Today, I’m delighted to welcome Renee Yancy to the blog with a guest post on the historical research she undertook to write her new book, The Test of Gold.
The true story of Consuelo Vanderbilt inspired my new historical romance, The Test of Gold. Consuelo was a “Dollar Princess,” the nickname coined for heiresses in the late 20th century who possessed multi-million dollar dowries and married cash-poor British and French aristocrats.
The Gilded Age occurred after the American Civil War, from 1870 to the early 1900s, a turbulent time of rapid economic growth in America. Captains of industry such as Henry Ford, Andrew Carnegie, Cornelius Vanderbilt, and John D. Rockefelleramassed huge fortunes, but were considered nouveau riche by the patrician bluebloods of New York City. The exclusive list of people who could comfortably fit into the ballroom of the queen of high society, Caroline Astor, was called the famous “400.”
Social climber Alva Vanderbilt craved entrance into the 400, and schemed exactly how to achieve it. First, she built an extravagant “chateau” with one hundred and fifty rooms at 660 Fifth Avenue. Nothing like this had ever been seen before. Then she planned a huge costume ball, the cost of which by today’s standard was $6,000,000!
When young Carrie Astor, Caroline’s daughter, didn’t receive an invitation to the ball, Mrs. Astor was forced to “call” on Alva to receive an invitation, and Alva was in.
During the Gilded Age, European aristocrats flooded New York City to find a wealthy bride whose dowries could shore up their crumbling ancestral estates, trading titles for dowries. Have cash, will marry! Consuelo’s mother, our infamous Alva Vanderbilt, forced her daughter at the tender age of eighteen to marry the Duke of Marlborough to obtain a royal title for the Vanderbilt name.
It was a loveless marriage, and in time, Consuelo escaped it and achieved personal happiness with Jacques Balsan, a French aviator and industrialist.
For my research, I explored some amazing estates of the rich and famous, read books about the etiquette of that time, and studied the fabulous gowns of Charles Worth, who was the premier Paris designer of the Gilded Age. I searched out the jewelry designs of Tiffany, Cartier, and Marcus & Co. Such fun and so beautiful to look at!
Doing the research took me into an era of incredible wealth and shocking poverty the likes of which will never be seen again.
My character, Lindy, has a happier ending!
Thank you so much for sharing your research with me. It’s fascinating to find out how authors research their characters and chosen period.
Now, here’s the blurb for The Test of Gold.
Raised in the shadow of a mother who defied convention, but won’t allow her own daughter the right to make the same choices, heiress Evangeline Lindenmayer has been groomed since childhood to marry into the British aristocracy.
When Lindy challenges her mother’s long-laid plans by falling in love with a poor seminary student, the explosion is bigger than the Brooklyn Bridge fireworks on Independence Day.
Renee Yancy is a history and archaeology nut who writes the kind of historical fiction she loves to read – stories filled with historical detail that immerse you in another place and time. When she isn’t writing historical fiction or traveling to see the places her characters have lived, she can be found in the wilds of Kentucky with her husband and two rescue mutts named Ellie and Charlie.
Today I’m delighted to welcome the author of A Sword Among Ravens to my blog, with a fantastic excerpt from the novel. But first, things first, here’s the blurb;
In a grave, on the edge of a Roman battlefield, an ancient sword has been discovered. Legend claims it belonged to King David of Israel and carries a curse—those who wield it will tragically die—but not the chosen.
AD 455. Arria Felix and her husband, Garic the Frank, have safely delivered a sacred relic to Emperor Marcian in Constantinople. But now, Arria and Garic will accept a new mission. The emperor has asked them to carry the sword of King David of Israel to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem where Arria will dedicate it in her murdered father’s memory.
As Arria and Garic travel into the heart of the Holy Land, they face many challenges and dangers. Their young daughter is missing then found in the company of a strange and suspicious old monk. A brutal killer stalks their path. And a band of cold-blooded thieves is determined to steal the sword for their own gains. But when Arria confronts the question of where the sword should truly rest—old friendships, loyalties, and her duty are put to the test like never before. At every turn, Arria and Garic find themselves caught in a treacherous mission wrapped in mystery, murder, and A Sword Among Ravens.
And here’s an excerpt from the novel,
**Caught in a storm at sea, Arria Felix and her young daughter Licia huddle together in their cabin while Arria hums a tune in an effort to calm Licia’s fears.
THE SHIP VENTUS: A Squall—Day 2, The 21st day of Maius
Arria was not sure of the time or when the gale reached its height. She had lost the measure of it. But after a while, the wind lost its roar and receded to a moan. The ship rose on top of a huge watery billow and then slowly fell. The waves began to calm. Like a bored and impatient warrior in search of new vessels to torment or destroy, the storm sailed away—its anger peaked—the battle won.
An eerie quiet surrounded them. Light ebbed through the cracks in the cabin door. Arria stopped humming and kissed Licia’s cheek. “It’s over, my sweet. The storm is gone.”
