Detailing the Past: 4 Authors on the Pleasures & Perils of Writing Historical Fiction

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As historical novelists, we write about the mystery and mythology of Attila the Hun, of sixteenth-century Russian nobility, of Hindu temple dancers in the desert of Rajasthan, and about a Franco-American winemaking family at the turn of the twentieth century. What compels us to write these stories? What pitfalls have we sidestepped along the way? Joan Schweighardt, C.P. Lesley, Anjali Mitter Duva and I share some tips on how to craft your own riveting, intricately woven historical novel.

This guest post is by Kristen Harnisch. Harnisch is the award-winning author of The Vintner's Daughter, the first novel in a series about the changing world of vineyard life at the turn of the twentieth century. Her next novel, The California Wife, will be released in 2016. Harnisch has been a speaker at the Writer's Digest Conference and currently lives in Connecticut with her husband and three children. Connect with Kristen at kristenharnisch.com, on Twitter @KristenHarnisch, and on Facebook facebook.com/kristenharnischauthor.

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The California Wife

Joan Schweighardt, author of The Last Wife of Attila the Hun and The Accidental Art Thief

"Writing historical fiction is like spelunking. You have your lights, your harnesses, your ropes, etc., in hand when you reach the mouth of your cave—which is to say you have the tools you need for the story you want to explore. And then, the fun part, you enter the cave and begin to search for those exquisite details that will really bring your story to life. The great thing here is that most caves are not simply linear chambers that lead you from an entrance to an exit. There are sub-chambers, and sub-sub chambers and so on. You never know where you’re going to wind up or what you’re going to find. You can get lost! And most fun of all, in many cases the chambers you discover will not only enrich your story but they can actually impact the plot in ways you didn’t imagine.

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"There is a back and forth, a push and pull, that happens when I’m researching for historical fiction. It happens, if I’m lucky, when I’m writing general fiction too. But with historical, where the research is always deeper and ongoing, it seems to happen more frequently. It almost feels as if I am co-writing the book, as if my writing partner is the research process itself. I have come to trust it, this process, to suggest plot points I never would have thought of on my own.

"Spelunking is not for everyone. Certainly it can be time consuming. But for me it provides a more exciting writing experience. As Robert Henri says in his book The Art Spirit, 'The object of all art is intense living, fulfillment and great happiness in creation.’”

To read more of Schweighardt’s post, click here.

[The 5 Biggest Fiction Writing Mistakes (& How to Fix Them)]

C.P. Lesley, author of The Not Exactly Scarlet Pimpernel and The Swan Princess (Legends 3: North)

“I have loved historical fiction almost since I learned to read, although it took a long time to convince me that I could write my own. Three reasons stand out.

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“Familiarity—Muscovite Russia, the main setting of my Legends of the Five Directions series, has been my research interest for years. “Write what you know,” people say, and this richly dramatic and fascinating world has the appeal of a fairy tale, the kind where witches grind bones for bread and handsome princes marry beautiful maidens after long and complex quests.

“Research—Digging through sources can be drudgery, but it also evokes the thrill of the hunt. For novelists, the thrill far exceeds the drudgery. We can search, then take our best guess, so long as we ensure that the results fit the general climate of the times. After all, it’s fiction.

“Escapism—Where better to retreat than into the past, where DNA analysis, fingerprint tests, and cell phones can’t get in the way of a good old-fashioned crime wave and where fathers can force their daughters into convents, marry their children off at a whim, and send their sons into the army or the church? It’s fun for readers, who have a chance to explore dilemmas they will never face, but it’s even more fun for writers to raise the stakes by inventing characters who vanish for months at a time, run off with the local bandit, or—who knows?—become bandits themselves.”

To read more of Lesley’s post, click here.

[10 Meaningful Practices for Every Writer]

Anjali Mitter Duva, author of The Faint Promise of Rain

“It is perhaps ironic that after writing a novel set in the desert of northern India, I now liken the research process to learning to swim. But here it is: moving through the ocean of information with mastery is like being a scuba diver, aware of your depth and your air supply and the location of the shore, accepting the power of the water and the currents, but having the confidence to immerse yourself in observation, to follow an intriguing trail of bubbles to an unexpected coral head. There, in that fine balance of mastery and deference, of the planned and the unexpected, lies the pure joy of researching your setting. But from standing safely on the shore contemplating the allure of the water to reaching this almost magical moment of gliding with control involves many stages, some of them very difficult, all of them necessary.

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“After taking the plunge, you realize the power of the water, the immensity of the ocean, and your own insignificance. You flail, assailed with doubts. Even once you manage to tread water and keep your head clear you realize you are expending a lot of energy and going nowhere. This is the crucial moment. You can give up, holler for someone to haul you out, or you can give it your all. Once you manage an inelegant doggy paddle, propelling yourself with purpose, hope and self-confidence emerge and you can look forward to refining your stroke and, eventually, diving for details with the knowledge that you can and will resurface, perhaps not exactly where or when you expected, but always enriched by the experience.”

To read more of Mitter Duva’s post, click here.

[6 Things to Consider After You Write Your First Draft]

Kristen Harnisch, author of The Vintner’s Daughter & The California Wife

“I write historical fiction to reveal old worlds through a new lens.

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“On a trip to the Loire Valley in 2000, I was struck by the beauty of the vineyards and impressed by how generations of French families had battled blight, mildew, rot, and pests to produce superior wines. This centuries-old blend of passion and persistence, art and science, sparked the idea for my series about the ambitions of two French-born vintners to establish an American winemaking dynasty at the turn of the twentieth century. After my initial impression of the vineyard’s beauty and complexity, I had to know more to write the story I wanted to tell. I soon discovered that a historical novelist’s love of story must be wed with an endless enthusiasm and dedication to research.

“Researching vineyard life in the late 1800s was a pleasure. I visited a Loire Valley vineyard, and toured historic Napa vineyards by bike and on foot. I snapped photos of ripening grape clusters, scribbled down notes about historic gravity-flow wineries, sifted the rough, porous clay loam through my fingers, and, of course, sampled the wines! I also delved into French and California history books, read years of nineteenth-century trade papers, consulted a master winemaker, and reviewed old maps and photographs at The Napa County Historical Society. Although I had a vague outline for the novels when I started, my research fueled the stories for The Vintner’s Daughter and The California Wife."

To read more of Harnisch’s post, click here.

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Brian A. Klems is the editor of this blog, online editor of Writer's Digest and author of the popular gift bookOh Boy, You're Having a Girl: A Dad's Survival Guide to Raising Daughters.

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