5 Things I’ve Learned from Writing an Historical Novel

I’m now almost two weeks and more than 25,000 words into my first novel-length work of historical fiction.  Figured it would be worthwhile to pause for a minute to pat myself on the back (pat. pat.) and to reflect on what I’ve learned from and about this process so far.

1. Planning is important, but there’s a time to jump in.  The story of the novel is set in the present — well the future actually: Spring and Summer of 2015 — but it’s about people who reenact Napoleonic battles, so even though it isn’t technically a historical novel, the history certainly matters and I want to get it right.  Oh yeah, and I had no background in Napoleon whatsoever before this.  So I read histories and biographies and took a lot of notes for over a year…and I’m still not an expert.  It was beginning to feel like a problem.  But thanks to National Novel Writing Month (www.NaNoWriMo.org), I decided it was time to stop talking about it and start writing this thing.  Either poo, or get off the chamber pot.  What I’ve discovered is that I’ve got enough historical knowledge to know how to tell the story, and enough to know where I’m lacking and what I’ll need to revisit later to fill in the details.  You need to plan enough, but you don’t need to plan everything.
2. Your characters will tell you who they are.  As with historical detail, so with my characters.  I had their lives and identities all sketched out before I started writing, but then they started surprising me like, you know, real people do.  This one was supposed to be fifteen years old, then I start writing and it turns out she’s five.  That one was supposed to be an arrogant, snooty bastard — turns out he actually has the biggest heart of any character in the work, he’s just been living a hard life and built up a lot of walls.  (I was with everyone else: I just thought he was a jerk for no reason….)  When you read a book it feels as though the characters have always existed exactly as they are in their little world, but I’m beginning to realize that at this stage of the game they have a lot of say in who they become.
Yes, we'll discuss how impressive I was at Toulon...but first, why don't you read this draft of my story and tell me what you think?"

Yes, we’ll discuss how impressive I was at Toulon…but first, why don’t you read this draft of my story and tell me what you think?”

3. The devil is in the details, but so are the baroque cherubim.  What’s harder than writing about historical characters who demand accuracy in details?  Writing about contemporary people who passionately and obsessively recreate history down to the authentically ornate carving on their early 19th century antique cherry-wood writing desks*.  I don’t know much at all about antiques, but my characters do, so I’m going to also be doing a lot of research to find the right objects to decorate their offices and living rooms.  And I’m kind of excited about that.  At this stage in the writing, I feel that it’s more important to get the story written than to worry about decor.  Right now I’m giving the characters rooms to exist in.  Later I’ll help them decorate.  They should be grateful because no one likes to help you move.

4. It is possible to write.  That was a misquote of Nicole Kidman as Virginia Woolf in The Hours when she says, “It is possible to die.”  That line has been in my head a lot lately, not because I’ll be putting stones in my pockets, but because I love Virginia Woolf and her specter has haunted me for many years, intimidating me and keeping me from writing.  It isn’t her fault, but that’s how it is.  She and Faulkner and Joyce and Morrison, all of whom I love, have intimidated me and I haven’t attempted to write a novel despite the overwhelming desire to do so.  But this year I’ve overcome that.  This year my pantheon of writing deities is cheering me on.  It helps that I have (what I think to be) a really good idea that’s full of characters who are fun and original and who nag me to let them out of my head so that they can live in the world with the rest of you.  It helps that I have real life friends who also push me.  And again, it’s helped to have NaNoWriMo and all the participating writers out there in the world to ride on our collective, frenetic, creative energy.
5. I’d rather be writing.  I’ve not slacked off at my job (I love my students and wouldn’t let my teaching be trampled on by my writing), but I definitely have a lot of moments throughout the day when all I’m thinking about is how to get the characters through that next obstacle, or how to flesh out the secrets of their past interactions and relationships with each other in an interesting way.  It’s really a lot of fun.  And, okay, maybe I put off grading a stack of papers while in the midst of a writing sprint…but they got graded eventually.
How about you?  Has anyone reading this written historical fiction — or fiction of any kind — and have any additional insights to share?  Comment away!
*I don’t even know if desks in early 19th century France were made of cherry-wood.  I made that up to make it interesting.

