Historical Fiction


I just got back from a lovely few days at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland. Among the highlights were a superb Measure for Measure, a very fun, exuberant Pirates of Penzance, and a brilliant new play called Ghost Light. Ghost Light was conceived and developed by Jonathan Moscone (Artistic Director of the California Shakespeare Theater) and Tony Taccone (Artistic Director of Berkeley Rep), written by Taccone and directed by Moscone. It explores the 1978 assassinations of Moscone’s father, San Francisco Mayor George Moscone, and Supervisor Harvey Milk by Supervisor Dan White. But rather than being a docudrama that recreates historical events, Ghost Light focuses on Jonathan Moscone’s response to the loss of his father, both as a fourteen-year-old boy and as an adult man, struggling to direct a production of Hamlet.

The story that emerges is rooted in historical events (events that I remember vividly, as a twelve-year-old at the time of the assassinations) yet at its heart it is an intimate look at coming to terms with the loss of a parent. As such it is both specific to the characters involved and wonderfully universal. We all struggle to understand our parents as individuals. Loss of a parent is a haunting fear, and losing a parent is never easy, at any age.

Ghost Light is a haunting play, beautifully acted and directed. It was the first play we saw on the trip, and I thought about it and talked about it a great deal afterward. Among other things, I found myself mulling over what it is to write historical fiction. Real events form the framework in my books (particulary my recent books), but within those events, the arc of the book focuses on the personal journey of the characters. Both the fictional characters and also the real historical characters, such as Wilhelmine and Dorothée in Vienna Waltz and Hortense Bonaparte in The Mask of Night. Hopefully there’s something universal in those character arcs, at the same time the story is rooted in a specific time and place. It’s a tricky balancing act, that I struggle with constantly when I’m writing. Often in the first draft I’m focused on just having, the historical narrative in place, and a lot of my work in subsequent drafts involves adding layers to the character arcs. My own struggles made me appreciate the brilliant writing in Ghost Light all the more.

What appeals to you most in historical fiction? The historical narrative or the personal stories of the characters? Both? Writers, if you write historical fiction how do you balance historical context and character development?

I’ve just posted a new Fraser Correspondence letter from Raoul to Mélanie/Suzanne, reacting to the news of Charles/Malcolm’s imprisonment.

It’s difficult to believe November 4th and the United States election is only two days away. This presidential campaign has taken twists and turns I doubt I could have dreamt up as a novelist. I don’t think I’ve ever been quite as excited for an election night as I am for this Tuesday–an excitement tinged of course with nerves (the memories of 2000 and 2004 are too vivid). So often, we only see in retrospect that we’ve lived through something historic. But whatever its outcome, we know going in that November 4th will be an historic night in American politics. I’ll be glued to the television of course to see the outcome of the presidential race (I’ve cared passionately about every election I’ve voted in, but I don’t think I’ve ever been as excited about the candidate I voted for as I am about Barack Obama). But also to see what happens with the House and Senate. With state propositions, most importantly if California’s Prop 8 loses and in losing preserves equal marriage rights for same sex couples, including a number of my friends who’ve been married recently. To watch the hundreds of mini-dramas that play themselves out across the country–local initiatives, unexpected upsets, recounts, voting machines, turn-out.

My memories of election nights stretch back to 1972. My father was at an election night party. My mother, home with me, turned on the news and said “let’s see how bad it is” and there was President Nixon saying something along the lines of “as a man looking ahead to four more years in office.” Which in retrospect, has the ring of irony. In 1976, my mom let me stay up the networks called Pennsylvania for Carter. The next morning, the first question I asked her when I woke up was “Did Carter win?” In 1984, I called my dad from college, depressed and a bit lonely (growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area, I’d never spent an election night surrounded by so many people who had voted differently from the way I had; an eye-opening and valuable experience). In 1992 my parents and I drank champagne while we watched the returns. In 2000, my friend jim and I kept checking the electoral map online as Florida changed from blue to red to uncertain.

Growing up with a fascination for politics, it’s perhaps not surprising that my historical novels involve politicians and politics. I think most historical fiction says something both about the time in which the novel is set and the time in which it is written. I love finding parallels and resonances between the political situation in my books and the situation today. In this election week, I thought it would be a good time to post a new video clip about those resonances:

This week’s Fraser Correspondence addition continues the theme with a letter from Charles to David in which he recalls the night he was first elected to Parliament.

Do you have special plans for election night this year? Do you like historical novels about politics and politicians? Do you look for resonances to the world of today or prefer to see the past as entirely separate? What kind of political couple do you think Charles and Mélanie would be if they lived today?

