Monday, April 7, 2014

More on Writing Historical Fiction

I've been invited by Christine Sneed (, author and friend, to participate in a blog-relay of sorts, by which writers answer a slate of questions about their writing and then pass them on to other blogging writers. So here goes. The questions come with the relay, and I shall answer them to the best of my ability.

What are you working on? My diplomatic manner (still in the formative stages), my empathy and listening skills, my resistance to worry, my students' Othello exams, and, oh, yeah, some stories! At the moment I'm engaged in perhaps the third rewrite of a book I call Gunpowder Percy. It tells the tale of the twelve men and several women who conspired to blow up the Houses of Parliament in the 1605 Gunpowder Plot. Like most of my novels, it involves real historical characters and events with a bunch of made-up stuff thrown in -- ok, I mean artfully added -- to shape a story. This one centers on Thomas Percy, one of the leaders of the plot, who's driven slightly cuckoo by his obsessive attendance of Shakespeare's history plays. Any more would be a spoiler.

How does your work differ from others of its genre? It's much better. Ha! Actually:
I'd say that while there are other authors of historical fiction who work hard to get correct the material historical details of their chosen time periods -- the modes of dress and transportation, the prices and wages (that's a really hard one), the domestic articles or "household stuff" -- I do more than most to make believable the verbal exchanges and the modes of thought characteristic of historical characters (in my case, usually English Renaissance characters). Constant immersion in Elizabethan and Jacobean city comedy, which I teach, really helps me construct likely-sounding conversations, and in general, reading all kinds of literature from the period helps me understand better how men and women of Shakespeare's time thought. It takes a lot of reading, but if it's your job, as it is mine, you're doing it anyway, and presumably you like reading the work produced by the people you're fictionally representing. I happen to love it. At the same time, as I say in an earlier blog on this site called "How Not To Write Historical Fiction," you need to temper your characters' language so it's not alienatingly foreign. I consider Hilary Mantel, author of the Thomas Cromwell series (beginning with Wolf Hall), an utter master of this. It takes a lot of reading not just about but in your period (that is, work written by authors of that period) to be a good modern writer of historical fiction. She does the reading, and it shows in her work.

I would also say that what I do in my fiction about Shakespeare (though only some of it is about Shakespeare) is uncannily like what a lot of Shakespeare "biographers" do when they speculate wildly about his life, religion, etc. Only I actually call my work fiction.

Why do you write what you do? It's fun, and my readers find it fun, as well. What's fun about writing fiction? Well, my love for the ideas and the language of English Renaissance authors preceded my desire to write historical fiction, but what eventually happened was, as I learned about things like the 1599-1601 "Theater Wars" and about the relationships among, especially, authors of the Elizabethan and Jacobean age, I kept imagining dialogues among these writers who moved in the same social and professional worlds, and among other historical figures of the period. So writing fiction began with my wishing I could go back in time and eavesdrop on conversations between Shakespeare and Ben Jonson, or among the Gunpowder Plot conspirators. Or wishing I could sit in on a first performance or rehearsal of Hamlet or King Lear, which is a fantasy also expressed by my students at times. Since we can't do that, why not make conversations and accounts up, based on what we read or know? It is, again, fun.

How does your writing process work? Maybe I should say somewhere that I write non-fiction scholarship focusing on Renaissance literature, as well as occasional fiction. Okay, I said that. As for my writing process, when I'm writing in any genre (except blogging, wherein I just write whatever), I start with an outline. It's a pretty sparse outline. For a novel, I might have about 3 pages of text. I map out each chapter, very briefly (usually one sentence per chapter). I need to have a clear plot and have decided exactly what's going to happen when and how it's going to end. And then I follow the outline. I never change the order of events very much. In my latest novel, Paint, I found it advisable to add a chapter containing a new event, the better to make sense of its ending. But usually, I have it all on paper, briefly, at the beginning. I'll also have scattered notes all over the place which usually contain jottings of particular words I want to use in the book. These are always words and phrases I heard in some play by someone like John Marston (one of Shakespeare's contemporaries) or read in a Renaissance work and just loved the sound of, and knew how it could fit a particular passage of dialogue. Like, let's see, "on the game," meaning (in context) "making a few extra bucks as a prostitute." I seized on that one when I read it and incorporated it into a conversation between Emilia (the hero of Paint) and her sister in a passage where it was relevant. "She's on the game," Emilia says. I love setting fiction during the early modern period in England, because the language is artful, resonant, and highly descriptive. I always have these moments of chagrin when I go to a Renaissance play and hear some great phrase but it's too late to add it to my dialogue, even when I see where it would have been perfect.

So, that's it! Let me close by recommending you all to the blog of another author of historical fiction, Mel Starr, who's written a wonderful series of medieval murder mysteries featuring an investigator/coroner named Hugh de Singleton, a medieval "leech," or physician. I like Starr's books because of the exquisite care he takes with the details of medieval medical practice. Fascinating! Check him out at

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