Tag: Historical Fiction

What I’m Doing

It’s been months since I’ve posted anything here. I know I only have a few readers, but I keep this as much for my own record of things I’m doing, research, writing progress, and life.

Life has been tough this past year. Globally speaking, I have it easy of course. But personally, I saw my 93-year-old father decline steadily toward his eventual death on March 9. Because he was in Florida and I live in Massachusetts, I spent more time on planes this year than I have in the past ten at least. And other family difficulties abound, reminding me that having children is a lifelong joy, and a lifelong source of heartache and shared pain.

One of the saddest things for me lately is watching as our elected officials seem to be turning their backs on the real health and economic needs of women. Their “alternative facts” are creating our “alternate reality.” I’m scared in a way I’ve never been, having grown up in the 70s, after Roe v. Wade and after a lot of protections for the rights of women were put in place.

Through it all, I’ve been struggling to continue writing. I’ve been working on one novel for about a year and a half, and am on my fourth complete rethink and rewrite. The basic premise is still there, but working with my patient and helpful agent and soul-searching about why none of my six novels was a breakout book, I’m taking a hard look at the craft of writing. I’ll never be someone who can churn out what the market wants at any given time. But I can make sure what I produce is as good as I can make it, when it comes to the writing itself, the power of the story, the strength of the characters, and the structure. I think I’ve always instinctively produced books that are structurally solid and coherent, but thinking more deeply about why has opened up some things to me. I’ve taken a writing workshop with Randy Susan Myers (her latest is The Widow of Wall Street), and an online story structure course. Time has been an enemy, but I’ve done my best to keep up, and have kept having revelations that I think will benefit my book in the end.

Now I’m sitting in a quirky little Moroccan cafe in the center of town. I could have gotten right into my Saturday chores (cleaning, garbage, laundry). Now that I’m once again in a corporate 9-5:30 job, Saturdays are my only day for doing those things. But I decided to take myself somewhere new, somewhere out of my usual environment, and at least write this post.

For anyone who’s interested, I’m still working in 1909 New York. My novel involves the early film industry there, and has been a lot of fun to research. It’s also led me to a discovery about my books: I really don’t think I’m writing historical fiction in the way people generally think of it, which may be why I’ve had trouble catching on with a wide audience. I’m not about the big names and famous events. I’m interested in how different time periods affected the people who lived them, day by day, especially women. My “what ifs” seldom involve marquee names, except as tangential.

So here’s my epiphany: I don’t write historical fiction. I write women’s fiction in historical settings. It’s not quite the same as historical romance, which is romance set in a different time period—often well-researched and well-written—but that same romance could probably be transplanted to another time period and work almost as well. My stories depend on their period to occur at all. I know this for a fact, because I tried shifting the time period of this novel ahead to the World War I era, and it simply wasn’t the same story, or the same characters, conflicts, wants, and opportunities.

If you’re reading this, thanks for still following me! I promise upcoming posts about Vitagraph and Biograph, about Florence Turner and Maurice Costello, about Gladys Hulette and J. Stuart Blackton. And for good measure, D.W. Griffith is in there too. Hoping the best for all of you.

Why Does Beverly Swerling Write Historical Fiction?

534123_10200187767909454_121388436_nMy guest today is the wonderful novelist, Beverly Swerling. Her new book, Bristol House, is available in bookstores and online as of today! It’s had great advance reviews, including from the almighty Kirkus, praising her novel: “An intricately woven plot with voices from the past give Swerling’s latest historical thriller an otherworldly aura.”

Here is her take on why she—and the rest of us who dare—take on the challenge of writing historical fiction.

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People sometimes ask me why I write historical fiction  I always feel the urge to say because people want to read it, but I can see where that could be interpreted as snippy.  Instead I say something about the fun – for writer and reader – of bringing to life such sights and settings.

That’s true, but writing about a dinner party that takes place in Downton Abbey with legions of footmen and an all-seeing butler, or in a legendary 19th century New York restaurant like Delmonico’s, perhaps in a velvet-draped private room obviously intended for seduction as well as sustenance, is hard work.  Much harder than simply saying, as you can do in a contemporary novel, that after leaving the gym the heroine went into MacDonald’s and ordered a Big Mac with a side of fries.

DelmonicoLogoIn the contemporary example, you don’t need to explain the setting, or the food, or the clothes your character is likely to be wearing.  Moreover, you don’t have to research it.  Your reader instantly pictures the place, smells the smells, she even gets some notion of how this particular character feels about such things as health or the politics of fast food, and maybe a hint about her economic circumstances.   As the writer you can count on that automatic knowledge, and play on the thoughts and feelings such impressions create.  Best of all, you typed that sentence in under a minute.   You could easily spend a day or longer researching the minutia of dining at Downton or Delmonico’s.

I’m not saying writing any kind of fiction is easy.  It definitely is not.  But those of us who who find our inspiration among crinolines and corsets have definitely fashioned ourselves a higher bar.  Successful writers of novels set in the past pride themselves on historical accuracy, whether it’s about the politics of aparticular monarch’s court, the cut of a famous dictator’s coat, or the kind of fans women were fluttering in 17th century Madrid.  Why do we do it when more often than not the plot we’ve imagined, the characters we’ve dreamed up, and the problem we’ve set them to deal with could just as easily fit in a modern time, or maybe even a future time, or some time other than the one we’ve decided to explore?

