I’d like to welcome DM (Diane) Denton to Layered pages to talk with me about the importance of Historical Fiction and why she chose this genre to write in. DM is a native of Western New York, is a writer and artist inspired by music, nature, and the contradictions of the human and creative spirit. Through observation and study, truth and imagination, she wanders into the past to discover stories of interest and meaning for the present, writing from her love of language, the nuances of story-telling, and the belief that what is left unsaid is the most affecting of all. Having first gone to the UK to study English literature and history at Wroxton College, an overseas campus of Farleigh Dickinson University of New Jersey, Diane remained in England for sixteen years surrounded by the quaint villages, beautiful hills, woods and fields of Oxfordshire’s countryside. She eventually returned to Western New York State and currently resides in a cozy log cabin with her eighty-something mother and a multitude of cats. Her historical fiction A House Near Luccoli, which is set in 17th century Genoa and imagines an intimacy with the charismatic composer Alessandro Stradella, and its sequel To A Strange Somewhere Fled, which takes place in late Restoration England, were published by All Things That Matter Press, as were her historical fiction Kindle shorts, The Snow White Gift and The Library Next Door. Diane has done the artwork for the covers of both of her novels and published an illustrated poetry flower journal, A Friendship with Flowers. She is currently working on a collection of novellas featuring writers Anne Brontë, Christina Rossetti, and Mary Webb.
What are the periods of history focused on for your writing?
My two published novels, A House Near Luccoli and its sequel To A Strange Somewhere Fled are set in late 17th century Genoa and Oxfordshire, England respectively. I’ve also published two kindle short stories set in the late 19th century and the 1930s. My current project is a collection of three novellas about obscure women writers, covering the mid-1900s up through the 1920s.
Why Historical Fiction?
In hindsight, my journey towards writing historical fiction began in my early teens when I developed an insatiable appetite for classic literature, period films and plays, and Renaissance, Baroque, Classical, and traditional music. I’ve long had a fascination with the clothes, customs, social and political issues of the past, and I’m attracted to the lives of writers, artists, musicians, intellectuals, and innovators, but, also, ‘ordinary’ folk like gardeners and domestics. All in all, it’s more comfortable for me to write within a historical context; I feel I can reveal myself and still remain hidden. I can indulge my old-fashioned sensibilities yet still oblige my progressive tendencies, because history isn’t static, somewhere dead in time, but a life force for the present and future.
When did you know you wanted be a HF writer?
Following on the previous question, I really can’t say I made a conscious decision to be. I’ve loved history and been writing since I was a child, and, eventually, this genre of fiction brought the two together.
How much time do you spend on research? What sources do you use?
I do still work a day job, so the four to six months I spend on research before I begin writing is a weekend activity. As I’m the sole caretaker of my elderly mother, travel is not viable for me and I’m very grateful for the internet that takes me where I need to go and supplies much of what I need to know—or be refreshed on, if the setting is somewhere I have been, as with my last novel. I search out books, letters, essays, images, videos, music, every significant and insignificant thing; reading, watching, listening, assimilating, believing, belonging, and imagining. Of course, the research process continues even once I begin to write. I particularly like letters or personal diaries as they often reveal the secrets and nuances of a person or an event. I try to uncover as many viewpoints as I can and then choose which I think is the most viable, interesting, or even blend them. For instance, I’m presently writing about Anne Brontë and various biographies differ on whether or not she had a romantic attachment with her father’s curate William Weightman. There is a comment by Charlotte Brontë in one of her letters that gives an indication of an attraction between them, and a from-the-heart poem Anne wrote some time after his death expressing love and possibility lost to her, but there is no way to know for certain. My imagination relishes these uncertain areas and I especially enjoy weaving them into the facts of the matter.
What do you feel is the importance of historical fiction?
