Personal diaries are treasure for writers of historical fiction

This article first appeared in the Historical Novel Review, a quarterly publication of the Historical Novel Society. I’m grateful to Lucinda Byatt, features editor, for accepting the article.

Authenticity is crucial to historical fiction. Weaving the right blend of facts and fiction will transform a reader in time and place while staying true to the historical record. Deep, wide-ranging research in required to achieve this objective. 

My latest novel, Paris In Ruins, begins in September 1870 and continues through the Siege of Paris and the Paris Commune. Knowing nothing of that time in French history, I wandered around in Google-land to orient myself, gradually slotting my finds into categories like fashion, life and society, Paris maps and landmarks, women’s lives, the French government.

I’m a firm believer in looking at bibliographies, which is how I stumbled on the first English account of someone who’d experienced both the siege and Commune. Since my knowledge of French is limited, I was unable to read any of the many accounts written in that language and was particularly grateful for this discovery. In a pinch, I can laboriously translate a page or two and have even paid for French research assistance on a few occasions. However, it’s a serious handicap when writing historical fiction set in a country where the customs and language are foreign to you.

That first personal account was written by Elihu Washburne, America’s ambassador to France. Michael Hill incorporated Washburne’s letters and diary into a book: Elihu Washburne: The Diary and Letters of America’s Minister to France During the Siege and Commune of Paris. I ordered a used copy immediately and when it arrived, lost myself in reading about that horrifying time. Later, I found and read Diary of the Besieged Resident in Paris by Henry Labouchère, My Adventures in the Commune by Ernest Alfred Vizetelly, and The Insurrection in ParisRelated by an Englishman Davy.

Each of these accounts provided observations of the people and politics, the military activities that took place, the impact of war and the uprising that followed, as well as the look and feel of Paris. Collectively they helped me build a world for readers filled with real details: the price of meat; the daily weather; the mood of Parisians; the absence of dogs and cats in the streets; the rumours that swirled around inciting unrest and anger.

Did I worry that these diaries were written by outsiders? Yes and no. On the yes side of the equation, I had to check the facts for accuracy and ignore comments and generalizations that appeared biased. On the no side of the equation, as an author of fiction, I create worlds for my readers. These diarists actually lived in that world. Their observations and concerns were intended to inform readers of the on-the-ground situation, not to mislead them. Collectively the diaries were indispensable to my understanding of Paris and its citizens in those tumultuous times.

Elihu Washburne wrote almost every day beginning in early August 1870, when the French army under Napoleon III’s leadership, was battling with the Prussian army near the border between those two countries. By early September, Napoleon III had abdicated, and a new government was established. The detail and imagery of his entries enhanced many of my scenes.

September 15, 1870 ~~ Every carriage has disappeared … the city is but one big camp. Three hundred thousand soldiers passed in review before Gen. Trochu … regiments are marching down the Champs-Élysées and as I write I distinctly hear them singing the eternal but ever inspiring, Marseillaise.

Two main characters in Paris In Ruins are women of privileged upbringings—Camille and Mariele. Did their parents object to them walking in the streets? In one scene, the sound of the Marseillaise leads Camille and Mariele into the midst of a dangerous mob.

December 23 & 24, 1870 ~~ The situation is becoming daily much more grave here in Paris. The suffering is intense … The clubs have begun again to agitate … they are killing off the horses very fast … 500,000 men now under arms for fourteen weeks have accomplished nothing and will not so long as Trochu is in command.

In Paris In Ruins a modest Christmas dinner becomes the setting for conflict between the younger generation and their parents as Mariele and her brother argue that the rich aren’t doing enough for the poor and that General Trochu is incapable of saving Paris.

April 6, 1871 ~~ … vast numbers of the best citizens are seized as hostages and cast into dungeons … All Frenchmen prohibited from leaving Paris.

A passage like this combined with research into the actions of the Paris Commune prompted a scene where Camille’s brother Victor, a Catholic priest, is taken hostage by a group of Communards who also steal gold and silver artifacts from the church.

When the Communards set Paris on fire in the last days of the Commune, Alfred Vizetelly puts the reader in the very midst of the scene:

“The flames seemed to travel from either end of the great façade—over 1200 feet in length—towards the central cupola-crowned pavilion … At about two in the morning, there came a terrific thunderous shock and uproar, and the whole of the surrounding district trembled. Flames now leapt skyward from the central pavilion of the palace, whose cupola was tossed into the air, whence it fell in blazing fragments, while a myriad of sparks rose, rained, or rushed hither and thither, imparting to the awful spectacle much the aspect of a ‘bouquet’ of fireworks.”

This diary entry helped create a scene with Mariele, Camille, and their mothers watching Paris go up in flames. The vividness of Vizetelly’s writing was instrumental to the mood of fear, anger, and grave distress these women experienced. Were their loved ones in the midst of the flames? Would one of them perish? Would Paris ever be the same?

Did I worry that these accounts were all written by men? Definitely. To compensate, I found a few diaries written by female artists of the time that had been translated into English as well as a translation of some of Louise Michel’s writings. Michel was a well-known leader of the Commune. I read of French etiquette and manners, the education of women, the rights of women, famous salons led by women, and various articles concerning women of the 19th century.

