2015 Another Year of Reading

a year of reading40 books in 2015 – not as many as 2014, but still a decent number.

As with 2014, some were superb, others I did not finish. Most were historical fiction; a few were non-fiction. I read several in my capacity as book reviewer for the Historical Novel Society and the Washington Independent Review of Books, and a few for feature articles in HNS.

I suspect I’m a ‘hard marker’. Here’s the rating system I used last year: LR = light, enjoyable read; GR = good, several caveats; ER = excellent, few caveats; OR = outstanding; DNF = did not finish; NMT = not my type.

The following are from January 2015 to May. I’ve included links to blog posts and reviews where appropriate. I’ll share the balance in a few days.

Jan Penelope Fitzgerald Hermione Lee DNF Biography – far too much detail
Firebird Susanna Kearsley GR Loved The Winter Sea, but I think Kearsley needs to try a new theme
Sisters of Heart and Snow Margaret Dilloway GR HNS feature; the tale of a female samurai; too much present day not enough history
Writing Historical Fiction Marina Oliver GR Much of the advice is very basic
Historical Fiction Writing Myfanwy Cook GR Lots of good advice, research ideas and useful reference sites
Feb The Glory of Life Michael Kumpfmuller GR WIRO book review; last years of Franz Kafka; rich in detail, light on drama
The Heroes Welcome Louisa Young ER HNS Review; A novel about the effects of WWI; highly recommended
Mar The Foundling’s War Michel Deon GR A look at WWII France; present tense and omniscient narrator detract from story
Hell and Good Company Richard Rhodes ER HNS review; non-fiction on Spanish Civil War
All the Light We Cannot See – Pulitzer prize 2015 Anthony Doerr OR A five star IMHO; could not put this WWII novel down
The Wild Girl Kate Forsyth GR A story about the brothers Grimm; pacing slow in parts
Apr The Sandcastle Girls Chris Bojalian GR Book club; blending of past and present did not work for me
The Prime Minister’s Secret Agent Susan Elia MacNeal LR Set during WWII; light mystery
Writing Historical Fiction Katharine McMahon ER A short, straight forward read with some excellent advice
The Historical Novel – post 1 and post 2 Jerome de Groot ER Have read this twice; Traces the roots and impact of historical fiction
Write Away Elizabeth George ER A second read of this book on the craft of writing
The Dinner Herman Koch NMT Book club; not one sympathetic character
The Stranger Harlan Corben LR Audiobook – tense mystery
May Cairo Olen Steinhauer LR Complicated mystery set in Cairo
Pompeii Robert Harris OR Superb story of Pompeii’s destruction
The First Five Pages (a second reading) Noah Lukeman ER Great practical advice for writers
Scent of Triumph Jan Moran NMT Book review; far too melodramatic
The Secret Life of Violet Grant Beatriz Williams ER Great voice; strong blend of present day and past
Personal Lee Child LR Audiobook; good mystery for a long drive

Two outstanding reads, seven excellent ones.

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.

Writing Historical Fiction by Katharine McMahon

Writing Historical Fiction by Katharine McMahonTwo days ago, I promised to provide some thoughts based on my reading of Katharine McMahon’s WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION. It’s a small e-book which requires less than two hours to read and, beyond the introduction, is broken into the following chapters: (1) Following Your Nose, (2) Researching the Past, (3) Telling Your Story in Sympathy With the Past, (4) Building Character, (5) How to Describe the Past and What Voice to Use, and (6) Voice.

A number of points stood out for me.

Katharine McMahon explores further that magic I mentioned in the previous post. She feels strongly that an emotional connection to the past is critical to successfully write historical fiction.

the minute I, as a writer of historical fiction, lose my emotional connection with the material, there’ll be a deadness to the writing, and to how I feel about my writing

 

In great historical fiction, the history and the story combine to generate a whole world of intrigue, analogy and curiosity. But the fiction, and the emotional content of the novel, is the driver.

McMahon believes that historical fiction creates an “unwritten contract between writer and reader“: that fact and fiction are interwoven; that fiction can fill the gaps where history goes silent; that a writer creates the illusion of being immersed in the past; that truth is not first and foremost, but a great story is; and that research underpins the vividness of the story telling.

