I’d like to welcome Anna Belfrage to Layered Pages today as part of the indieBRAG Author Blitz. Anna is the author of the wonderful Graham Saga. Today she shares with me why she writes historical fiction and what it means to her.
Anna, what are the periods of history do you focus on for your writing?
If you’d asked me twenty years ago which historical period I was most drawn to, I’d have said the medieval period – rather specifically Britain in the 12th to 15th century. But then I sort of discovered the 17th century, a bridgehead between the old and the new that is mostly characterized by religious wars – at least in Europe. Plus we have the flamboyant Stuarts (although to be fair, they’d been around for centuries by the time James VI became James I of England), the fascinating Louis XIV (not one of my favourites) and, of course, us Swedes could boast an Empire of our own, more or less. A short-lived period, all in all. Some decades into the 18th century and we’d been severely put in place by Russia and Peter the Great.
So these days I write a lot set in the 17th century – The Graham Saga is set in this period, both in Scotland and the American Colonies – but first loves are always first loves, which is why my next series will be set in 14th century England.
Why Historical Fiction?
I’ve read historical fiction since I first began to read – at least that is how it seems to me in retrospect. Actually, now that I think about it, I do believe this perception reflects my mother’s ambition to introduce me to the classics, so as a young girl I read tons of books that had not been written as historical fiction, but that now, per definition, were historical, such as Huckleberry Finn and Great Expectations. Plus there was Dumas, and once I discovered him – and Shellabarger, and Sabatini and Jean Plaidy and Edith Pargetter and… Well: I was stuck.
When did you know you wanted be a HF writer?
I’ve always wanted to write. Actually, to judge from all those notebooks I still keep buried in an old box in the cellar, I have always written – and almost always about the past. I fell in love with history at a very early age, and being gifted with a vivid imagination I spent most of my time pretending I was someone else, in another century. Preferences were the 12th century (Specifically with Richard Lionheart lounging about in the background). Or the 4th century BC, seeing as I also had a crush on Alexander the Great and his horse.
How much time do you spend on research? What sources do you use?
I actually use a lot of the resources available on internet these days. As an example, one can find Nicholas Culpeper’s 17th century herbal out there, as well as tons of academic articles and research. Some of these require that you pay, but a lot of the stuff is free. Generally, browsing the internet will point me in the direction of certain works, and these I’ll buy and stack on my desk, everything from detailed biographies to books about food and life in general. I rarely go to primary sources but now and then I’ll get stuck in letters and such, and I recently acquired a gigantic tome containing all the records – every single witness statement – from the Salem trials. Seeing as I’m not planning on writing about Salem, this may seem a ridiculous purchase…
Also, when in dire need I can always send out a question on one of the various FB sites I belong to. Chances are there will always be someone who knows just what books to read about the Cathars, or the Muslim kingdoms in Spain.
My problem with research is that I get so easily distracted. At present, I’m working on a series set in the 1320s. By chance, Bordeaux cropped up – well, not so much by chance, as Bordeaux was an important place to the English, but still. Now, I was not about to set any of my scenes in Bordeaux, nor do much more than mention it, and then suddenly I find a little something about how the Bordeaux wine merchants refused to touch the wine from the Armagnac region, and this led me to read about Armagnac, and then I’m in the 15th century, totally lost in the world of early distilling techniques and the history of single distilled brandy, also known as Armagnac. Did it help with my WIP? No. But I had a lot of fun…
What do you feel is the importance of historical fiction?
One of my main insights is that people are more or less the same, no matter in what age they live. Yes, perceptions are different, and as most of us aspire to conform to the norms of the society we belong to, a woman raised in 12th century Italy would be very different from a woman raised in the here and now. Superficially. Because once we start scraping off the veneer of our respective civilisations, what emerges is scarily similar. Greed, ambition, envy, pride, passion and love – they have as large an influence on us today as they had on the people of the long ago. We might not like to admit it – modern man is after all supposed to be so rational – but some things come ingrained in our DNA, and changes at the mitochondrial level occur at a very, very slow pace.
