Liza Perrat on Writing Historical Fiction
Firstly, thank you to all those entrants who entered the giveaway of my historical fiction novel, Spirit of Lost Angels, and thank you for all the Tweets about the giveaway; they were much appreciated. The five winners have now been contacted and the signed paperbacks, and e-copies, sent out. And last, but not least, a big thank you to Laura and Colorimetry for interviewing me and for hosting this giveaway.
There were so many good questions and comments that I’ve decided to write a short post, in an effort to better answer them.Lisa Vazquezanzua and Alyssa Palmer asked about research for historical novels. Well, I am only on my third historical fiction novel, so I’m far from an expert, but this is what I’ve gleaned so far about researching historical fiction.
It seems that very few historical fiction writers have university degrees in history. Authors of historical fiction are, first and foremost, novelists who must master the craft of fiction in the same way as any other novelist. Learning how to write a good story that hooks readers and keeps them turning the pages is as vital as getting the historical details right.
Yet those period customs and technological details must be nailed. Historical fiction falls flat on its face when the characters jump off the page as modern-day people disguised in period garb. But these days, with all the historical resources available, not to mention the internet, authors can usually unearth those nuggets that will breathe life into their story.
However, public archives, the web, old letters, postcards and diaries aside, there’s nothing more inspiring than spending time in the place in which your story is set, trying to imagine how it might have looked, felt and smelled, in the past. Even if your story takes place centuries ago, sensing the spirit of a place –– the trees and flowers, the seasonal light, the scents –– pulls a reader into a story. People are quickly bored with history lessons though, so the historical fiction author also has the task of knitting this detail into the narration, so it doesn’t come across as a textbook.
To answer Debby Chandler’s question about inspiration for this novel: a walk around the rural village of Messimy, France, where I live, gave me the idea for Spirit of Lost Angels. On the banks of the Garon River sits a stone cross named croix à gros ventre (cross with a big belly). Engraved with a heart shape, it is dated 1717 and commemorates two children who drowned in the river. Who were they? How did they drown, and where are they buried? I felt the urge to write the story of these lost children –– to give them a family, a village, an identity.
Historical monuments and structures also evoke the past and I like to study them as closely as possible, taking photographs from all angles (preferably minus the tourists!). For Wolfsangel, the second in my series, I visited the haunting memorial of Oradour-sur-Glane, site of a tragic WWII massacre.
If you are fortunate enough to live in a historical place, local fairs, festivals and events also provide great sources of inspiration for the historical fiction novelist. A local one I know well is the annual Bush Peach Festival. But what’s so historical about this succulent fruit with flesh the colour of blood you might ask? Well, the bush peach has long been grown alongside grape vines. Susceptible to the same diseases as the vines but quicker to develop the signs, vine growers plant peach trees next to their vineyards to warn them of potential problems. The bush peach has thus been part of the arboricultural patrimony of this region since the seventeenth century so, despite its questionable history as martyr, even the humble peach is firmly anchored in the village history.
Local people can also provide insight into past professions. One of the characters in Spirit of Lost Angels is a rémouleur –– an itinerant knife-grinder, and local resident, Georges, is a vestige of this profession that dates back to 1300. Lugging his odd-looking bicycle along to the marketplace every Saturday morning, Georges sits amidst the convivial banter, punnets of raspberries and strawberries, the boudins and saucissons, cycling in earnest to sharpen our knives and scissors.
Historical fiction has become a hot genre in recent years, with many historical novels featuring on bestseller lists, but many more contemporary novels appear. So, it seems that to interest a publisher, or to gain a readership for self-publishers, a historical novel must encompass those same qualities as a contemporary novel –– well written and highly polished –– coupled with historical accuracy.
Awhartness asked if I had taken any other courses besides the Creative Writing class. The answer is no. I think the best way to learn (and keep learning) is by writing as much as possible. And, of course, reading widely, both in the genre in which you are writing, and other genres. There are also loads of excellent books out now, on the writing process. Here are a few I have found helpful, and which I would recommend:
On Writing, by Stephen King
Techniques of the Selling Writer, by Dwight V. Swain
Becoming a Writer, by Dorothea Brande
Plot and Structure, by James Scott Bell,
Self-Editing For Fiction Writers, by Browne and King
The Elements of Style, by Strunk and White
Eats, Shoots and Leaves, by Lynne Truss
This takes me to BookLady’s question about some of my favourite historical fiction authors. I steer clear of most novels that deal with kings and queens, and other famous historical people. I feel they have been “done to death” and I prefer to read, and to write stories from the point of view of the commoner, the peasant, the lowly man. At the moment, I’d have to say Karen Maitland’s medieval novels are my favourites; stories you can curl up with and lose yourself in. I also love Sarah Waters' books. I think in a great HF novel, the reader is completely transported back to that particular time in history.
So, to conclude, I’d just like to say thanks once again to everyone, for your support. And if you are interested, the second book in this series – Wolfsangel – will be publisher in December this year, under the Triskele Books label (www.triskelebooks.co.uk). I hope you’ll join me again on Colorimetry for another fun giveaway and discussion session!MORE: A colleague at Triskele Books has recently written an interesting post on researching historical fiction: http://triskelebooks.blogspot.com/search/label/historical%20fiction