Consider for a moment Susanne Dunlap’s EMILIE’S VOICE. A young woman of modest circumstances is gifted with an exquisite voice. A powerful musician discovers her, begins to train her, and both are co-opted into a royal drama where everything – not just Emilie’s voice but her life – are threatened.  Susanne chose to set that novel in 17th century Paris and the court of Versailles.  Delicious.  You shiver just thinking about that angelic voice soaring over the slate rooftops and cobbled alleys of the city in the gray-blue night…the transformation when it’s heard in the rose-flushed marble hallways of a palace, beneath glittering crystal chandeliers sparkling with the light of a thousand candles.  Then another woman, jealous of Emilie and with an agenda of her own, determines to bring her down… Fabulous stuff.  But you can easily see how that tale of talent and treachery could be set in 21st century Washington D.C., or 20th century Hollywood.

My new novel, BRISTOL HOUSE, is the story of a conspiracy that begins in the sixteenth century, and extends its tentacles into the twenty-first in ways that are potentially fatal for a number of people. The novel lingers in Tudor times as well as our own, and examines the nature of belief and despair, how both can be triggered by terror, and the bigotry that has often accompanied religion.

Annie, the heroine of the contemporary story, has options available to her that Rebecca, the woman at the heart of the Tudor story, could not even dream. But they are both desperate for love, yearn after their sons, and confront men who wish to use and discard them.

571px-Elizabeth_I_George_GowerFrom the moment four years ago when I first conceived the story I knew about both those characters and the connection between them.  It never occurred to me to write the novel as if Rebecca did not exist, but Annie did.  For me, both women were alive and present.

So we come full circle:  Why do some of us feel the compulsion to set our stories in times gone by?  Why do others want to read such stories?  I have a theory.  I think we do this to rip apart the shadows, get behind them and see what’s really there.  We can sense them, these people who “lived before us.”  They lurk in our dreams and our imaginations, and sometimes we know that they’ve never truly disappeared and time is not really a straight line.

One view of such a slant on reality is based in scientific speculation.  Einstein theorized that time was like a river, with past, present, and future existing simultaneously, but out of sight of each other.  Another truth, my truth, and the one I think I’m always writing about, comes from poetry.  In Burnt Norton T.S. Eliot says, “Time present and time past are both perhaps contained in time future. And time future contained in time past.”

Exactly.

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Thanks Beverly!

Research. Research. Research.

I thought that getting started again with writing would be hard enough. Not that I forgot about the research part, but I sort of forgot how it can sandbag your creativity!

Example: I was cruising along writing a scene where my heroine (in the pre-revolutionary Paris novel) was going to a cafe with her friend in hopes of meeting someone she had met there before.

Wrong!

As I was looking for the name of an extant cafe to slot in, I discovered that, like the ones in London, the early Parisian cafes were for men only.

Scratch all that, and reimagine.

But I guess that’s a big part of what’s fun about writing: playing God, and changing what happens to your characters. On the other hand, I did sense more than reluctance on the part of my heroine, and maybe she was trying to tell me something. In the time-honored tradition of characters asserting themselves, and bending the author to their own wishes!

The New Year

I’m not sure why, but I always feel a little depressed on the first day of a new year. I wish I could say today was an exception, this January 1, 2011. I’m not sure where this comes from: unlike last year, I’m not in a deadening, abusive day job anymore. I’m involved in an exciting new business venture that engages my imagination, my intellect, my problem-solving skills—in short, really challenges me in a positive way. I have a book coming out in April, In the Shadow of the Lamp, to be published—like my other Young Adult Historical Fiction—by Bloomsbury USA Children’s.

My children and grandchildren are doing remarkably well, including the new granddaughter who appeared on August 10, 2010. I’m deeply immersed in another YA historical that’s exciting and stimulating to write, and am awaiting feedback from my editor on the second manuscript in fulfillment of my two-book deal with Bloomsbury.

Not only that, but next week I travel to my hometown of Buffalo, NY, to pay a short visit to the writing club at my old Junior High School, now called Kenmore Middle School, and give a writing workshop for prospective freshmen girls at my old high school, The Buffalo Seminary.

Really, life couldn’t be better in most ways.

So why is it that, no matter my accomplishments, lifestyle, relationships, I see the year yawning ahead of me and a hollow sadness tugs at my middle? Is it the inevitable result of growing older, of being more aware of the precarious nature of life? Is it lingering regrets about paths not followed, and to which I can never now return? Do I think of those who are no longer here to share this moment with, my mother, my older brother? Friends with whom I have lost touch over the years?

Or perhaps it’s because I cannot help feeling that no matter how much I have done, no matter what I have accomplished, it will never be enough. Alongside the finished manuscripts and research undertaken and digested, the degrees earned, the business furthered, there will always be promises half kept, tasks begun with the best of intentions that have somehow fallen to the wayside. A new year makes me look back, not forward. Memory can be a burden.

I’ve never been one to make New Year’s resolutions. When I have, I’ve pretty much forgotten them by the end of January. It seems to me that just getting from one end of a year to another is an achievement that shouldn’t be taken lightly. So many worthy people do not manage that journey.

It would be an honorable thing to get through this next year without hurting people, without compromising my values, without letting anything slip or putting less of myself into something than it deserves.

Perhaps I am hard on myself. But if I’m not, who else will be? No one is standing behind me with a whip urging me on to greater achievements. If I felt entirely complacent, I might not spend the frustrating hours at my computer trying to tell stories that will be meaningful and memorable to my readers, creating characters out of bits hauled from deep inside my own viscera.

New Year’s day is like Sunday at the beginning of a work week, only 52 times more intense. Everything is before me, waiting for me to work at. Once I’m doing it, I feel better.

Perhaps that should be my New Year’s resolution: be kinder to myself.

I’ll let you know how it goes.