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Beyond writing historical fiction, Jennifer Robson and I share Toronto as our home town and I was delighted to meet her in person two months ago. Goodnight From London, Jennifer’s latest novel, was inspired by her grandmother’s wartime experiences in WWII. Jennifer’s debut novel – Somewhere in France – received accolades for its story of a woman who breaks away from her aristocratic upbringing to serve in World War One. Clearly Jennifer enjoys wartime settings! Today, she discusses the factors that make historical fiction tick.
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’?
I think it’s the promise of a glimpse into the past that makes historical fiction so appealing to its fans. Until scientists succeed in inventing a working time machine, historical fiction is the best means we have of sinking into vanished worlds and gaining a sense of what it must have been like to live in another time.
Are historical novels inherently different from contemporary novels, and if so, in what ways?
Many years ago I asked this exact question of Margaret Atwood, and I was surprised when she insisted that fiction was simply fiction – she didn’t like adding the term “historical” to it. I have to (respectfully) disagree, if only because the recent past and the distant past are such different animals in terms of research and the author’s imagination. Yes, technically, the 1990s belong to the past, but I experienced them directly and have clear memories of the decade; it isn’t terribly hard for me to establish a believable setting for a book set in 1992, for instance. It’s also the case that there are plenty of living witnesses to interview, and with their contributions I can enrich the narrative I’m creating.
But as soon as you go back a hundred, five hundred, or a thousand years, you are on your own. You can’t ask any questions – you can only read the answers that people have left behind. Resources dwindle, and you’re at the mercy of your own preconceptions and assumptions about how people thought and spoke, what they believed, how they looked, and even what they found funny or moving.
I know I make mistakes in my books, and I know they present an incomplete picture, at best, of the past. But the point is that I try. We all try, and when we get it right the results can be magical.
What aspects about the past do you specifically try to highlight in your novels?
It’s the details of ordinary life that fascinate me – how people got through a typical day, and the ways in which it was different from an ordinary day for any of us. I want my readers to feel they can almost smell the world I’ve created, which of course isn’t always a good thing! The idea of writing ‘wallpaper’ history, where people are dressed in vaguely old-fashioned clothes, and there are horses instead of cars, and otherwise not much else is different – that is the sort of historical fiction I find profoundly uninteresting. I really want to discover what life was like a hundred years ago, the good and the bad, and I want my readers to learn along with me.
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?
My books have all been set in the first half of the twentieth century, which makes world-building considerably easier for me than for, say, someone writing about Imperial Rome. I rely on the same sources that any other historian would use, beginning with secondary sources and digging down to the primary source stage. I also augment my research with sources that surprised my peers when I was at Oxford – I used to get no end of strange looks in the Bodleian when fellow students noticed I was combing through old issues of British Vogue or Women’s Weekly. I also turn to newsreel footage – British Pathé has a very extensive online collection – as well as movies, tapes of radio broadcasts, commercial fiction from the period I’m researching, commercial art such as advertisements and posters…I could go on and on!
What aspects do you feel need to be included when you are building a past world for your readers?
It’s crucial that you get the setting right in any work of historical fiction, but the characters themselves need to be true to their time. This is where a lot of writers, myself included, often have difficulties. I do my very best to ensure that my characters belong to their era, and aren’t burdened by apocryphal attitudes or beliefs, but it’s hard. I write commercial fiction, and my readers have a certain expectation that my heroines will be people they find engaging and interesting, if not always likeable. To that end I often err on the side of caution – my heroines are more independent than is typical of their female contemporaries, for instance, or are more liberal in their world view than would be typical of the average person. That is not to say that a woman living in 1916, for instance, couldn’t be brave and resourceful and lacking in prejudice towards others – she absolutely could be all of those things. But it does make her rather more of an outlier, as it were, and I have to be careful not to turn the entire book into a fairy tale in which the past has been prettied and sanitized beyond recognition.
Please tell us a little about your latest novel.
Goodnight From London is the story of Ruby Sutton, an American working for a British weekly newsmagazine in London during the Second World War. Ruby ends up staying in Britain for the duration, and her experiences – of enduring the horrors of the Blitz, of traveling to France after D-Day – are based on those of other journalists of the time. I was inspired to write Goodnight From London by the experiences of my late grandmother, Nikki Moir, who was a newspaperwoman in Vancouver from the 1930s onwards, and who worked throughout the war. I was always so proud of her, and after she died I decided I wanted to use her example as an inspiration. In my dedication to the book I say that Grandma was the woman who led me to Ruby, and I can only hope that she would be happy with the book I wrote.
My work in progress is set in London in 1947 and has three women as its central characters. They are embroiderers, working for Norman Hartnell at his salon on Bruton Street in Mayfair, and are among those who worked to create Princess Elizabeth’s wedding dress. In the course of my research, I saw the wedding gown on display at Buckingham Palace and I met and interviewed the last surviving seamstress who worked on the gown. I also spent a day at Hand and Lock, a famed embroidery studio celebrating its 250th anniversary this year, so I might learn what it was like to do the sort of very fine embroidery and beadwork that embellished Norman Hartnell’s designs. It is set for publication in late 2018 and the working title – one I hope I’ll get to keep – is The Gown.
Many thanks for offering your perspectives on writing historical fiction, Jennifer. I’ve read Moonlight Over Paris and I’m sure readers are in for a treat with your latest novel!
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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, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union on August 16, 2016. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, Nook, Kobo, Google Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.