Leo sighed and ran his good hand over his face. “Apollo’s balls, I need a drink,” he grumbled. “Excuse me, my lady.” His penitent glance veered toward Licia. “Sorry.”
Licia appeared puzzled.
Arria gave him a stern look but added, “It falls on innocent ears, but say no more.”
Sudden footfalls sounded on the stairs outside the cabin. The door swung open.
Garic stood there, his hair and clothes soaked to the bone, but a tremendous relief shone on his face. “Thank Christus. It’s over. Are you, Licia, and the girl all right?” he directed toward Arria. She nodded, her smile weak. “Brother?” he added. The monk uncurled himself and took a breath. Garic gave Leo a sideways glance. “And you?” The centurion nodded, his face grim.
Arria stood, unwrapping her arms from Licia. “I’m so grateful we’re safe. I need some air.”
“Come, I’ll help you and the girls to the deck. We can all dry out there.”
Garic led Licia and Catalina up the stairs with Arria behind them. Leo and Brother Bruno followed. Once on deck, they raised their faces to the sun and breathed deeply. Catalina found a place to sit. Arria wiped Licia’s brow again and then her own. “Shall we go to the railing and look for some dolphins?” Licia nodded, and they walked to the port side of the ship. A mild breeze floated past them. It seemed hard to believe that just a few minutes past, they huddled in the cabin in fear for their lives.
Their eyes scanned the water when Arria spied a rope hooked farther down the railing toward the stern and thrown over the side. Her eyes followed the line. A man dangled at the end, a hangman’s knot around his neck. His body bumped against the ship’s timbers. Arria covered her mouth. She grabbed Licia’s hand and turned her away. “Sweetheart, come and sit on this box and rest.”
“Can’t we see the dolphins, Mama?”
“Perhaps later. I’ll send Leo to fetch your doll. Play with her for a bit while Mama works with Papa to get things ready for dinner and the night. Can you do this for me?”
Arria called Leo over and whispered what she had seen. He looked surprised. “Tell Garic, and please bring Licia her doll,” she said. The soldier scampered off.
Garic returned and rushed to the railing. Several sailors had also seen the body and were attempting to lift it onto the deck. The guards, Telemachus and Justus, were close by. They had helped in the effort to save the ship as well. Arria brought Licia to Brother Bruno’s deck tent and settled her inside. Once her daughter had her doll and was engaged in play, she moved to the crowd of men surrounding the body and stood beside Garic.
The sailors called him Paolino, a seaman from Hispania. Garic whispered to her that a sailor told him that Paolino had no family and sailed when it suited him or when he needed additional denarii for drinking and whoring. The crew only valued him because, on occasion, he carried drugs, made from juices and powders that brought on euphoria and helped with pain.
Several bruises covered his face, and a bloody patch over his heart implied a stab wound, but what shocked Arria, even more, was the rough cross, carved on his forehead.
A few sailors scratched their heads. Some scowled while others mumbled prayerful words of protection. The ship’s captain looked dark.
Arria understood that the captain knew it would not help their voyage if the men felt fear or let their superstitious minds run wild.
The captain barked, “Get going! Wrap him up!” Finding the monk in the circle of onlookers, he added, “Brother, will you say a short prayer for our shipmate?”
Brother Bruno nodded, stepped forward, and clasped his hands. The seamen followed and bowed their heads. “Lord, may Paolino’s soul find its way to Heaven and rest in eternal peace.” A moment of silence filled the crew, and in the ancient custom, the men repeated the word Vale, farewell, three times.
The captain shouted, “Commit Paolino to the sea!” Two sailors slid him overboard. Afterward, the crew looked toward the captain, who placed his hands on his hips. With a stern gaze and gruff voice, he commanded, “Hear me—I’ll have no vengeance or disputes on my ship. One or maybe more of you murdered him. If anyone knows anything, come to me when you think it’s right. We just fought our way through a storm, and as long as I’m captain, there will be no dissension. Now get back to sailing, and God help you, don’t try anything else.
Cynthia Ripley Miller is a first generation Italian-American writer with a love for history, languages, and books. She has lived in Europe and traveled world-wide, holds two degrees, and taught history and English. Her short fiction has appeared in the anthology SummerTapestry, at Orchard Press Mysteries.com,and The Scriptor. She is a Chanticleer International Chatelaine Award finalist with awards from Circle of Books-Rings of Honor and The Coffee Pot Book Club. She has reviewed for UNRV Roman History, and blogs at Historical Happenings and Oddities: A Distant Focus and on her website, www.cynthiaripleymiller.com
Cynthia is the author of On the Edge of Sunrise, The Quest for the Crown of Thorns, and A Sword Among Ravens,books 1-3 in her Long-Hair Saga series set in Late Ancient Rome, France, and Jerusalem. Cynthia lives outside of Chicago with her family, along with a cute but bossy cat.
