Spotlight on historical fiction
Today, I’m delighted to welcome Kristin Gleeson to my blog. Originally from Philadelphia, Kristin is married to a Cornishman and lives in the West Cork Gaeltacht of Ireland, where she teaches art classes, plays harp, sings in an Irish choir and runs two book clubs for the village library. She holds a Masters in Library Science and a Ph.D. in history, and for a time was an administrator of a national denominational archives, library and museum in America. There she worked with Native American materials and conducted oral histories and assisted Native Americans with land claims. Later, she served as a public librarian in America and Ireland and performed as a storyteller/harper in festivals in America and the U.K. and Ireland.
She has also written history freelance and published articles and essays in reference works and academic books. In 2011 she published an essay, ‘Blazing Her Own Trail,’ in the multi-award winning, Recollecting published by University of Athabasca Press. Since 2012 she has published the biography Anahareo, A Wilderness Spirit, and two novels, Selkie Dreams and Along the Far Shores.
Kristin is also a part of Famelton Writing Services giving manuscript critiques, copyediting, proofreading and other services for writers.
So, firstly, welcome, Kristin.
Thank you for having me.
Q: Our focus today is writing historical fiction, so I’m going to be extremely mean and kick-start our conversation with a controversial quote:
“…I’ve never seen the point in historical drama. Or historical fiction for that matter. I once thought about writing a novel of that kind, but then I began to wonder, what possible patience could the public have for a young man arrogant enough to believe he has anything new to say about an epoch with which his only acquaintance is flipping listlessly through history books on train journeys?” (The Teleportation Accident by Ned Beauman)
Before I ask for your reaction, it’s only fair to point out that Beauman has one of his characters speak the words, and they’re spoken precisely because his novel is historical fiction with a twist. The author is giving himself licence to play with the theme. That said, one of the things Beauman achieves so successfully is that his characters are very modern, as they would have been, and are obsessed by all the same things that plague us – one whose focus at the time when the Nazi party is growing isn’t political uprising but whether he will ever have sex again, for example – which provides an instant connection.
Which brings me onto your latest novel, Along the Far Shores. The 12th Century seems ripe for picking, but what is it that fascinates you about that era?
A: There were so many events in the 12th Century that were key in the British Isles and the Americas that enabled me to bring together Welsh, Irish and Native American cultures in a unique way. In Ireland the warring factions in the Wexford area led one deposed king to turn to Henry II for assistance which brought the first English soldiers onto Irish soil and began a pattern of increasing English settlement in Ireland. Across in Wales the death of the Gwynedd king led to warring factions that prompted one of the sons, Madog to set out on a voyage that landed him on the Gulf Coast of America (or so the legend states). At that time America had its own civilisations that were in some ways more advanced than Europe. Among them was the Mississippian Empire whose centre was in Etowah. They had trade links that reached as far as the declining Mayan Empire. Though many people know of the Mayans and have a basic understanding of the culture, they don’t see them in the context of the European culture of the time period. The surgery, cloth dyes, cooking, the building techniques were more primitive in England and Ireland, for example.
I do think, as in The Teleportation Accident, that there are themes that transcend history and can be found in any time period. The desire to meet basic human needs both emotional and physical, for example. The theme I tend to focus on is the way negative cross cultural perceptions can affect relationships and events and the disastrous consequences that can occur. Even in the biography I wrote on a First Nations Canadian woman, Anahareo, I examine how racial stereotyping limited her choices at varying times in her life, despite her valiant efforts to challenge them. Whites thought all Indian women were either Indian princesses dressed in fringed buckskin dresses with their hair in braids or blanket wearing squaws who shuffled after their men. In the 1930s she wore trousers, a fringed jacket, makeup, her hair was fashionably bobbed and she held a cigarette with the finesse of Bette Davis.
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Q: When I was discussing historical fiction with Evie Woolmore, she said that there are three kinds of ‘historical novelists’: those who write in order to accurately reconstruct history in fictional or quasi fictional terms (Philippa Gregory or Hilary Mantel); those who write stories whose plot is reliant on and infused with the historical setting and thus which are historically very precise and well-researched (such as Harriet Steel’s novel Salvation); and those (like me) who write novels which are not principally historical but work effectively in historical settings. Do you share that view and, if so, which category do you fall into?
A: I remember when I was writing the novel, Selkie Dreams, which is set in the 19th Century, I really examined the issue and felt that those writing historical fiction use the events of the past for their work and it becomes a key part of the story, whereas I was writing fiction that merely had an historical setting and the key themes and story transcended the period in which it was set. I came to realise that few people saw that distinction, especially when it came to marketing it to agents and publishers.