One of my favorite holiday activities is going to the movies. I love movies in any case, and it’s particularly fun to go with friends and family in the midst of holiday celebrations, especially with all the movies that open at the end of the year as part of the lead up to the various awards. In and around shopping, wrapping, card writing, and entertaining, I managed to go to quite a few movies in the past few weeks. My favorites were Atonement and Sweeney Todd, which were both quite haunting and wonderful. I blogged about them last week on History Hoydens.

As I mentioned in that blog, watching the opening scene of Sweeney Todd, I was struck by the similarity to the opening scene of Beneath a Silent Moon. For a fleeting moment, I could almost have been watching a movie of my own book (well, we can all dream :-). Sweeney Todd opens with Sweeney returning to London by ship. His views on London are in sharp contrast to those of the man who has rescued him, the idealistic young sailor Anthony. In Sweeney’s words:

There’s a whole in the world like a great black pit
and the vermin of the world inhabit it
and its morals aren’t worth what a pin can spit
and it goes by the name of London.

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We did a group blog today on History Hoydens on Favorite Historical Reads of 2007.  Do stop by and take a look at our choices and post your own!

I had a very fun weekend with two great nights at the theater which got me thinking more about my “Fallen” Heorines blog from last week. Friday night, I saw a play called “Sex” written by Mae West and first performed in 1926 (the original production was a smash hit despite being closed down at one point as “obscene”). The plot of “Sex” had a number of things in common with “La Rondine.” Like Magda in “La Rondine” Margy, the heroine of “Sex,” has supported herself by selling her favors. Like Magda, Margy falls in a love with a naive young man who thinks she is innocence personified. Like Magda, Margy ultimately decides she has to tell her young lover to truth about her past. And like Magda, Margy returns to a former lover. But unlike Magda, who goes back to the banker who has been her protector, Margy marries a former lover who knows about her past, sees her for who she, and loves her. A much more optimistic ending.

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An interesting discussion on Cate’s Journal and Book Reviews this week got me thinking about character names. I find naming characters both fun and challenging–and at times frustrating. Sometimes a name occurs to me when I first think of a character and seems to suit that character perfectly (Honoria, Val, David, and Simon all worked that way). Charles and Mélanie were actually the names of two secondary characters in an never-published book I wrote with my mom. Playing “what if” with their future inspired “Secrets of a Lady”. I changed a lot of the backstory, but I kept the names. I actually made list of possible alternative names for both of them, but I kept coming back to Charles and Mélanie.

I often make lists of possible names for a character. I usually start by thinking about the character’s parents and what sort of name they would have been likely to choose. I changed the name of Charles and Mélanie’s daughter from Cristina to Jessica because I realized Mélanie was much more likely to name her daughter after a character in a Shakespeare play than after her mother. Charles’s sister began as Beth because her mother was Elizabeth, but then I decided Lady Elizabeth Fraser wouldn’t have named her daughter after herself (and Kenneth Fraser would have shown no interest in the name whatsoever) so she became Diana, but that didn’t work either. Finally I decided that because Elizabeth’s mother was French, she’d have given her daughter a French name. The daughter became Gisèle, which worked right away. Her character didn’t really come into focus until I had the name right either. A couple of other characters in “Beneath a Silent Moon” began with different names as well. Evie Mortimer started out as Jane and Aspasia Newland was Emily. I settled on Evie because her full name is Evelyn, a family name, and Aspasia because her father is a classical scholar who named her after Pericles’s mistress. They too worked much better as characters with the “right” names :-).

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My good friend Monica McCarty had a fascinating post on the Fog City Divas blog this week about “The Not So Romantic Side of History.” Monica, who writes wonderful historical romances set in early seventeenth century Scotland (and with whom I sometimes take research trips to the Stanford Library), wrote “As an author I’m constantly faced with how much reality to infuse in my stories and still make them appealing to the average historical romance reader….When I sit down to write or read a historical novel I really want to get a sense of the age, not only to enhance my understanding, but also to put the conflict in context. For example, without understanding the social barriers in “Pride and Prejudice” a reader wouldn’t understand why it was such a big deal that Mr. Darcy proposed to Elizabeth Bennet. Actually one of the things I really liked about the Keira Knightley movie was the grittiness and dirt—we really saw the “country” girl in Lizzie and I really got a sense of her social distance from Darcy. Another de-sanitized costume drama is “Queen Margot” which is a VERY gritty look at 16th Century France.”

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