historical fiction

The Sunday Salon: Another Time

If you were to glance at my reading list for this year, you might think I was a student of history. So far this year I’ve read 23 books, and 10 of them were “historical novels.”  My trusty reading chair has become a virtual time machine, letting me explore England during the time periods of both World Wars, an artist’s atelier in late 18th century Paris, and midwifery in Appalachia during the 1950’s. Even my contemporary fiction choices have not brought me into the present day, but pushed me back into the late 20th century, with novels set in the 1960’s and 1990’s. 

This all has me thinking - why am I gravitating toward the past? 

Reading is more than my favorite pastime. Sometimes I think it’s almost like therapy...I read to learn about people, and how they conduct their lives and relationships. The characters in the novels I love most are those I can identify with, who are struggling with some of the same issues as I do as we go about our lives in general. Just this morning, I read the following paragraph in Jennifer Robson’s novel, After the War is Over that reminded me of similar sentiments which show up in my journal pages and on my blog:

“When had she ever spent an entire day having fun? She was thirty-three, and in the course of her adult life, she now realized she had never, not ever, allowed herself an entire day of fun without being overcome by guilt or anxiety or the rear that there were worthier things to do. Having fun was for other people - people who earned the right to be carefree.” 

I’ve sometimes felt as if I were born in the wrong era, as if I would have been happier growing up as my parents did in the 1930’s and 1940’s. Now that I’ve spent nearly six decades on earth, I begin to feel even more outside of time as the 21st century speeds past. I love my technology as much as the next person, but sometimes I get frightened at the way it seems to control our lives. I worry about a generation of children who depend on technology for entertainment, education, and interpersonal relationships. 

No matter what era they’re set in, the historical novels I read remind me of times when entertainment was gentler and life was slower, when communication was much more personal, when people were more mindful of the natural world and it’s cycles. 

This winter has been difficult for me. In addition to extreme cold and snow, I’ve been ill off and on all winter, and I’m still feeling fragile, as if I’m on a precipice and just one misstep from plunging over.

So I lose myself in these novels of other times and places to forget those things in modern life that seem threatening, but also to remind myself of the common ground we all share in this life in general, no matter what time period we’re living in.

These are the historical novels I’ve read since January:

Romancing Miss Bronte


The Paying Guests

In This House of Brede

The Visitors

The Secret Life of Violet Grant

The Midwife of Hope River

Secrets of  A Charmed LIfe

Rodin’s Lover

After the War is Over



Write on Wednesday: Relishing the Research

wow_button1-9-1During my schooldays, my most favorite assignment was to write a report. The subject matter was of  no consequence, and the longer the page requirement the better. But the best part about report writing was the research.

In those days, research meant going to the library - the internet wasn't even a glimmer in Al Gore's eye (unless he was a very precocious teenager and I sincerely doubt that.) Yes, although I loved the writing part of the assignment, the going-to-the-library, looking-stuff-up in books and magazines was the penultimate treat.

Nowadays I read a lot of historical fiction, and I've become a fan of biographical fiction - fictional treatments of historical figures. The best of these books bring real people to life in a fascinating way, and as I read them, I marvel at the way the authors take what must be months of research and bring it to life through imagined situations and dialogue.

That is some research, I think, after finishing books like  Hemingway's Girl, The Aviator's Wife, and A Good Hard Look. It's clear that the authors must relish research as much as I once did, but the enormous amount required to complete a novel project of that nature is daunting to say the least.

I started wondering how they went about it. So I did some research.

Ericka Robuck (Hemingway's Girl) was inspired to write her novel by a visit to Hemingway's home in Key West, Florida.  "I spend about 4 months researching my subject without writing a word," Robuck wrote, "and then ideally I start writing without allowing myself to get side-tracked. I visited the house and Key West several times for setting research, and read numerous biographies and all of Hemingway’s work, and spent time at the JFK Museum in Boston at the Hemingway Archive. Ninety percent of his photographs, journals, letters, and manuscripts are there, and provide an excellent resource for getting to know and understand Hemingway."  (Robuck's new bio-fic novel, Call Me Zelda, about Zelda Fitzgerald, releases in May.)

Melanie Benjamin (The Aviator's Wife) confesses that she does her  research in a very "unscientific" way. "I look at a life, I read enough about it to give me a good solid foundation. Then I pick and choose the details that will make a compelling novel - knowing that I will be leaving out, or not fully exploring, many of the stories that make up a remarkable life. I allow myself to ask the what ifs. I look at a life, even one that's as documented as Anne's (Morrow Lindbergh) and I see the hidden corners, the locked closets; I wonder what she didn't tell us. I never take anything on face value; I'm always seeing things that others don't, even in the most mundane, every day objects.  I have learned that too much research can stifle my creativity, so it's always a balance for me; I need to learn the basic facts, get a sense of the time and place, but if I lose myself too much in the research I find I can't imagine the things I need to, in order to write a compelling novel with fascinating characters. My imagination is my greatest strength as a novelist - not my ability to research! For me, I don't spend too much time worrying about physical details; it's the emotional journey that fascinates me."

Ann Napolitano's novel, A Good Hard Look, features writer Flannery O'Connor as a main character among a cast of other strong characters. Napolitano admits she was "fearful that I would portray her (O'Connor) inaccurately. To conquer that fear, I read everything I could get my hands on. I re-read Flannery's stories, her essays and two novels; I read the one existing biography on her, and several critical essays about her work; I flew to Atlanta, rented a car and drove to Milledgeville. I visited Andalusia, her farm (which is now a museum) and walked all over town. I was only there for about thirty hours, but that visit was crucial. Milledgeville had to be real to me, so I could make it real for the reader. Sitting on Flannery's front porch, and smelling the air there - I don't think I could have re-created her world without spending that time in her space."

I don't know whether I have what it takes to complete the kind of research necessary to write an entire book of historical fiction, but it was fun reading about how the professionals do it.

How about you? Do you enjoy research? Do you employ much research in your writing?