I began my current novel in 2005. It received wonderful praise from my instructors and other writers in my workshop classes at the Harvard Extension School, but something was missing. After 50 pages, with heavy heart, I put the novel aside and moved on to another work of historical fiction. Yet in the past few years, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. And when someone wanted to see a sample of my writing, I always chose the first chapter of this particular novel to share. In 2010, when I shared a series of first chapters from the three novels that I was having trouble deciding on, the unanimous vote settled on this one. The advice of my writer’s group was indispensible.
For me, the challenge of writing historical fiction is getting lost in the research. When Amazon recently released a list of “Most Well-Read Cities in America,” not only was I not surprised to see Cambridge, MA, at the top of the list, but Cambridge also topped the list of nonfiction sales. That was me. I was buying up tons of books for research. The history of medieval Ireland, of Tudor England, and the Spanish Armada. After deep discussions with my writer’s group about my current novel, I discovered what was missing: the complexity of history.
Mind you, this has gotten me into trouble before. Literary agents said The Veiled Mirror was too complex: too many people, too many places. I whittled 180,000 words down to 140,000 and made significant changes to the structure. Still no dice in the traditional industry. But I wasn’t willing to sacrifice accuracy at the altar of simplicity. Vlad Dracula traveled a lot. He was in exile. And my instructors in my master’s program were telling me not to sacrifice it, either. There is a market for high-concept fiction, they said. Don’t cave in if you feel you’re compromising your art. I think certain misperceptions are perpetuated by the big industry: that people only want simple, fast reads with little substance. In fact, there are fantastic historical fiction authors out there who write lengthy epics and do quite well, thank you very much. Consider Margaret George, whose career spans 6 very long and complex novels. It’s just that traditional publishing can’t afford risks. While some agents loved The Veiled Mirror, they shied away because they felt it would be too difficult to convince a publisher to take it on. People aren’t interested in history, some said. It doesn’t sell.
The new novel is set in medieval Ireland. The problem I had in 2005 was that it was only about medieval Ireland and the English were the villains on the fringe. It was too simplistic. I had read about five books to prepare for this novel, all centered on Irish history. This year, when I began to read Spanish and English history, the novel sprang to life in a new way. Amazing plotlines were revealed. The more I read, the more connections I found. The nobles who were vying for power, those who served as advisers and spies, the issues of diplomacy when war was a constant threat. Learning about the importance of theater, music, the games people played all became vital details. The entire novel is now plotted out, and every night, after I come home from work, I write for three to hour hours. I’m willing to bet (as my protagonist would, she loves to gamble, too) that the first draft of this novel will be done by the end of the year.
Historical fiction is arguably one of the more complicated types of fiction to write. Critics don’t take kindly to changing history, so you have to be diligent in your research. But it’s also one of the most rewarding. By understanding the worldview of the historical figures you’re writing about, you see how things haven’t changed so much. Readers will be able to relate to the characters, because they experience similar things—the wars of our time are often based on the same ideological philosophies of the wars of the past; family dynamics haven’t changed; issues of love and hate and everything in between are still the same. It only serves to show the broader view of your characters’ experience.
If you were to write a contemporary story about a small region in…some place…the characters are affected by the dynamics of the world, no matter how distant they may seem. How the economy affects them, the political system…and it can appear in small details. For example, an interesting yet tiny detail popped up while expanding my research. In 1558, when Elizabeth I became queen, her orders to essentially change trade and customs in English ports deeply affected trade. The purpose was that her people were sent to select the best textiles and goods for her coronation ceremony, then the rest of the shipments would be released to normal trade. Imagine how this interrupted some businesses? Certainly, the merchants made their money and the dockyard officials collected their harbor dues, but what of the seamstress who was hired to sew a wedding gown for some lower-level noble, and her favorite fabrics were now unavailable? The possibilities are endless. But after all, Queen Bess best look her best for the volta dance.