Today I’m excited to welcome Lelita Baldock, and her book, Widow’s Lace, to the blog, with a post about her approach to research as an historical fiction writer; a process that fascinates me. Widow’s Lace is set in both Australia and England, in two different time periods, so I imagine there was a huge amount of research to complete.
First and foremost, I want to say thank you to MJ Porter for including me and Widow’s Lace on this fabulous blog. I am especially excited about this post as I rarely get to talk about my research process and the resources I used to inspire the descriptions of the historical settings in my novel.
I find my research roughly divides into two major approaches: feeling the location and learning the details.
To do this I like to visit the locations I aim to write about. Even though my story will detail the past, walking the streets of today, whilst thinking of what came before, allows me into the fabric of a time and place.
But visiting locations is only part of their history. I also need books to learn more about the time period. When you aim to write a story set in the past it is quite extraordinary how many little things you need to check up on. Details like what people wore, ate and drank; which train stations and parks existed; did they have electricity or glass windows and so on. I will confess that Google is an invaluable tool for me in exploring how people of the past lived the everyday. Traditionalists often scoff at the use of the internet, certainly when I majored in History at the University of Adelaide it would have been frowned upon, and I agree that it must be used carefully. But it is such a rich source of articles, academic papers, photos and more, that it would be a shame not to tap into this resource. It’s just important to check who wrote the article and cross-check information to ensure your facts are reliable. Google is a wonderful resource to find these smaller details, all of which help you to bring the past to life.
Widow’s Lace is set across multiple timelines and locations. We explore late 1880s South Australia and England as well as pre-WW1 London. The research required for these locations was, naturally, very different. London is a major historical city, much has been written about its history and development. My other UK based locations: Derbyshire and Gloucestershire are similarly well documented. But the remote townships of Finniss and Goolwa in South Australia are less well known.
I think the best approach to detailing my research is to divide this post by location, so I can try and do justice to the individuality of each setting and the work it took to capture it.
Goolwa and the Finniss River
The historical township of Goolwa is located around 50 miles from Adelaide, the capital city of South Australia. The town was originally established as a river port. One of the major river systems of the country, the Murray River, meets the sea just down from Goolwa. The idea was that cargo could be transported to a port at Goolwa and swapped between the river boats, called paddle steamers, that could travel up river owing to their flat bottomed hulls, and the large trade vessels that sailed up and down the coast.
As part of this commerce the first rail line in South Australia was built between Adelaide and Goolwa and eventually extended to Victor Harbor further along the Fleurieu Peninsular.
Goolwa Map. A map of the main locations in Widow’s Lace. Sketched by Lelita Baldock
Unfortunately, several factors conspired to undermine this vision and thus the town and trade route did not reach its full potential. In the late 1800s, the time of my novel, the river was tidal. This meant that the waterway that lead to the port was notoriously difficult for ships to traverse. But more importantly, and somewhat ironically, the emergence of the rail network across Australia soon replaced the paddle steamer trade, as it was faster and more reliable.
This history is well documented on plaques around the town of Goolwa. There is even a glass viewing box on the main street that houses a replica of the first train to run between Goolwa and Victor Harbor.
As a child my family holidayed in Goolwa, so much of this general history was something I grew up learning about as we walked the streets, enjoying the area. But to write a novel you need more than just an overall gist. That is where my father, Trevor Baldock, comes in. My dad is passionate about history, and makes it a priority to learn all he can about areas he loves. When I was in my early twenties he purchased a book about the history of the Murray River and paddle steamer trade called The Murray River Pilot by Ronald Baker, Margaret Baker, William Reschke. It detailed the history of the river trade out of the port of Goolwa and surrounds and helped to paint a distinct picture of life in the town in the late 1880s. This book became my research go-to as I pieced together the experiences of my main character Edward Barrington and his wife Rosalind after they moved from England to this remote part of South Australia
The Finniss River. A Photo from the banks of the Finniss River Photo Credit: Lelita Baldock
In addition to The Murray River Pilot and the general information on plaques around the town, I visited the Goolwa museum, which houses all manner of artefacts from the region, ranging from machinery used to winch boats from the river, to kettles used in the kitchens of neighbouring farmhouses. All this was invaluable as a visual resource, a glimpse into what people of the time would have seen and used as they went about their lives.
Though Goolwa has expanded in the intervening years, becoming a favoured holiday location for Adelaidians, many of the original sandstone houses and hotels still line the main street, so it’s not difficult to imagine how the town would have looked all those years ago.
Hathrone Farm on the Finniss river is based on a real property. Along the banks of the river there is an old sandstone farmhouse and sheds. I first saw this beautiful property as a child when sailing the river with my family. But in my early twenties it took on more significance for me. As we wound our way through the patches of reeds that line the river, I watched the farmhouse pass by and was engulfed by the sense of isolation and solitude. It got me wondering about who might have lived there and why? This ruminating inspired the story that would become Widow’s Lace, so it was only natural that this property should form the inspiration for Hathrone Farm.