The reader and I both know that I’m going to interweave the two [fact and fiction] as seamlessly as I would if I were writing a contemporary novel.

 

 ‘accuracy’, while being critically important, comes second to authenticity, and a piece of fiction has to be truthful – authentic – only within itself

In the section on research, she describes a novel where the writer has reassembled “the tiniest threads of [her research], in the most delicate, dreamlike structure, only the bits she wants and no others” to tell her story” and encourages writers of historical fiction to take a similar approach to make their stories sparkle, to drive the story, illuminate the characters and setting, to underpin the themes and conflicts.

For her own research, McMahon begins with a general history of the time period (a book not internet research) then dives into the bibliography searching for primary and secondary sources. You cannot research everything, she declares, and in her own case often adds further research as her writing unfolds.

There always comes a tipping point when the research has to be let go and the writing begun

 

in writing about the past your relationship with it, as a writer, should be as intimate but as fluid as your relationship with anybody that you love

In the sections discussing voice:

The voice, the tone in which the novel is written and the language that is used will all spring from the story, the period, the research and the characters.

And here too, she adds to the unwritten contract between reader and writer, stating that the “reader knows a novel has been written in the 21st century about events in the past” and therefore has certain expectations about voice and dialogue.

McMahon illustrates her points with clear examples and suggests a few exercises writers can undertake. I found the chapter on voice particularly helpful. Summary: a straightforward read with some excellent takeaways.

FOR MORE ON INSIDE 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 Katharine McMahon

Last week I had the pleasure of speaking with Katharine McMahon on the topic of inside historical fiction. Yes, we actually spoke on the phone rather than via email, a welcome change in today’s digitally based world of social interaction. Following our conversation, I read Katharine’s ebook titled Writing Historical Fiction, part of The Guardian series of Masterclass courses.

Katharine McMahon writes historical fiction and has many novels to her credit including the highly acclaimed The Rose of Sebastopol.

On the phone Katharine described the ‘magic’ that goes into successful historical fiction: the finding of a perfect subject for you as a writer, connecting with that subject in the deepest manner possible — a symbiosis — and discovering the facts that a historian would never find, but which are essential to your story. Katharine explains this further using the example of Wolf Hall and Hilary Mantel and the perfect blend of Thomas Cromwell’s history with events taking place in the UK at the time Mantel’s novel released. For McMahon, The Rose of Sebastopol embodied this kind of magic by uniting the author’s interest in John Keats with her passion for Florence Nightingale.

As a writer, Katharine said, “you need to be alert to the things that switch you on”, however, she is quick to point out that “finding your own story is one of the most difficult things to do.”

We talked further about the seven aspects that differentiate historical fiction: characters, dialogue, conflict, setting, theme, plot, and world building. Katharine McMahon suggests that “readers need to feel such confidence in the world you’ve created they don’t question the details and facts you include”. She also says that “as a writer of historical fiction, you can see the conflicts of the past more clearly” and that “historical fact is the heart of great historical fiction”.

When I asked what advice she might have for other writers of historical fiction, Katharine said that most writers “start their stories too soon” and that writers need to tap into the “things that really matter” to the story, what her agent calls the elemental ingredients. On my next post, I will add some insights from Katharine’s book Writing Historical Fiction.

Katharine McMahon’s latest novel is The Woman in the Picture, another novel with that ‘magic’ in it, and a sequel to The Crimson Rooms.

The Woman in the Picture by Katharine McMahonTHE WOMAN IN THE PICTURE: London, 1926. Evie Gifford, one of the first female lawyers in Britain, is not a woman who lets convention get in her way. She has left her family home following a devastating love affair, much to her mother’s disapproval.

London is tense in the days leading up to the General Strike and Evelyn throws herself into two very different cases – one involving a family with links to the unions and the other a rich man who claims not to be the father of his wife’s child. Evie is confronting the hardest challenge of her career when she is faced with an unexpected proposal – just as her former lover returns.

How can she possibly choose between security with a man she admires and passion for the man who betrayed her?

FOR MORE ON INSIDE 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