By depicting how people of the past acted, how they felt, we are in fact presenting modern readers with a mirror – an opportunity to face up to what being human is all about, but at a once removed. That way, we can for example admit that we rather admire the bull-headed tenacity of Rodrigo Borgia, a.k.a. Pope Alexander IV, despite being quite horrified by how his ends justify his means. Are we, as writers, always aware of the mirror we hold up? No, because sometimes we’re lost in the storytelling. Do we, as readers, always draw the conclusions we should draw? No, because just like our forebears, introspection is not our strongest skill.
Who are your influences?
I was eleven when my mother gave me Kristin Lavransdotter by Sigrid Undset. I was somewhat older when I read Vilhelm Moberg’s books about Karl-Oskar and Kristina who left Sweden for America. At thirteen, my mother gave me Mary Renault’s books about Alexander. After that, I consumed more or less anything set in the past, happily leaping from one period to the other. As a youngish adult I discovered Sharon Kay Penman. I fell in love. And then there’s Pamela Belle and her wonderful books about Thomazine and Francis, set in 17th century England. Plus…No: this list could go on and on.
How much fiction (in your opinion) is best to blend with historical facts?
I think it important to underline that Historical Fiction is precisely that: fiction. Even when writing about real historical people, we must keep in mind that we don’t know these shadowy ghosts from the past. What we have are fragments of their lives (at best), mentions in this roll or the other, acidic comments in one chronicler’s version of events, praise in another’s. So what any good historical fiction author does is that he/she constructs a picture – fleshes out the spare bones we have left to create a living, breathing character (in as much as characters can breathe, of course). Every such representation is incorrect in that it does not – cannot – be a fair representation of the person who lived and died all those years ago.
This is why we get such varied depictions of historical people. Authors may start with the same bare facts, but then they’ll add biases and personal values, which is why Henry Tudor may come across as the villain in one book, as an earnest man with a mission in another. Thing is, we have no idea what he was really like. Was he passionate in bed? Did he have the enervating habit of sucking his teeth as he thought? Did he take reading matter with him to the garderobe? Did he eat the veggies first? Did he now and then curse that meddlesome mother of his to hell and back (of course he did!)?
I guess the long and short of all this is that a historical fiction author must know his/her period, must be familiar with customs and foods, clothes and values. Of course, when writing about real people, the author needs to have read up on the facts that exist. But these are just the building blocks. A historical fiction author first and foremost wants to tell a story, and sometimes those real life characters have to be tweaked – a bit – so as to create the required tension. And so Henry Tudor is at times represented as diabolical, at others as an ambitious man who truly believes he deserves the English crown. A skilled author will have the reader accepting either or – for the sake of the story as such.
How do you feel the genre has progressed in the last ten years?
More and more, Historical Fiction is becoming a description of the human condition in general, thereby allowing it to step outside the boundaries imposed by such epithets as “costume drama”. Also, where before it was very much Medieval, Tudor, Roman or Regency, these days the epochs explored are more varied – as are the geographical settings. This enriches the genre – although at times I’m not so sure it is a genre. Essentially, Historical Fiction is an umbrella for books as varied as thrillers and romances that just have one thing in common: they’re set in the past. But hey, as long as the books keep coming, I’m not complaining, and I am as happy reading a well-wrought historical romance as I am reading about political conspiracies in 13th century Florence.
What are the important steps in writing HF?
Know your period. What did people eat and wear, what was happening in the world around them, and how did it impact them? Like when the Clarendon Code was implemented after the restoration of Charles II. Suddenly, the ministers of the Scottish Kirk were evicted from their livings– unless they recognized the king as the head of their church, which more or less none of them did – and as a consequence congregations were left without a preacher. So the Scots took to the moors, held secret services and baptisms, and as this was in violation of the law, they were hunted and persecuted, fined and deported – all for adhering to their faith. Talk about a major impact, right?
What must you not do writing in this genre?
I have an aversion to “info-dumps”. This is when the author does not weave the historical detail into the story, but rather adds a paragraph or two to show that they do know their history, and this is what was happening at the time.
