities to talk and learn about books – blogs, Twitter, Facebook, Goodreads, book clubs – can you tell us about your experiences, where you go to talk or learn about books, why you enjoy discussions about books?    I am pretty much on my own here; I do “lurk” on a lot of Facebook Literary Group sites, also follow many authors, and make occasional comments. I am somewhat less enamored with Goodreads. I must say I would really like to find a group or book club where I might find likeminded book lovers who actually read the books.

What advice do you have for writers of historical fiction?    OMG … I couldn’t presume, but first of all do your research, don’t filter morals of another time through a 21st Century lens, and do not insert sex scenes a la 50 Shades, rather evoke emotional suspense.

Is there anything else about reading historical fiction that you’d like to comment on?

Read, read and read.
WOW, Kris. What a great interview to kickoff this series. Your childhood could form the basis for a novel on its own! And you’ve given so many wonderful recommendations for other readers. 500 books in one year – that’s an incredible amount of reading. Many, many thanks!

Remembering Vimy Ridge – April 9, 1917

Vimy Ridge Memorial 1 I’ve been both mesmerized and horrified by what I’ve read about Vimy, which took place 97 years ago today. In Unravelled, Edward Jamieson, who fought at Vimy Ridge, remembers that battle in two vivid flashbacks. Lies Told in Silence – soon to be published – looks at the same battle from the viewpoint of Helene Noisette, a young woman living in a town not far away from the ridge.

Here’s an excerpt from Lies Told in Silence. For more than two months, Helene Noisette and her brother, Jean, have been watching soldiers prepare for battle. Later in this novel, Helene will meet Edward Jamieson.

They left the house without a sound and ran, fear pounding with every step, following familiar paths, leaping across melting streams, scrabbling through ferns and bushes. As they approached the hill, she heard the opening roar, a deafening sound that shook her body. In an instant, a second crash followed, splitting the sky directly overhead, penetrating her world like a never-ending drumroll.

Helene and Jean clawed their way up the hill. The guns grew even louder, and a sharp, acrid smell filled the air. Her legs had almost given out when they reached their perch and stood with no need to crouch down and hide, for no one could possibly notice them given the furor of action rippling across the battlefield. Never in her wildest dreams could she have imagined such a scene.

Screen Shot 2014-04-09 at 8.59.56 AMInstead of orderly drills or the calm stacking of sandbags and trucks waiting to load or unload, below them was a sea of churning mud; grey dawn streaked the sky; there were sharp flashes of red, the rumble of airplanes overhead. In the far distance near the ridge, an orange glow hovered like a bulging midnight sun. Shells burst from all directions, illuminating soldiers advancing, bayonets flashing with deadly purpose.

Helene looked at Jean, a mix of fear and awe on his face. She said nothing, for what possible words could make sense of the destruction carried out below? In the preceding weeks, what they had heard and seen—the bright snap of flares and answering clouds of smoke, the stuttering back and forth of machine guns, the sharp whine as planes breached the horizon, the gentle drift of observation balloons—were only the barest hints of reality. Helene and Jean were silent, standing vigil over an unfolding battle, honouring those who fought for their freedom, men they would never know.

Wherever she looked, troops moved forward, less than thirty metres behind exploding bombs launched by their own artillery. This barrage was their shield, a curtain of steel protecting them from German counterattacks. Step by step they advanced, scrambling across uneven ground, thick clumps of earth flying through the air around them.

Gradually, the sky lightened, bringing the battle into sharper focus. A sudden flurry of snow obscured her view, and she wondered how the soldiers could possibly find their way. The snow left as quickly as it had appeared, and in the far, far distance, she saw white and black puffs of smoke; then a plane, trailing black streamers, emerged from the far left and flew low over the scene, its klaxon sounding like an ancient battle cry.

While they watched, Helene thought of [her brother] Guy. Had he grown accustomed to these mind-numbing sounds mixed with exploding bursts of earth and shrapnel? Was this what it had been like when he was wounded? Was he brave, or did he fear for his life? Did he lead his men with care? Did he shout at death as it whirled around him? How could he face battle again and again, her wonderful brother who laughed and teased, enjoyed the give and take of argument, took pride in his studies, loved his family? How could any of them?

Read Pierre Berton’s Vimy for an amazing account of preparations for the assault on Vimy Ridge and the battle itself.

A Reader of History – Douglas Burcham

Douglas Burcham found A Writer of History last summer and ever since has been offering suggestions and wonderful encouragement as I published Unravelled and then conducted my survey. Douglas has also been going through the self-publishing cycle. Written in collaboration with his fantasy twin brother Alexander (a frequent commenter on my blog) and guest writers from writing groups, his book of short stories Ywnwab! came out last September.

Douglas reads and writes with the Allrighters. This post appears on his web site and blog

Many thanks for all your support, Douglas!

A Reader of History

After I started writing fiction in June 2010, I found a strong recommendation on a web site to read Stephen King’s On Writing. The book justifies the referral and I took King’s advice about reading widely, not to plagiarise but to absorb the atmosphere and ways of storytelling. Since 2010 I have tried to work through at least a book a week thereby reading ten times as many words as I write each year. Even then I know I am hardly scratching the surface of the millions of fiction books available.

In a Christmas-time discussion with my first professional editor, we talked about what might form good advice to new and old writers, as we are both putting together short books on the subject: his from many years of writing and publishing experience and mine a new writer’s petulant view from my last 43 months, before I become conditioned into the entrenched thinking of the established literary world.