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Q: Returning to The Teleportation Accident for just a moment, what I particularly liked about the central character was his complete lack of political awareness. It’s very interesting how the reader’s knowledge of 1930’s Germany is largely assumed. Of course, one of the interesting things about writing historical fiction is that the reader has the benefit of hindsight, while the characters in the book don’t. How do you use this to your advantage in Along the Far Shores?
A: For the most part I’d say that the events in Along the Far Shores aren’t commonly known, which can be an issue, too. It’s important to strike the right balance and put in enough information so that the reader has sufficient context to understand the characters’ actions and the storyline direction, but not so much that you overload the book and it becomes a history text. The problem is to insert the right amount of information, because some readers will know more than others. As someone mentioned to me, if you want to know about the historical events in detail go to a history text, not a historical fiction book.
Q: Transporting readers to another time and place without overloading them with detail is key. So how much detail is too much?
A: It can be a difficult thing, especially for an historian like me who loves to share the bits and pieces that I find fascinating and I assume everyone else will too. What I try to do is to insert detail of dress, rooms/landscape in with the story as I would describe the character or where she’s going. I try and find a word or just a few words that lets the reader know they are in a different time period. I try and stop myself from describing how something functions, or listing food, or details of a room if it isn’t directly related to the goal of the scene or the plot. It’s a fine line and one that I think can move easily into the realms of information dumping which can slow down the pace and even lose a reader altogether.
Q: An editorial critique of my novel I Stopped Time criticised the apparent ease with which my main character deserted her young son. ‘I’m not suggesting that you traduce historical truth, but the whole thing should be much more of a crisis in which we in the 21st Century can feel the character’s terrible suffering.’ It is not that I didn’t understand how a 20th Century mother might seem ‘cold’ if judged by today’s standards, but I also feel that writers have a duty to provide an insight into how things actually were, if only to illustrate how rapidly attitudes have changed. How do you perceive the temptation to superimpose our own contemporary values on historical fiction?
A: It is so interesting that you had the reaction about the desertion of the child, because I had a similar reaction when someone read a part of a story set in the 19th Century I wrote some time ago. I tried to explain as you did. As a historian I learned to be aware of the constant temptation to superimpose our own values and judgements on the actions of people in the past, but I know it isn’t entirely avoidable. I think the role of writers in some ways may be to highlight these seemingly questionable values accurately, but also to explain by inference how the values of those times are contextual. You can find it in our interaction with cultures that aren’t western. It is something that I find extremely important and one reason my novels explore the theme of cross cultural interaction.
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Q: How important to you is historical accuracy when writing fiction and how faithfully does your novel stick to the written record?
A: For the most part, it’s not too much of an issue for me since my novels are usually not based on actual characters and set in the middle of true events. I try and faithfully depict the time period and I would tend to stick to the written record, I’m too much of a historian. Currently, though, I’m working on a novel collaboration with a friend and it’s set in mid 15th Century England when the Duchess of Gloucester was accused of witchcraft and she is one of the central characters. That means the plot line and characterisation, to a degree, are predetermined. I find that difficult and see its issues in many novels that use actual events and characters. It can limit the dramatic arc and pacing so that sometimes the novel can sag in the middle or have a flat ending. In this case the Duchess is such a lively character and her story is so dramatic that it is really easy to work within the facts and keep the dramatic tension going.
Q: Verbal anachronisms have been spotted in televised dramas such as Downton Abbey and Ripper Street. There is always a difficulty of striking a balance between getting the ‘feel’ of the for the era right and borrowing directly from the language of the day. How do you go about this?
A: I think you’ll find the styles in historical fiction are becoming more modern in tone then they used to be and sometimes they grate when I read them. I know I’m not going to please everyone with my style, but I think it’s important to capture an essence of a past age to help create the sense of place. I will let my characters speak in contractions, but I try to avoid direct anachronisms, such as modern slang words and expressions. No ‘you go, girl’ or ‘that was slick, dude’ in my dialogue, I’m afraid.
Q: Finally, Kristin, I’m very interested in cover design, and you have recently updated your original cover for Along the Far Shores. Why did you take that decision?
I’ve become increasingly aware the importance of a cover and how much a cover establishes the author’s brand. A brand helps a reader who enjoys a specific author’s work recognise it even before the person sees the print. It establishes subconsciously among browsers the kind of book it is as well or peaks their interest. I wanted to convey something about myself in the band. My love of landscape and setting in novels, and my love of myths and legends. After a recommendation from yourself and Ann Swinfen I hired Jane Dixon-Smith of JD Designs to design the cover of my forthcoming novel, Raven Brought the Light. She did a fabulous job of capturing the elements I wanted, so I asked her to re-design Along the Far Shores. The result was all I hoped for
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