At its best it makes the past present for its readers, going between-the-history-book-lines to focus on the nuances of events, issues, and specific lives, stimulating curiosity, the senses and imagination. In my view it’s important to the understanding of history because it divulges rather than instructs and offers an intimate view that engage readers with the story consciously and emotionally. This is how it speaks to the human experience that can never completely disconnect from the past. Not least, it has the potential to bring more obscure stories and personages to the forefront.
Who are your influences?
My main influences have been classic writers, especially novelists like the Brontës, George Eliot, Thomas Hardy, Gustave Flaubert, Emile Zola, Nathaniel Hawthorn, Henry James, Edith Wharton, Mary Webb, DH Lawrence, H.E. Bates, Colette, and Jean Rhys. As far as any more contemporary writers, specifically in the Historical Fiction category, I would say Tracy Chevalier—Girl With a Pearl Earring really inspired me to write my novel A House Near Luccoli—and, also like Chevalier, because of their very sensory and lyrical focus on artists and musicians, Susan Vreeland, Susanne Dunlap, Stephanie Cowell, and Laurel Corona.
How much fiction (in your opinion) is best to blend with historical facts?
I think it varies according to how much factual information is available. The more obscure an event or character, the more interpretation and imagination are necessary. The fictional aspects flesh out the facts, humanize the characters, detail the vague, fill in gaps, and bring the unknown alongside the known, and the insignificant into the significant. Writing any kind of fiction needs the fertility of the imagination. With historical fiction, when the imagination comes in so does the magic of blending fact, supposition, and invention into a believable, breathing narrative.
How do you feel the genre has progressed in the last ten years?
It does seem to have gained more popularity through television and film adaptations. Unfortunately, popularity encourages repetition and discourages originality. In my opinion, writing, like all art, should take the less traveled road, one that is uniquely the writer’s or artist’s. All art needs to expand, progress, even be turned on its head. I’m glad to see there are other writers willing to produce as their creative spirits direct them rather than fall in line with a current trend, what the media machines determine readers want. In my mind, progress is more room for individuality and more appreciation of it. I do see a little glimmer here and there of that happening with historical fiction.
What are the important steps in writing HF?
I can’t help but think of the quote by W. Somerset Maugham: “There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately no one knows what they are.” But, in respect of the question, I’ll offer five components—not steps because they aren’t linear but on-going: connection, characterization, context, creativity, and commitment. Passionate connection to the subject; convincing characterization; in-depth knowledge of the context; creativity of expression; and a commitment to seeing it through.
What must you not do writing in this genre?
One thing that bothers me when reading historical fiction is the insertion of a history lesson that immediately puts me outside of the story and reminds me it’s somewhere I’m not. I think there is more harm done by too much information rather than too little. Another thing is the lack of relief from tragedy in some historical fiction. For me, a satisfying read, no matter its context, needs the everyday, the simple pleasures, a little humor, if just a fleeting awareness that life, even in its darkest moments, offers the consolation of, for example, a sunset or the scent of a flower. And just as with any writing, I don’t think the entertainment value of historical fiction should be ignored; even writers of historical non-fiction—and film producers like Ken Burns—realize readers become more engaged with and empathetic to history when they are entertained as well as informed by its presentation.
When writing, do you use visuals to give you inspiration? Such as historical pictures of people, castles, towns and such? What about historical objects?
I’ve sculpted stories in drawing, painting, and even doll making as well as with words. As an artist-writer, visualization is extremely important for me. Portrait and landscape paintings, photographs, virtual tours, and movies are all part of that visualization. Personal objects, even pictures of them, have an energy that transcends space and time, lifting a veil on the most private moments of the past. In my current research of Anne Brontë, I’m reading a recently published book called The Bronte Cabinet, Three Lives in Nine Objects by Deborah Lutz, which explores the concept of continuing “selfhood” in possessions of the dead.
Book Cover Images and Links:
Historical Fiction Links:
A House Near Luccoli Amazon
To A Strange Somewhere Fled Amazon