I contend the three most important elements of a good book are similar to property purchases with the location, location, location mantra becoming … story, story, story. A good story badly told is, in my view, better than a bad story perfectly told – showing not telling and the rest of the technical ways in vogue. Reading, in my view, gives a writer the strongest clues about what makes a book which the world may want to read. I accept all jokes need to be told well to succeed … if only I could.

Having nearly completed my target of writing a million draft words in three years, set in July 2010, I am about to set off in 2014 on a long self-edit and restructuring of my past writing, based on the magical elements and ways used in books I like reading.

Since 2010 I do not think my plotting and story creation have improved, but with all the actual writing, and particularly the added reading, I believe I am in a much better position to produce books readers may want to read.

Over Christmas I have also taken a view of my reading over the last three and a half years. I realise my memories of books read have been crowded out by history titles. Because of this I feel this post as A Reader of History is an appropriate flip side to Mary’s awriterofhistory blog.

There are so many books to read and, given the wide choice, this has made me a fickle, demanding, critical and sometimes cynical and disloyal reader. Why do I read?

  • For enjoyment of all books, except those with grim content.
  • Entertainment mostly in quick 24 hour easy read thrillers, the snacks of reading.
  • For interest and education books with a good technical or historic background in the last century, often banquets of reading.

As I write this post my instant reading memories of 2013 out of sixty or so books I ploughed through are three factual books.

  • one medical Why Bipolar? By Declan Henry,
  • another No Easy Day about a killing or assassination (you can choose which)
  • a biography of Bernie Ecclestone, a self-made man.

The AllrightersOED – History. – The branch of knowledge which deals with human events. The formal record or study of past events, especially human affairs.

Based on this definition, a surprise for me – all these factual books slip onto my bookshelf as A Reader of History. I found the characters and their modern history all interesting and educational.

These memories are followed by five fiction titles I regard as serious fiction, each a banquet of reading, all with an historical background in the last century.

Never Forget – Angela Petch

In this book I felt very close in my own memories with the main female lead character telling the story of her brothers’ receiving the family inheritance on their mother’s death and her being left with a box of old letters in Italian and a collection of photos. I found myself on her shoulder, being taken back to Italy under German occupation and two romances, one in wartime and another in the present.

The main lesson to me as a writer was the intimacy Angela created between me as the reader and the main character in her telling of her story.

I read this to the end on Kindle, always a stern test of a book for me as I probably stop reading more Kindle books than others, because I do not really like electronic reading and its detrimental effect on my tired old eyes. A hard cover, large print book of about 500 pages is my ideal read.

Unravelled – M.K. Tod

I found the awriterofhistory blog and this book through a post by Mary on Mick Rooney’s Independent Publishing Magazine web site about marketing books. I am not really into families and romance and again I read the book on my Kindle, so reaching the end gives great credit to the book. The WW1 information about signals, details of the Canadian War Memorial – including the Mother Canada figure and the excellent crafting of the uncertainty of the times of not knowing the result of WW2 and the pressure on family members created by service were all memorable. The book links a family and WW1 to WW2. I look forward to Lies told in Silence … a title to raise reader’s hopes of a good read.

I prefer to read non fiction books about the sharp end of war and have previously shied away from fiction, apart from Birdsong – Sebastian Faulks, about WW1. Unravelled awakened my interest in more war fiction books, including my current read The Yellow Birds, which although fiction reads as a grim autobiography. From the incidental closeness of these two titles a stray thought occurs to me about birds and war. 

Turning Point – Calvin Hedley – To be published in 2014.

I had the good fortune to read this draft book of c100,000 words as an advance reader able to comment on the content of the book in substance and detail. I read the book twice. The action takes place in 1940 and 1982 and is built around a pivotal moment in WW2, involving secrets, aircraft, Hitler and Churchill. I believe it has the makings of a good film as well as a book. Calvin has helped me with my own writing, especially with my awful grammar and punctuation. His achievement is even greater because he is blind.

The Garden of Evening Mists – Tan Twan Ing

My wife had been urged to read this book by friends and when it turned up in our house from the library, I started to read the first few pages and did not stop until completion the following day, a short sub-loan. I usually take time reading serious fiction, but this demanded my undivided attention. The ingredients were good. Malaya in the 1940s at the time of the Communist insurgency, with flashbacks to Japanese occupation, and near the end a surprise technical analysis of something seen in every day life.

To me the key to my pleasure reading this book centred on the delightful way the often horrific story was told and the two timeframes, current and flashbacks to the past. I will have to read it again.

Winter – Len Deighton

He chose a huge canvas from before 1900 to 1945 on which to paint twentieth-century history and a family story. Several sub plots, so his story kept me reading. Of necessity a slow read, stopping for breath and reflection on descriptions of everyday events taking precedence over horror, the characters seemingly unfeeling. An unsatisfactory ending to me and at the time I could not think of a better one! I can now. One knew in advance the end of the story of Hitler and the Third Reich but not the fate of all the characters. The story of events in Germany put another slant on the history of WW2 for me and provided many new insights. I will have to read it again.

All sound like wonderful novels, Douglas. I’m honoured that you chose to include Unravelled and look forward to our ongoing dialogue as we both strive to become better writers! I applaud the concept of A Reader of History.