Hero/Villain: The Trouble with Napoleon

About a year and a half ago I read an article in the WSJ about the bicentennial commemorative Battle of Waterloo to be held in 2015.  Two men were considered to be the finest Napoleons in the reenactment world, one American and one French (naturally).  That there should be two, and that they should be French and American — this just seemed too thematically rich for me to pass up!  I knew there was a fun-yet-poignant story here, but I wasn’t interested in telling the real tale of will happen (or what may have already happened: for all I know, one of them has come out on top).  I wanted to explore the possibilities of what could happen: what kinds of real passions might be stirred, and what Machiavellian moves might be made behind the scenes to make the mock history come to life?

Any resemblance to real characters is almost purely coincidental.

"Even I'm conflicted about my legacy."

“Even I’m conflicted about my legacy.”

Well, as far as the real, living Napoleonic players are concerned.  The representation of Napoleon the Emperor, the actual man, is a different matter.  I don’t want to screw up any of the history as far as it concerns my novel, but it isn’t the facts that worry me.  It’s how people interpret the facts.  In my research I’ve discovered that historians fall on one side of a very clear dividing line.  You either believe that Napoleon was flawed like any great historical figure, but is ultimately responsible for laying the foundations for modern Europe.  Or you believe that he was a monomaniacal tyrant bent on world domination at all costs — one of the costs being the hundreds of thousands, if not millions of lives lost during his campaigns.

Both sides have their points, and as soon as I feel pulled to one side of the argument, I’ll read someone’s opinion from the other side and be swayed that way. This isn’t a Coke or Pepsi kind of argument: either the man was a modernizing hero whose laws are still the foundation of French democracy today, or a mass murdering villain who led men to their deaths for no good reason whatsoever.  Reading historians’ opinions of Napoleon makes me feel like an onlooker at Caesar’s funeral as Brutus and Mark Anthony give their conflicting accounts of the man.  I suppose this is healthy for my book, which seeks neither to bury Napoleon nor to praise him.  Love him or hate him, it doesn’t change the fact that people are interested in him enough to dress up like him and lead mock battles — that’s what interests me.  And yet by aiming to write this novel and put it out in the world, I’m entering a horse into the race.

I’m a fairly non-confrontational person by nature.  I don’t really enjoy embroiling myself in heated debates, which is not to say that I don’t have my opinions, I just don’t like to fight.  That this novel could thrust me into the midst of a debate that has been going on for centuries really deterred me from writing it for awhile.  But the characters wouldn’t leave me alone.  For a year and a half they urged me to keep reading, keep taking notes, keep adding new characters into their midst.  And now, this November, I promised them that I would harness the energy of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) to get them out of my head, into the computer and finally onto paper.  It’s happening, and it has been a great joy this past week getting to watch them come to life.  I know now that I don’t have much of a choice in the matter anymore.

Which means I’m going to accept that the final product will be interpreted however it will be interpreted.  It will probably please some hardcore Napoleon lovers/haters, but not all.  It will explore both sides, and I’m guessing that for the extremists it won’t go far enough in either direction.  I’m choosing to be okay with that.

I’m wondering if anyone reading this has thoughts on the matter.  Have you written about a controversial character and felt conflicted about it?  Please chime in!


New year, new reads

My apologies to Elizabeth Gilbert for being cheeky with her book.  It's just that is was sitting there on the chaise longue begging for a little fun.

My apologies to Elizabeth Gilbert for being cheeky with her book. It’s just that it was sitting there on the chaise longue begging for a little fun.  (from a b&b outside of Ithaca, NY, September 2013)

Alright, no more excuses.  I made my apologies for being a lame-o blogger back in September and then fell through yet again, mostly due to demands at school taking up the majority of my time.  What can I say?  I’m a teacher, it’s my job.

It is a bit of a let-down to myself, however — I mean, it’s not like it’s anyone else’s responsibility to follow through on my dreams besides me.  So let’s just get back in the saddle, shall we?


Since this summer I’ve been working on a project that is centered around characters in the historical reenactment community, specifically the world of Napoleon.  It started as a screenplay, but my characters had a bit of a coup, sat me down and told me that they really felt that they always saw themselves in a novel.  They asked if I wouldn’t mind reformatting their existence, but I said no; I’d already invested too much time and money in the adventure.  But do you know what they did?  They staged a walk out!  I was informed by two different Napoleon impersonators (in my head) that they would no longer show up to work if I put them into a movie, at least not before their book was written first and film rights to it were legitimately established.

