Destinni paced the floor of her ancestral manor. Did Captain Rick FitzHazard, the only man she had ever loved, swing from the gallows like the pendulum on her father’s clock? Or — she pressed her hand to her lips — had he escaped Cromwell’s hangman?
Sadly, we’ll never know. But we can be clear about the shortcomings of this English Civil War epic. For one thing, nobody in 1640s England was called Destinni.
For another, the clock can’t have a pendulum: that kind of timepiece came in after the Civil War.
How Important Are These Mistakes?
The first kind of error, insensitivity to historical atmosphere, is pretty much the result of the self-publishing revolution. Editors of the old school could put stuff like Vikings, Napoleon, and the Romans into historical order without drawing breath, and they expected their authors to have the same feeling for their period.
Today, however, a writer’s outright ignorance of the past may not trouble readers. Some won’t wince when the footman announces Lady Cherish de Randall, and not even when the French win the Battle of Trafalgar.
So how come you don’t merit the same indulgence when you make the second sort of mistake, when you mess up the actual facts? You may live so intensively in the Middle Ages that you think Britney Spears is standing for US President in 2016, but just that once you pin a duke’s cockade on the wrong side of his helmet and you end up with a withering notice on Amazon. Meanwhile Destinni has 250 five-star reviews and is #1 in Free Historical Romance. Life can be so unfair.
You’ve read the advice out there — how to do research, and (just as important) how not to swamp your historical fiction with it. But no matter how deeply you delve into your subject, sooner or later you’ll assert something that simply wasn’t so.
And even if it were possible to be spot on, every single time, there’s a subtler sense in which you can never be quite accurate. True-to-life historical dialogue will lose you readers quicker than fleas deserting a plague rat. And, since those readers will be less than grateful for your comprehensive treatment of events — the ones that academic historians fight duels over — simplifying the past is the only practical option.
How Do You Handle the Past, Then?
The ideal historical novel remains an illusion. However much it might convince, however intensely it entertains, it’s a rendering of the past, not antiquity itself. And if it’s a real novel, a character-driven story, even the most critical reader should be sufficiently entranced to forgive your occasional mild slip.
Secondly, your take on the past may allow for, even be enhanced by, playing fast and loose with history. Writing a brand of noir set in Mozart’s time, improbable in itself, I permit my characters to say and do things which are anachronistic. (My worst offence is to have a gang in 1774 do a SWAT analysis of a Venetian moneylender’s operation.) I’m satisfied that this approach suits the stories, and all I can hope is that character, narrative, and atmosphere carry the day.
If you’re more extreme than this, and your historical writing is really a kind of fantasy, paranormal or not, you’ll keep on doing it anyway, and your readers will know by now not to hold you to account, assuming they care. If, like most historical novelists, your fidelity to the past is stronger than your wedding vows, you’ll torture yourself when you’re caught out, and that won’t be often.
Do be aware, though, there are categories of historical novel where inaccuracy will be severely penalized by readers. Stories which turn on precise technical points — such as military or maritime accounts — or mysteries over which speculation has long been intense, like the fate of Grand Duchess Anastasia, or the identity of Jack the Ripper, need to be grounded in the known or the knowable.
But over and above that, it’s fair to say that the notion of accuracy needn’t maintain an iron grip on your historical writing.
PS: (For those of you who have to know: Rick FitzHazard overpowered his jailer and escaped on faithful Diablo.)
This post first appeared as a guest blog on http://bookmarketingtools.com/
Thanks to author author Sue Seabury, on whose blog, The TechnoPeasant, this interview first appeared.
So, David, what sort of thing do you write?
I write mystery thrillers featuring Sophie Rathenau. An investigator in Mozart’s Vienna, she’s tousle-headed, modest of bosom, large of hand, acid-tongued, and inclined to be self-righteous. Getting involved in the direst conspiracies of her day, she needs all her wits to come out in one piece.
A miscarriage and the loss of her husband take her from the acute loneliness of book 1, The Prussian Dispatch, to a real place in society by the end of the series.
Which writers have inspired you?
Years ago I was addicted to Robert B. Parker’s Spenser novels, which no doubt influenced my choice of genre. I didn’t guess at the time that a female main character, one from the past, was a means of keeping the Parker influence at gunpoint. But no one reading my books, if at all familiar with Parker’s style of noir, will be unaware of my debt.