Sandstone Buildings. Sandstone buildings along the Finniss River. Photo Credit: Trevor Baldock
Of course, there is also the very rich and important history of Australia’s First People in the area. It would not have been right to publish a story of Goolwa and not acknowledge the Ngarrindjeri people who called the Lower Lakes home. The name Goolwa is in fact a Ngarrindjeri word, meaning River’s Elbow, owing to the natural curve of the river in which the town nestles. The local library in Goolwa has a wealth of information on the history of the Ngarrindjeri, which I tapped into to make these aspects of my novel as true and respectful as I could. Additionally, there remains a strong Ngarrindjeri presence in Goolwa and many tradition ceremonies, such as the ‘Welcome to Country’ ceremony are still held, offering an invaluable experience of these living traditions.
London, Derbyshire and Gloucestershire
My research for the English locations of Widow’s Lace was similar in many ways. I always visit the locations I intend to use for my novels and have been fortunate enough to be able to move to the United Kingdom and travel widely here, which has exposed me to many beautiful locations that are perfect for historical novels.
In 2010 my husband and I explored the Cotswolds and Bath, and I found the setting for the early 1900s parts of my story. The tranquil beauty I experienced as we explored the windy, cobbled streets was the perfect juxtaposition to the tension and bustle of wartime London.
Cotswolds. Photo of Kingsbridge. Photo credit: Lelita Baldock
Journeying the Cheshire Ring on a narrow boat in 2016 allowed me to dive into the history of the industrial north which formed the backstory for Edward Barrington. Again, the research came naturally, visiting factories and reading about the experiences of workers.
It was also on this trip that I visited Lyme Hall. I loved the feel of this old manor. It felt at once big and formal, but also intimate and homely, mirroring the twin experiences of Edward Barrington. It was the perfect location on which to model the manor house of Hathrone.
Lyme Hall. Lyme Hall, England, Pemberly in the BBC series of Pride and Prejudice. Photo Credit: Lelita Baldock
As these locations are widely visited tourist sites, it was easy to find information about everyday life in the past by reading the provided tourist information. Google was my main go to as a quick reference for important dates.
My research for Widow’s Lace was both active and subconscious. Growing up exploring the Goolwa region and travelling parts of the UK, I learnt much of the history I used passively. This formed a strong backdrop for my story, actively inspiring the storyline, and giving me a platform from which to launch into the more detailed research required to truly bring history to life.
Overall I think I prepare to write a novel through reading widely and by spending time in a location. Walking the streets and talking to the locals adds an authenticity and enables me to get a feel for the place. When combined with research on little details I believe this gives rise to the most effective and realistic portrayals of a different time and place and thus a richer reading experience. At least, that is my hope!
Thank you so much for sharing your research processes. It’s fascinating to discover what inspires people to write their stories. And I agree, the internet is an amazing resource for finding out those weird, and strange little obscure facts that you just can’t write a book without.
Here’s the blurb for Widow’s Lace.
A hundred year old mystery, the widow left behind, a fallen soldier, the abandoned fiancée, an unnamed body and the young student determined to find the truth.
In 1886 famous English poet Edward Barrington moves from Derbyshire, England to a farm on the Finniss River, in South Australia. Two years later he disappears.
25 years later Archie Hargraves abandons his fiancée Clara and travels from England to meet with Edward’s widow, Rosalind. He plans to write a biography and make a name for himself, independent from his wealthy father. Returning to England in 1914 he abandons his work to join the war in Europe. His journal of notes from Australia is never released.
Ellie Cannon, a young PhD candidate at Sydney University, is writing a thesis on one of Barrington’s last known poems, The Fall. It’s not going well. Struggling with her relationship with her mother and loss of her father, Ellie is on the brink of failure.
Then a body is found by the Finniss River, 130 years after Edward’s disappearance. Could it be the famous poet?
The discovery draws Ellie into the worlds of Edward, Archie and Clara, taking her across Australia and England in her search for the truth.
Covering life in remote South Australia, the social pressures of 1900s Britain and the historical role of women, Widow’s Lace is an historical fiction, mystery cross-over dealing with themes of obsession, fear, love, inner-secrets and regret. But also the hope that can come from despair.
Widow’s Lace is also available on Kindle Unlimited.
Meet the Author
Lelita has a passion for stories, especially those with a dark undercurrent, or a twist to be revealed.
She hopes to tell interesting stories that people will find themselves drawn into. Stories that are for entertainment and escape, and hopefully a little thrill of the unexpected. She truly enjoys the experience of writing, exploring human traits and reactions as well as the darkness that can lurk unexpectedly inside anyone.
Born and raised in Adelaide, Australia, Lelita holds a Bachelor of Arts majoring in English and History from the University of Adelaide and a Bachelor of Education from The University of South Australia. During her twenties she worked as an English teacher in both Australia and the United Kingdom, working with the International Baccalaureate curriculum.
Now Lelita and her husband run a web development business, and she makes time for writing after hours and on weekends. It can mean long days and late nights, but she doesn’t mind, stories are her passion.