If the story is set in the first few years of the 15th century, and if it is relevant to the story that Henry IV has recently usurped his throne, then I expect that information to be woven into the narrative, not have a long passage describing the background, the events, and the consequences. Instead, in one conversation the background is alluded to. In another, the speakers may allude to the fate of the noblemen who plotted to kill Henry IV and his young sons. There may be casual comments as to the previous king, and did Henry IV really starve him to death? Aye, some say, others say no. This way, you build the background bit by bit, a jigsaw puzzle that your reader puts together as he goes.
It is also important to understand the norms of the time. F.ex. if you’re setting the story in the 14th century, then you must be aware of Church teachings on such things as abstinence during Lent. Do I believe people abstained from making love during Lent? No, not really, just as I believe couples who loved each other were intimate even when the woman was with child. BUT: the Church taught that this was a sin, and therefore the characters must reflect on it, just as they may sigh at the repetitive diet of salted fish and more salted fish in the weeks leading up to Easter. Likewise, our tender lovers would now and then have to go to confession and do penance – to not do so was to endanger your immortal soul.
Finally, skip the faux period dialogue. It does you no favours, and the same can be said if you’re writing in too much of a dialect. Sacrificing comprehension on the altar of historical (or geographical) accuracy is always a stupid thing to do – even more so as most of us (yet again) have but a vague idea of how spoken English would have sounded in the late 1300s or 1600s. My first editor returned my MS with a number of encouraging comments, a number of suggested rewrites and a capital letter comment in red regarding my attempted 17th century dialogue. “The only author I’ve seen get this right is Anthony Burgess – and you’re not a budding Burgess.” Well, that told me, didn’t it? She went on to say: “Dialogue is what drags the reader into the story – make sure they don’t have to spend valuable minutes deciphering what your protagonists are saying, that will simply kill the read for them.”
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 spend a lot of time looking at paintings. When writing about the 17th century, you can more or less drown in fantastic artwork (I’m a big fan of the Dutch painters) in which you can see everything from clothes to furniture to everyday objects. It’s important to keep in mind that the people depicted in the period portraits are not your average Joe, but I am definitely helped by spending hours in art museums.
When writing about earlier periods, I also look at illustrations (I love Froissart!)
I’ve spent a lot of time in castle ruins. My honeymoon was a joyous three-week splurge in every single castle ruin in northern Wales, plus a number of other highlighted castles. Fortunately, my husband is as interested as I am in castles (not so much ion clothes and such) and so he patiently tagged along as we explored everything from garderobe towers to potential oubliettes.
About the Graham Saga
This is the story of two people who should never have met – not when she was born three centuries after him. But sometimes impossible things happen, and so Alex Lind ends up at the feet of Matthew Graham. Life will never be the same for Alex – or for Matthew.
Had Anna been allowed to choose, she’d have become a professional time-traveller. As such a profession does as yet not exists, she settled for second best and became a financial professional with two absorbing interests, namely history and writing. These days, Anna combines an exciting day-job with a large family and her writing endeavours.
When Anna fell in love with her future husband, she got Scotland as an extra, not because her husband is Scottish or has a predilection for kilts, but because his family fled Scotland due to religious persecution in the 17th century – and were related to the Stuarts. For a history buff like Anna, these little details made Future Husband all the more desirable, and sparked a permanent interest in the Scottish Covenanters, which is how Matthew Graham, protagonist of the acclaimed The Graham Saga, began to take shape.
Set in 17th century Scotland and Virginia/Maryland, the series tells the story of Matthew and Alex, two people who should never have met – not when she was born three hundred years after him. With this heady blend of romance, adventure, high drama and historical accuracy, Anna hopes to entertain and captivate, and is more than thrilled when readers tell her just how much they love her books and her characters.
Presently, Anna is hard at work with her next project, a series set in the 1320s featuring Adam de Guirande, his wife Kit, and their adventures and misfortunes in connection with Roger Mortimer’s rise to power. The King’s Greatest Enemy is a series where passion and drama play out against a complex political situation, where today’s traitor may be tomorrow’s hero, and the Wheel of Life never stops rolling. The first instalment in the Adam and Kit story, In the Shadow of the Storm, will be published in the autumn of 2015.