Making the story’s world come alive

National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) is concluded for another year! Congratulations to all participants; whether you wrote 500 words or 50,000 words, you created something new. Now you can take a deep breath, relax, and…start editing! Or write some more. Or take a month off. It’s up to you!

Jennifer Brown is a NaNoWriMo “winner” several times over, and the author of Modern Girls. In addition to writing historical fiction (Modern Girls is set in New York in the 1930s), Brown loves reading historical novels. We asked her about the process of researching and writing historical fiction, and to tell us about a few of her favorite historical novels.

How (if at all) has writing a historical novel changed the way you read historical fiction?

Most writers tend to be critical readers in general. If a book is successful—it doesn’t matter the genre—then I’m swept away by the story and not thinking about the elements that go into it. If a book isn’t well written, however, then I’m hyper aware of the problems. Things like structural flaws or too much exposition or info dumps (when the author has a lot of back story to convey and instead of weaving it into the story the writer simply plops it all down in a big chunk) or characters without depth or a myriad other issues will vividly stand out. Reading a book requires willful suspension of disbelief; if I can’t achieve that then there’s a problem.

For historical fiction specifically, I don’t think about the historical elements while I’m reading unless the author is heavy handed. A historical writer must do unbelievable amounts of research to make the story’s world come alive. But the temptation exists to put all that research in the novel. After all, you learned the facts so you want to show off. That, however, can weigh a story down, pull the reader out of the moment. Currently I’m in the middle of The Gilded Hour by Sara Donati. Her details are exquisite and she’s found the right balance to make me see 1883 New York but not be consciously aware that I’m reading about 1883 New York; it’s simply the world of her novel and I’m caught up in it.

Once I finish a book, I always read an author’s acknowledgment to see who guided the research and what resources were used. I’m always on the lookout for ideas on where to find historical experts. It’s also amazing to see how much a writer put into the novel. I appreciate the depths the author went to in order to become an expert, but I also understand the author didn’t have a choice; it’s what’s required to be a historical fiction author.

What are some of your favorite historical novels?

Picking favorites is hard as I adore historical fiction (though I make it a point to read other genres as well, because reading widely is important in honing writing skills). My list of favorites shifts depending on my mood, what I’ve read most recently, and my poor memory (thank goodness I could refer to my Goodreads list for this).

The majority of historical fiction I read takes place in the early twentieth century because I have such a fascination with that period. In that era, I’d have to recommend The Girls at the Kingfisher Club by Genevieve Valentine, which captivated me in its retelling of the Grimm’s fairy tale “The Twelve Dancing Princess” set in the speakeasies of 1920s New York. Also of that time period is Mary Morris’s The Jazz Palace, which takes place in the music halls of Chicago. Morris is the first writer who has lushly and lyrically written about music in a way that I could hear it playing. Heather Young wrote a dual time period narrative, The Lost Girls, which combines two elements I enjoy: historical fiction and thriller. It’s a captivating story. Wherever There Is Light by Peter Golden about an interracial romance spanning many decades. Susan Jane Gilman creates the most likable unlikable character I’ve ever read in The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street.

For the younger set, and a series I read with my own daughter, I highly recommend the All of a Kind series, by Sydney Taylor, which captures a household of sprightly girls in New York City at the turn of the twentieth century. For a local treat, I suggest Connie Hertzberg Mayo’s The Island of Worthy Boys, about the boys’ school on Boston’s own Thompson Island. For a completely different way of looking at historical fiction, I recommend Unterzakhn by Leela Corman, a graphic novel, with some similar themes to Modern Girls, that takes place on the gritty Lower East Side at the turn of the century.

A second type of historical fiction I enjoy includes real people in fictional situations. Laura Moriarty’s  The Chaperone is an engrossing glimpse into Louise Brooks’s life while Jillian Cantor’s The Hours Count is a peek into the world of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg. The Paris Wife by Paula McLain recounts the story of Ernest Hemingway and his wife Hadley. Terrible Virtue by Ellen Feldman is both stylistically interesting and thought-provoking as she tells the story of Margaret Sanger, the woman who founded the birth control movement in the United States. Andromeda Romano-Lax wrote a book that will be of particular interest to parents: her novel Behave tells the fictional story of the wife of behavioral psychologist John B. Watson, whose views of child rearing were unusually strict. His wife, Rosalie, was also a scientist and her views change when the couple has children of their own.

Finally, I have been known to branch outside of the 1900s and the United States. Julie Wu, who is a local author, wrote a gripping story called The Third Son that begins in Taiwan in 1943. I learned a lot from her novel. Going back all the way to biblical times, I rave about Naomi Alderman’s The Liars’ Gospel, which is a fascinating and controversial retelling of the life of Jesus. Her details of life in that period are astounding. A perfect complement to that book is Colm Tóibín’s The Testament of Mary, which is the same story with a completely different take.

I could seriously go on for a few pages on the books I love; this is by no means a definitive list. Can you tell I really like historical fiction?

We can! Thanks for these suggestions – they should keep our historical fiction fans busy for a while!

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