Lelita’s long term goal as a writer is to be able to publish her stories regularly and hopefully appeal to a wide range of readers.
Lelita currently resides in the United Kingdom with her husband Ryan and beloved rescue-cat, Jasmine.
Today, I’m delighted to welcome the Historical Fictioneers and their new book, Betrayal, to the blog. Here’s the blurb;
“Betrayal, treachery, treason, deceit, perfidy—all names for the calculated violation of trust. And it’s been rife since humans trod the earth.
A promise broken
A mission betrayed
A lover’s desertion
A parent’s deception
An unwitting act of treason
Betrayal by comrades
Betrayal by friends
Could you resist the forces of misplaced loyalty, power hunger, emotional blackmail, or plain greed? Is there ever redemption, or will the destruction visit future generations and even alter history? These questions are still with us today.
Read twelve tales by twelve accomplished writers who explore these historical yet timeless challenges from post Roman Britain to the present day.”
This sounds like a fascinating project, and the authors have been busy answering my questions (yes, all of the authors:)) Enjoy.
How did the collection come about? (whose idea was it)?
The popularity of short fiction has been on the rise, and many of my author acquaintances have been writing shorter works: some as reader magnets they offer for a newsletter sign-up; others for their websites or on retail sites.
I was working on a series of short stories myself when an article landed in my inbox. A group of suspense/mystery writers had collaborated – with great success – on a free anthology. In that case, eight authors contributed to their book. Their individual ‘fans’ were thrilled to get a free story, and at the same time, they introduced their readers to authors they might not know. This sounded like a great way to tempt lovers of historical fiction to sample a new author, a new era. You’ve heard the old adage: ‘don’t re-invent the wheel.’
In November 2019, I broached the idea of an anthology with Cryssa, Annie, and Anna, who I’d met virtually through our work as co-editors of the English Historical Fictions Authors blog. Anna & I also met face-to-face at the HNS Denver conference in 2015, and I met Cryssa at HNS in Oxford, UK, in 2016. This was supposed to be the year I met Annie, but… COVID19.
Fortunately, these ladies were on board for the idea. We created guidelines for the stories and talked themes, word count, cover design, costs, and marketing before reaching out to eight more writers. And lo and behold…we give you Betrayal!
Will Jane Reader devour every story in the anthology? Will Joe Reader discover a new author, a new era, that intrigues. We all hope so!
Why did you choose the theme of “Betrayal” for your books?
When we were considering what could connect all the stories, we couldn’t rely on a unifying event like the Norman Conquest since we all write different eras. This meant that theme needed to be the unifier. Betrayal is a primal emotion. It stirs up our deepest fears. One can’t be betrayed by an enemy. Only those closest to us, the people who know our vulnerabilities and our weaknesses can wield this power against us. Each story explores betrayal in its many facets—shifting alliances, deception, intrigue, vengeance, and treason. Ultimately, they all examine the calculated violation of trust.
What was the once piece of advice you were given about writing historical fiction that has proved invaluable?
Elizabeth St. John
I wish I had been given the advice personally, for it came in an interview I read with Hilary Mantel, a historical fiction author I greatly admire. “My chief concern is with the interior drama of my characters’ lives,” she said, shortly after winning the Man Booker prize for Wolf Hall. “From history, I know what they do, but I can’t with any certainty know what they think or feel.”
That one sentence gave me the confidence to move from extensive research to writing the fiction that became my trilogy, The Lydiard Chronicles. I could use my learnings to form the foundation of my characters, knowing I was free to weave their deeds, loves, friendships and enemies into their thoughts and feelings.
I’d written three books before I was persuaded to employ the services of a professional historical fiction editor. Before then, I’d used a general editor who had an interest in history but focused on spotting typos and making sure the commas were in the right places.
The editor who supports me now is able to take a much deeper view of my writing, as she checks for consistency across a series. Most importantly, she also provides developmental comments to support my revision process, and it able to fact-check details to help with historical accuracy.
This service can be expensive, but in the UK the costs can be reclaimed against tax. Although I find editing one of the least satisfying aspects of the writing process, I always look forward to seeing what comments my editor has made.
Do your research as best as you can, but recognise when it is time to stop researching and start writing.
I come from the formal end of history with a masters’ degree so I’m strict about getting the facts right by using three different sources. That’s the problem, of course. Sometimes there are none. Our job, according to writing friend Conn Iggulden, is to fill those gaps intelligently. So, we are back to thorough research, but fired by our imaginations.
I don’t pay a lot of attention to how-tos, but I did read Stephen King’s “On Writing”. He said something I really took to heart. To paraphrase it, he said your first job is to entertain someone who had a hard day at work and just wants to relax. That statement gave me pause. I’m so worried about getting the story “right” that I sometimes forget that it has to be entertaining. The reader probably doesn’t care about the historical accuracy if it gets in the way of a good story.