Lesson: Be careful if your characters are crappy actors who earn their living pretending to be megalomaniac conquerors of all the known world.  They’re bossy.

But — dammit! — they’re right.  I’ve been a reader of novels since I was four years old when, self-proclaimed genius that I was, I believed myself vastly superior to my peers for being able to read books with no pictures in them.  Time has humbled me (believe me!), but the fact remains that I’ve been a novel reader for 32 of my 36 years, and if there is a format that I understand more or less intuitively, that’s it.  I love watching movies too, but I’d never written one prior to this.  In fact, I’d never even dreamed of attempting it.

The reason I did attempt it was due mostly to fear: I have feared writing a novel.  No, that’s not accurate, because it’s not the writing of it that’s scared me.  It’s the sharing of it; the fear of putting it out there to be rejected, of criticism, of not being good enough.  And I don’t mean ‘good enough’ in terms of commercial success; I mean that I won’t be as good as Toni Morrison, or Virginia Woolf, or William Faulkner.  That I won’t plumb the depths of profundity or create a new aesthetic.  (Having a Masters degree in literature has been a bigger stumbling block to becoming a writer than just about anything.)

So my novel’s characters have challenged me to exorcize that demon.  I have spent way too many years reading works that were written before 1945 by writers who aren’t just part of the canon, but part of the pantheon of The Artists of The Ages.  I need to stop aiming for that level, and I need to embrace the fact that achieving less than canonical status is not failure, because if I don’t accept that, then I won’t produce anything.  At least not anything other than my boxes of journals.

Here’s the plan.  I’m going to spend a lot of time this year reading new(er) fiction authors.  I restructured the syllabus of my spring semester class to focus only on writers from the last 40 years.  They’re still mostly pretty canonical (Morrison, Garcia-Marquez, Rushdie), but my students deserve some tough writers to wrestle with.  In any case, their voices are more contemporary and will give me as much to consider as my students.

Furthermore, I’ve joined a book club in my neighborhood — The Hoboken Readers’ Circle — that is centered around a mix of eras and authors.  We’ll be discussing Matthew Quick‘s Silver Linings Playbook next week, and Cormac McCarthy‘s No Country for Old Men next month.  I’ve happily not seen the film version of either book, so they’re completely new to me.  Looking forward to the new neighborhood acquaintances and friends to be made through this group as well.

I’ve also signed up for The Wall Street Journal‘s new book club.  Each month a different author will choose another author’s work that has been an influence or inspiration to him or her.  In February, Elizabeth Gilbert (Eat, Pray, Love)  will lead a discussion of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall.  Not only had I already had this book recommended to me, but Gilbert writes that Mantel’s historical novel helped her to craft the narrative of her own latest work of historical fiction.  Given that my own novel focuses around present-day people obsessed with the past, her praise of Mantel spoke to me.  The book club discussions will take place online and via Twitter.  I’m sure I have no idea how that works — I have a Twitter account but haven’t yet figured out what makes it so popular — but I’ll bone up on it before the end of February when the discussions begin.  Oh, and I haven’t actually read Gilbert’s writing either, but I don’t feel right engaging with her about Mantel’s work if I haven’t read her own — so I just downloaded Eat, Pray, Love to my kindle and will start reading it tonight before bed.

The ambitious menu of readings that I’ve established for the next few months, although edifying and surely entertaining, won’t help me to craft my own characters if I don’t continue to write.  So I’m going to.  I’ll post my thoughts about and reflections on the books I’m reading here on this blog, giving particular attention to the writerly lessons I take away from each.  I’m going to attend the Jersey City Writer‘s meetings with more regularity and keep sharing my work since that’s the thing that scares me most.

Napoleon wannabes (in my head), I hope you’re happy.  You’ve demanded, I’ve responded…now help me see this thing through until you exist on a printed page.

For those of you reading this who exist in the real world and not in my head: stick with me.  And please feel free to encourage me to stick with myself.


On to my wine homework.