Personal diaries are treasures for writers of historical fiction. They should be verified and augmented with other sources of information such as non-fiction books detailing historical events, visits to museums, an understanding of the military, political, societal, religious, industrial, and technological circumstances of the time. Leveraging them judiciously into plot, dialogue, setting, narrative and other elements of the story will truly transport readers in time and place.

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M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, PARIS IN RUINS, is available on Amazon USAmazon CanadaKobo, and Barnes&Noble. An earlier novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from AmazonNookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on FacebookTwitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.

Across the Great Divide

Today, I welcome Michael L. Ross, author of The Search, book II of his series Across the Great Divide. His post reflects on the challenges of seeking oral sources for history, eliminating historical bias, and bridging a cultural divide.

Historical fiction is an unusual type of writing, because many events, and even characters are already determined. There is a basic timeline for the story that can’t change. Most writers of history do mountains of research to make their work as authentic as possible, true to the culture, times, known facts, and people. 

Research means delving into the internet, written archives, libraries, diaries and newspapers, and possibly visiting the places of the events. But what if there isn’t much written down? What if there isn’t much left to see? Authors concerned with ancient history often encounter this problem, but it can be equally true when writing about more modern but not literate societies. 

In writing my most recent novel, The Search, I follow my main character Will Crump from the ashes of the Civil War to the high country of Wyoming and Montana, in the period 1865-1868. Suffering from what was then known as “soldier’s heart”, Will follows the trail of immigrants west, searching for peace – and runs into the middle of Red Cloud’s War. Along the way, he acquires a companion, Huwei or Dove, a young Shoshone woman, a survivor of the Bear Creek Massacre. 

Though the novel is half the length of The Clouds of War, the first in the Across the Great Divide series, it took nearly twice as long to write. Tracking down information about the Shoshone, Sioux, Arapaho, and Crow tribes is daunting, and means consulting oral sources. The written documents are often slanted to the white or Army point of view. When you are forced to deal with oral history for research, grabbing scraps from various people, it can be quite difficult to construct an accurate world view.

For example, one primary written source is Francis Carrington’s book, My Army Life. While informative, Mrs. Carrington had a vested interest in protecting her husband, Colonel Henry Carrington, and his reputation following the Fetterman fight. Since there were no survivors, her arguments were persuasive, but suspect.

I constantly ran into roadblocks, due to Native Americans’ understandable reluctance to discuss their history and culture with a white person. I read Red Cloud’s Autobiography, The White Indian Boy (first person account of a boy who lived with Chief Washakie of the Eastern Shoshone), biographies of Jim Bridger, material from Idaho State University that told about Shoshone culture, and countless pioneer diaries.  I even got a little help from Drusilla, a Shoshone who consulted on Hollywood movies – but she retired, and quit answering questions. There were still huge gaps in the knowledge of the Shoshone way of life and customs. Finally, I found Darren Parry, modern day Chairman and “Chief” of the Northwestern Shoshone Band, on Twitter

Darren was mounting a run for Congress in Utah’s first district, and was willing to meet with me. His ancestors were the victims of the Bear River Massacre, the largest US Army massacre of Native Americans in history – and which is barely mentioned in most history books. Darren had written a non-fiction book on the Bear River Massacre, and when we met, he gave me a personal tour of the massacre site – the real one, not the one marked by the National Park Service. The tribe is raising money and applying legal pressure to acquire the site. The current owner cannot farm it without encountering human remains. 

Darren said that as a boy, his grandmother made him memorize all the stories of their tribe. He had to repeat them word perfect before he was allowed to play. The stories, language, and customs were passed down through six generations, each learning them perfectly. For me, he patiently answered question after question on history, culture, dealings with other tribes, dealings with the soldiers – especially Patrick Conner and the California volunteers. I checked what he told me with Drusilla, and the few written historical sources like Sergeant Beach’s diary that provided a map of the Bear River massacre.  

Not all research can come from books – sometimes people are the books. Darren and I forged a friendship, one that reaches Across the Great Divide.

Follow Will’s journey into another culture with The Clouds of War and The Search.

This is fascinating, Mike. As board members for the HNS North America 2021 conference, Mike and I have gotten to know one another this past year. Mike’s writing routine includes getting up once or twice a week around 3am to get some work done! Congratulations on your series, Mike, and best wishes for The Search.

The Search by Michael L. Ross ~~ The guns of the Civil War have ceased firing, and the shots are but an echo… yet the war rages on deep inside Will Crump’s soul. His soldier’s heart is searching for peace, and in that quest Will joins the westward movement, setting his path on a collision course with adventure, loss and love. 

The Westward Expansion floods the sacred, untouched lands with immigrants bringing conflict to the Shoshone, Sioux, Cheyenne, and Arapaho. Amidst the chaos Will finds safety in the shadow of the US Army, but the army brings battle-hardened troops into Red Cloud’s War, pulling Will into a tornado of conflict. Broken treaties and promises, leave both sides searching for answers. Will’s search leads him to a battle for survival, and there he finds a love that could change him forever. 

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M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from AmazonNookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on FacebookTwitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.