The best piece of advice is to remember that historical fiction is not ‘about’ history. Like all fiction, it is about a story. Do your research, but don’t let it swamp the story. Your readers may admire your attention to period detail in descriptions of clothing or buildings, but they won’t be reading your work at all if your story does not hold their interest.
Historical fiction defines when and where your story is set, but that is no substitute for skillful storytelling. Sometimes you have to rein in your interest in history to ensure that every chapter end persuades the reader to follow your tale to the end.
Many years ago, I sent my first WIP to an editor. The lady in question had been one of the teachers at a writing course I took and I really admired her writing, so it took some courage to send her my manuscript. Overall, she was very positive—except for one thing. “Scrap all attempts at writing period dialogue,” she wrote. “You have no idea how they spoke back then, I have no idea, the reader has no idea. The only thing we know for sure is that we probably wouldn’t understand them—or they us. Instead, write vivid and gripping dialogue so as to really hook the reader.” Yes ma’am, I thought, feeling my shoulders sag with relief and have since then concentrated on using dialogue to drive scenes rather than set them.
When I first began writing one of my university professors instilled in us the importance of thorough research. ‘Don’t be sloppy,’ he said, and went on to show us the importance of thoroughly researching from every perspective. Once you’ve read all you can, select the point of view from which you wish to write, and stick to it. I’ve written about many people from the Tudor period and they often appear in more than one book but they are never the same. People change depending on who is viewing them. Margaret Beaufort when written from Elizabeth of York’s perspective in A Song of Sixpence is initially a rather interfering, annoying mother-in-law but in The Beaufort Chronicle, which is written from Margaret’s own point of view, she is quite different. Viewpoint is important. It is also crucial that the opinion of the author does not interfere with that of the protagonist. In the author’s note I sometimes add the codicil, ‘The views expressed in this novel are not the author’s own.’
I’m not sure that I ever have been given advice specifically about writing historical fiction. But one thing I always try to bear in mind is the Dorothy Dunnett Quotation which is used as a banner for the Historical Writers’ Association/Dorothy Dunnett Short Story Award, of which I was the inaugural winner, and for which I am now a judge: “History is all very well, but it’s just the showcase. It is the arena in which your characters will perform, and which supplies the conflicts, stresses, dilemmas and the struggles they’ll get through.”
Live the scene. Walk through the events, not as a historian with the benefit of hindsight, but through the eyes of your character who can’t know that a battle is being lost (and why), or the true cause of a fire that destroys their city. Instead, tap into how your character would be feeling during these key moments, be it fear, rage, tenderness or love. Explore their world through what matters to them. If we look back on the historically momentous occasions of our age, we’ll find that we process these events through the lens of our own limited perspective, and in the end, it’s the people around us who make the most lasting impact on our lives.
A critique partner at my weekly writers group asked why I wasn’t using the real (okay, legendary) Robin Hood when I introduced a very Robin-like character in a story I took for the group for feedback. I had a flimsy excuse: ‘oh, he’s been done before by some very talented writers.’ They convinced me to introduce my own Robin-who-is-not-yet-Hood. I was bringing my own perspective, coming into the legend from a different angle. That story, Robin, and other characters from the legend, ended up being an important part of my novel Men of the Cross and ultimately drove plot arcs for Books II & III of my Battle Scars trilogy. My current work in progress, Rogue, takes the legend a step further.
Early on I was advised to let the research be my guide. While I write outlines, I also know that in the course of doing research, I will go wildly off course and the book will be better for it. So many wonderful characters and plot twists come straight out of history. The old adage “truth is stranger than fiction” crosses my mind a lot when I’m doing research. Often I’ll use a sort of collage of real events to come up with a plot point, or I’ll honor a long-forgotten person whose name crops up once in an obscure document by using his or her name in my story. I love those small moments of juxtaposing the real with the imagined.
Why do you think historical fiction continues to fascinate?
Elizabeth St. John
Our fascination with the past often comes as a result of wanting to understand and connect with our present. There is, I believe, a certain reassurance to read of surviving great peril, overcoming terrible odds, enduring overwhelming sadness or loss. When we look for meaning in our own lives, looking back at the past can be consoling, offer hope and inspiration for a way forward. Many of my readers tell me they particularly enjoy the perspective of less well-known people, who may have moved in influential or royal circles, and were observers of great historical events, yet lived and loved much as we do today.
And, I think we all enjoy the travelling through historical fiction into another world, a past that is just out of reach but still evident in ruined castles, captivating portraits and fascinating insights from documents left behind.
The history books offer us the bare facts, and even those are often disputed, but rarely put the flesh on the bones. History is about the lives of real people, who lived and died, and historical fiction can help to ‘fill in the gaps’ in a narrative which for many can be inaccessible.
It’s also intriguing to explore the differences in cultural attitudes to such things as love and marriage, childbirth and death, crime and punishment. I’ve also enjoyed learning about the less well-known people around the central figures, such as kings and queens.