An equally powerful influence is opera: The Marriage of Figaro, Così, and particularly Fidelio. The departure point for the stories is really the question of how Leonore continues when Florestan has died. Sophie’s attitude is probably inspired by Leonore’s romantic impulsiveness, as in the heart-rending moment when she swears to use her one chance to free Pizarro’s prisoner, still unsure whether it’s her husband.
Why do you write from a female point of view?
Apart from heroics, which I wouldn’t be good at, Sophie’s tone of voice and attitudes to the world – her aesthetics, even – are simply mine. She popped into my head at the moment it occurred to me to write about Vienna in 1770, and I’ve found her voice comfortable ever since. Pre-Sophie, I found fiction projects hard to complete, and my male characters thin and disengaged. Looking at men from Sophie’s angle has rounded mine out. My only problem is maintaining a respectful distance from Sophie’s gynaecology while seeding some clues to her premature ovarian failure. (But this diagnosis is less than foolproof even today, so she may be in for a shock yet.)
Do you work to an outline or plot, or do you prefer just to see where an idea takes you?
I began by sniffing after a rough idea, like the Habsburg civil service tracking the correspondence of their Prussian arch-enemies. I still believe in flexibility, but nowadays I like to have a detailed sense of where I’m bound, to feel the wider story developing. It’s important that, in time, Sophie will take on an adopted child and a regular lover, and the cues have to be implanted earlier: so the child walks on the third chapter of the first book, but at that point no one knows it.
There’s no fixed formula, however. It’s good to follow your nose: improvise another plot, try a different point of view, let a supporting character have her head. Like Isabella, the archduchess in Serene, to whom I didn’t think Sophie would yield so much of the stage, though when she does it creates the story. In the fourth book there are chapters in which Sophie doesn’t appear, although the series is first-person.
What is the hardest thing about writing?
Sophie just wants to talk: she could fill a book wandering around Vienna, so completing pages can be all too easy. I often have to remind her there’s a story to put over. And when I don’t want to work, her foot-tapping urges me to get on with it. I think the hardest thing about writing is the knowledge of choice, the feeling that it’s always possible to be doing something else. But when it’s going well there’s nothing better.
How much research do you do?
Being at home in the settings – Vienna, Munich, Salzburg, Constantinople – was, I’m sure, an unconscious reason for veering towards them. I love smuggling in my enthusiasm for these cities under Sophie’s blasé attitude.
The minutiae of everyday life in her time are fascinating – a lifetime could be devoted to dress alone. Still, too much detail can slow the pace, so I like throwing in weird things a reader wouldn’t expect: King Augustus the Strong’s sport of fox-hurling, or long-forgotten weapons like a hand cannon.
I’ll visit any local history museum in central Europe. But I did have an odd experience in Salzburg’s exhibition of traditional farmhouses. After an hour of taking photos for my book site on Pinterest in a creaking homestead from Sophie’s childhood, I was overcome by crippling emotion and had to get out. I still don’t know what caused that.
How true do you feel you have to be to the historical setting?
Apart from flourishes of eighteenth-century talk – extracts from letters, stuffy officials, aristocratic pomposity – the tone in the books tends to the modern. I don’t worry if Sophie uses a word that’s up to date, because I see the text as a translation from her era.
But I hope she doesn’t come across a conscious feminist in today’s sense, even though she’s riled by gender injustice, like many female characters in the stories and plays of her time: women who can’t control their fertility, don’t expect to, and are quite aware that things are stacked against them. Nonetheless, Sophie’s operating a mere fifteen years before the existing order was upturned in France, with wild new ideas about roles and social attitudes.
Readers enjoy catching you out on historical detail, such as Sophie’s marital aunt wearing knickers, which women didn’t in the 1770s. Yet a few women of damaged reputation did, which was the character point I wanted to prepare.
Where is the series headed?
With luck, I’ll produce seven novels altogether, with a few vignettes to cover later phases in Sophie’s life. I’ve witnessed her passing in considerable detail, though I’m not sure how I’d ever write that. But there are tiny clues in odd corners of the books…
What are you working on now?
Book 2, Lay Brothers, (Sophie’s tangle with the Jesuits) will appear this Autumn. The third, Serene, is set in Venice, where Sophie guards wayward Habsburg Isabella. It should be available in 2017.