As stated in the previous post, the first quality that I want to explore is connectedness.  Admittedly, the post about Rioja already addressed this to a degree: its connection to Spain and Spanish culture is what led to my Aha! wine moment. But MacNeil‘s the expert, and if she says I should get to know this quality through a Mosel riesling, then I’m sure as heck gonna try.

Knight I bought in Salzburg guarding the Fritz Haag Riesling

Knight I bought in Salzburg guarding the Fritz Haag Riesling

The riesling I chose was a 2011 Fritz Haag, a wine I picked more or less at random in the store but was happy to find that it’s one of MacNeil’s Mosel-Saar-Ruwer “wines to know.”  She writes, “The wines that Fritz Haag makes from the incredible sundial — Sonnenuhr — vineyard located above the village of Brauneberg are, year in and year out, classic examples of perfect Mosel riesling.”  Praise indeed.

Here is my impression.  The wine has a flirty blonde color that I’ve notice is common to rieslings I’ve tried — not yellow like some chardonnays, but flaxen.  It’s nose was harder to describe, and all I can really come up with is this: fresh air.  It’s getting humid here in the NYC tri-state area, but when I stuck my nose in a glass of this riesling, it was like a cool dry Spring day with highs in the 70s (or 20s in centigrade; this is a European wine, after all…).

If its fragrance was Spring, its taste was pure Winter — breathing in deeply on a day that’s below freezing.  And peaches.  Underripe, when the texture of the peach is hard and harsh, but the taste — what little there is — is crisp, clean and a little tart.  Finally, (and this is probably a bit of a sacrilege, but I’ll write it anyway), it tasted a bit like a Radler, a mixture of a lager and Sprite common to Germanic lands and perfect for a workday lunch.

So how does any of this bring to mind the Mosel region and the wine’s connection to it?

Well, to get there, I have to travel by way of autobiography.  I grew up in Cincinnati, a city whose seasonal extremes have led me to say frequently that it’s the hottest and the coldest place I have ever been.  All of my descriptors above are references to the seasons of Cincinnati, which, as it happens, sits along a river not unlike the Mosel.  In fact, whatever quirks and idiosyncratic delights that Cincinnati may boast are usually traceable to the people’s German heritage, from our breweries to our Schützenfesten to saying “please?” quizzically when we don’t understand what you’ve said (the German equivalent of “bitte?”).  You can still attend mass in German if you visit Over-the-Rhine, a neighborhood whose hillside position overlooking the Ohio River reminded its settlers of home.  Most high schools in Cincinnati offered German until recently (which is why yours truly studied the language from 7th through 12th grades).

I’ve never been to the Mosel, but I’ve spent some time now reading about it and looking up pictures online.  It feels like home.  It came up in conversation recently: a friend is planning to ride his bike there, stopping occasionally at this vineyard and that, drinking riesling all week.  It never occurred to me to do that, but now that it has, it’s the top of my travel list.

Fritz Haag’s website revealed to me that their wines were beloved by Thomas Jefferson and Napoleon alike.  I spent a big chunk of the Fall reading a biography of Alexander Hamilton that featured Jefferson prominently (because they hated one another), and I’m currently writing a screenplay that is about Napoleon and what he means to the people of Sandusky, Ohio (kind of).  In fact, I have a few Napoleonic blogposts fomenting in my head as l’Empereur determines exactly what I should write.  I’ve also been commissioned this week to write a destination travel piece on Frankfurt, the largest city in Hesse and not far from the Mosel region….


Yes.  I know.

I still haven’t answered how this riesling is connected to the Mosel.

And I’m sorry, Karen MacNeil, but I can’t, not really.  Not without having been there to taste it where it was grown and produced.  Your book tells me it takes on the flavor of the minerals in the slate that it grows from, and I believe you, but I can’t pick those notes out yet.

The connectedness that I’m experiencing right now is my own connection — through the wine — to historical figures I admire, to my childhood and memories of playing outdoors in Summer, to Germany and my immigrant great-great-great grandparents I never knew, to a man named Fritz Haag and his son (grandson?) Oliver who currently runs the winery and wears similar glasses to my own.  These men have created a wine that’s set loose my fancy and let it fly; when I take that bike trip, I’m definitely going to look them up.

It’s not the kind of connectedness that I was aiming to experience, but it’s more than I got from drinking my daily Diet Coke at lunch — would it were a Radler!