The best historical fiction transports the reader, evoking the sights, sounds and even the smells of a different time and place. For me, the fascination is to begin to understand the motivation of figures from history, and to discover why they acted as they did.
Because, until Back To The Future becomes true, or Dr Who turns up in the TARDIS, it is the only way that we can travel back through time – and not worry about getting home again for dinner.
Wanting to know where we come from is a timeless urge but wanting to have a glimpse in a vivid way about how people in the past lived is a strong part of that. Well-written historical fiction gives us the feel of how people tried to make sense of their lives in vastly different circumstances. They were still people, after all.
Sometimes we take a rather idealised view of the past, but as with anything in fiction, it’s an imagined landscape. And sometimes, we wonder how we would act and behave in those times. Historical fiction gives us, from the safety of our armchairs, an emotional connection to the slaughterfields of Cannae, the elegance of the Belle Époque, the dangerous headiness of Byzantium, being under siege in a medieval castle or caught up in the exciting revolutionary transition of the 19th century.
Speaking for myself, once I discovered that history is about real people and real situations (not just names and dates), about love and hate and deceit and disappointment, I was hooked. I’d much rather learn about an event that really happened than a legend from someone’s head. I’m still not sure most readers feel the same way I do, but since history repeats itself, why not be prepared.
The sheer diversity of historical fiction is what keeps readers coming back to this genre for more. It retains its appeal because of its immense variety and breadth of scope. Readers can enjoy romance, action, thrillers, or crime in stories set in any period of the past – it’s like being in a time machine without all the distracting technology. The contrasts between time periods are stark but whether you want to read about World War Two or Roman Britain, historical fiction offers it all.
The Betrayal anthology illustrates this very well with twelve authors writing stories set over a vast expanse of time and employing different writing styles to tackle the same underlying theme.
I think it offers an element of escape. We also tend to believe that life was simpler then, things less complicated and complex. To some extent, that is probably true as the majority of those alive in the past had little time to spend considering anything but how to find food and somewhere to sleep. But no matter the era, the people who live in the times would laugh out loud at the notion that their lives were simple. Take the political machinations in republican Rome, or the complexities of the English Civil War—whatever else you’d call them, they sure weren’t simple! Still: escaping to the past offers a breather from our time. And well-written historical fiction will not only expand the reader’s knowledge about a period, it will usually shed further light on the human condition as such.
There are many different reasons. As an author, I read a lot of non-fiction as part of my research, and while it informs, it can be quite dry. Historical Fiction not only tells us what happened, it helps us feel it. A non-fiction account of an execution will tell you what happened and why it happened but a fictionalised version, while based on the same contemporary account, makes the reader suffer alongside the victim. Fiction promotes not only understanding but empathy so the reader shares the protagonist’s pain.
I think that reading fiction, generally, is a form of escape. The reader wants to be transported far away from the everyday. And where better to escape to a more simple world, a more romantic world even, than the past? Okay, the past wasn’t always pretty, but isn’t there something more appealing about a horse ride than a trip in a modern car? Perhaps the reality wasn’t so lovely but we can imagine the beautiful houses, built when architecture wasn’t just about functionality. I think there is also an appeal because of the link to the fairy tales we were told as children, which are centuries old, and usually had old-fashioned illustrations, so there is a sense of comforting familiarity, too.
I’ve heard it said that we read to either escape or to learn. Historical fiction allows us to do both. This genre takes us to places where we could otherwise never go. Given the chance, who wouldn’t want to go back in time and experience historical events first hand—to be with Elizabeth I as she stares down the Armada or to ride along with Charles II during his nerve-wracking escape from Parliament? But historical fiction also offers opportunities to learn, not just about the past but also to make sense of the present. History tends to be cyclical and it’s not hard to recognize echoes of the past in today’s struggles. There’s always a comfort in having a roadmap.
Historical fiction gives a reader a glimpse of a past they rarely see in history textbooks, textbooks that mainly consist of names, events, and dates. Those texts may – or may not – be accurate or complete, and they rarely factor in the human component. So historical fiction fills in the gaps. It makes history come alive and can transport the reader back in time. Perhaps it reveals more about the famous, or the infamous, but even being introduced to an ordinary person in extraordinary situations brings a better understanding of the past.
Great fiction can bring history to thrilling life. Historical fiction allows us to escape into utterly different worlds that still resonate with the familiar. There is nothing like connecting with a character from the past who is motivated by the same goals and feelings that we have today. We can empathize; we know what it’s like to struggle through life’s challenges and exult in life’s triumphs. But we have the extra bonus of hindsight when we read these stories of the past. Anyone who has nodded off with boredom reading dry history books and then becomes obsessed with the same events and time periods by reading masterful historical fiction knows the power of this genre.
A lifelong history enthusiast, Judith Arnopp holds an honours degree in English/Creative writing, and a Masters in Medieval Studies. Judith has written twelve novels to date, nine of which are based in the Tudor period covering women like Elizabeth of York, Anne Boleyn and Mary Tudor, but her main focus is on the perspective of historical women from all roles of life. The Beaufort Chronicle: The Life of Lady Margaret Beaufort (three book series) covers the transitional period between Bosworth and the death of Henry Tudor. She is currently taking a break from Tudor women and writing from the perspective of Henry VIII in “A Matter of Conscience.”
Cryssa Bazos is an award-winning historical fiction author and a seventeenth century enthusiast. Her debut novel, Traitor’s Knot is the Medalist winner of the 2017 New Apple Award for Historical Fiction and a finalist for the 2018 EPIC eBook Awards for Historical Romance. Her second novel, Severed Knot, is a B.R.A.G Medallion Honoree and a finalist for the 2019 Chaucer Award.
Anna Belfrage wanted to become a time-traveller but ended up as a financial professional with a passion for writing and history. She has authored the acclaimed time travel series The Graham Saga, set in the 17th century, and the equally acclaimed medieval series The King’s Greatest Enemy, set in 14th century England. Anna has also published The Wanderer, a contemporary romantic suspense trilogy with paranormal ingredients. Her latest release, His Castilian Hawk, is a story of loyalty and love set against the complications of Edward I’s invasion of Wales.
Derek Birks lives in Dorset, England, though he spent his teenage years in Auckland, New Zealand, where he still has strong family ties. For many years he taught history in a large secondary school before turning his hand to writing historical fiction. His stories, set both in the medieval period and late antiquity, are fast-paced and action-packed—almost no character is safe. He has also produced a series of non-fiction podcasts on the War of the Roses. When he is not writing, he enjoys travel, walking and watching films.
First published in 1994, Helen Hollick became a USA Today Bestseller with her historical novel, The Forever Queen(titled A Hollow Crown in the UK), with the sequel, Harold the King (U.S: I Am the Chosen King), being novels that explore events that led to the Battle of Hastings in 1066. Her Pendragon’s Banner Trilogy is a fifth-century version of the Arthurian legend, and she writes a nautical adventure series, The Sea Witch Voyages. Her non-fiction books are Pirates: Truth and Tales, and Life of a Smuggler. She lives in an eighteenth-century farmhouse in North Devon, runs Discovering Diamonds, a review blog for historical fiction, and occasionally gets time to write . . .
Amy Maroney lives in Oregon, U.S.A, with her family. She spent many years as a writer and editor of nonfiction before turning her hand to historical fiction. When she’s not diving down research rabbit holes, she enjoys hiking, drawing, dancing, traveling, and reading. Amy is the author of the Miramonde Series, a trilogy about a Renaissance-era female artist and the modern-day scholar on her trail.
Alison Morton writes the award-winning Roma Nova series featuring modern Praetorian heroines—tough but compassionate women. She puts this down to her deep love of Roman history, six years’ military service, a Masters in History and an over-vivid imagination. It was hot that afternoon when, staring at a particularly beautiful mosaic, she started wondering what a modern Roman society would be like if run by strong women. Now, Alison blogs, reads, cultivates a Roman herb garden and drinks wine in France with her husband.
Charlene Newcomb lives, works, and writes in Kansas. She is an academic librarian (retired) by trade, a U.S Navy veteran, and has three grown children. When not at the library, she is still surrounded by books trying to fill her head with all things medieval and galaxies far, far away. She loves to travel and enjoys quiet places in the mountains or on rocky coasts. But even in Kansas she can let her imagination soar.
Tony Riches is a full-time author based in Pembrokeshire, Wales, UK, and is best known for his Tudor trilogy. After a career in the Royal Air Force he held senior roles in the National Health Service and Local Government. When researching his books Tony likes visiting the actual locations and discovering elusive primary sources. In his spare time he enjoys sailing and sea kayaking.
Mercedes Rochelle is an ardent lover of medieval history, and has channeled this interest into fiction writing. Born in St. Louis, Missouri, she received her B.A in Literature at the University of Missouri before moving to New York to “see the world”. The search hasn’t ended. Today she lives in Sergeantsville, N.J with her husband in a log home they had built themselves.
Elizabeth St. John
Elizabeth St. John spends her time between California, England, and the past. An acclaimed author, historian and genealogist, she has tracked down family papers and residences from Lydiard Park and Nottingham Castle to Richmond Palace and the Tower of London to inspire her novels. Although the family sold a few country homes along the way (it’s hard to keep a good castle going thee days), Elizabeth’s family still occupy them—in the form of portraits, memoirs, and gardens that carry their legacy. And the occasional ghost. But that’s a different story . . .
Annie Whitehead has written three award-winning novels set in Anglo-Saxon England:To Be A Queen, about the life of Æthelflaed, Lady of the Mercians; Alvar the Kingmaker set in the turbulent tenth century when kings died young and not always of natural causes, and Cometh the Hour, the story of King Penda the pagan king. Her nonfiction books are published by Amberley Books and Pen & Sword Books and she was the inaugural winner of the Historical Writers’ Association/Dorothy Dunnett Society Short Story Award.