I’d like to welcome Glen Craney to Layered Pages to talk with me about Historical Fiction & Meaning. Glen is an award-winning novelist, screenwriter, journalist, and lawyer. The Academy of Motion Pictures, Arts and Sciences has honored him with the Nicholl Fellowship prize for best new screenwriting. He is also a two-time indieBRAG Medallion Honoree and has three times been named a Foreword Reviews Book-of-the-Year Award Finalist. His debut novel, The Fire and the Light, was recognized as Best New Fiction by the National Indie Excellence Awards and as an Honorable Mention winner for Foreword’s BOTYA in historical fiction. His novels have taken readers to Occitania during the Albigensian Crusade, to the Scotland of Robert Bruce, to Portugal during the Age of Discovery, to the trenches of France during World War I, and to the American Hoovervilles of the Great Depression. He lives in southern California.
What are the periods of history focused on for your writing?
I’m an outlier, I guess. Most historical novelists tend to specialize, which makes sense for developing expertise and brand marketing. But I’ve always been drawn to a good story first, regardless of period. I blame my background in journalism. When I covered national politics with the Washington press corps, I chafed at being stuck on one beat. Because of this ranging curiosity, I’ve set novels in eras and places as varied as 13th-century Occitania, 14th-century Scotland, 15th-century Portugal, World War I, and the Great Depression in the United States. My current work-in-progress is an American Civil War story.
Why Historical Fiction?
I’ve always loved history. I had my imagination fired as a boy when a great uncle took me to the Kentucky battlefield where his father, a Union captain, had fought. Yet I never dreamed I’d one day be writing historical fiction. In college, a history professor suggested I become a medievalist. I laughed and thought the idea was absurd. But I’ve circled around from stints as a lawyer, a journalist, and a screenwriter. I’m partial to historical mysteries and uncertainties, and I’ve always had a soft spot for those whose voices have been suppressed or forgotten. Historical fiction gives one the freedom to fill in gaps and explore new explanations and theories.
When did you know you wanted be a HF writer?
I had a flirtation with the movie business after winning the Nicholl Fellowship, an award given by the Academy of Motion Pictures, Arts and Sciences. I’m often told my novels have a cinematic quality; maybe that’s because I first learned the craft of screenwriting. I soon discovered two hard truths about Hollywood: 1) It’s difficult to get any movie produced, but particularly an intelligent, sophisticated one that stays true to historical events; and 2) the original writer’s vision inevitably gets lost in the shuffle of multiple writers and studio demands for taking dramatic license. So, I decided to write the historical stories dearest to me as books. Then, if the filmmakers come calling, I’ll always have my version preserved.
How much time do you spend on research? What sources do you use?
I’ve spent months, even years, on research for each novel. It’s the part of the process I enjoy most, making discoveries and watching the puzzle take form. I try to travel to the places I write about, too, often more than once. Walking battlefields and climbing castles feeds the subconscious and yields unexpected insights. I also like to muck around in the archives. Primary sources for medieval novels can be challenging, but for my novels set during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, letters and files left by my characters have offered up a trove of nicknames, personality quirks, and motivations.
What do you feel is the importance of historical fiction?
Former GOP congresswoman Michele Bauchmann once said she went into politics after becoming enraged by Gore Vidal’s irreverent imagining of American icons such as Jefferson and Lincoln. Vidal must have welcomed Bauchmann’s umbrage with a wry grin. In my opinion, there can be no higher calling for an historical novelist than to rattle the cages of the powerful and expose history’s encrusted myths and hagiographies.
Before I decide to tackle a subject, I apply a three-pronged test: 1) Is it a great story? 2) Will it reveal or develop some new aspect about the period or person? and 3) Will it deal with issues relevant today? If you can satisfy two of the three conditions, you have a novel worth writing. If you find all three present, you’ll have a chance for one of those rare books that stands the test of time.
Who are your influences?
Because I’m always researching leads and possible projects, I read more nonfiction than fiction. Some of my favorite authors include William Manchester, Robert Caro, and David McCullough. On the fiction side, you can’t go wrong with Nigel Tranter or Sharon Kay Penman. Probably my earliest influence was the Classics Illustrated collection of comic books. My mother, a high school English teacher, would bring them home, and I would devour them. They were fantastic for introducing kids to the great works of literature.
How much fiction (in your opinion) is best to blend with historical facts?
History itself is a fiction. If you don’t believe me, read historian Thomas DesJardin’s marvelous book, These Honored Dead: How the Story of Gettysburg Shaped American Memory. By retracing the hours and days immediately after Pickett’s Charge, Desjardin demonstrated that much of the battle’s lore in fact never happened. Eyewitness accounts were found unreliable and twisted by hearsay, to such an extent that many Union and Confederate veterans went to their graves years believing they had participated in events that never occurred. Desjardin’s book should be required reading for historical novelists.
My favorite maxim was set by Tim O’Brien, who wrote novels about the Vietnam War: “A thing may happen and be a total lie; another thing may not happen and be truer than the truth.” If you can offer a plausible alternative to the traditional historical narrative, simply alert the reader to the variances in your author’s note and justify your reasons for adopting them. That’s why it’s called historical fiction.
How do you feel the genre has progressed in the last ten years?
The indie publishing boom has breathed new life into the genre. Traditional publishers usually chase the latest fad, making it difficult for authors writing in less popular periods or with unique styles to break past the gatekeepers. Now we authors can get our books directly to readers while maintaining control over our content and cover design. It’s a golden age for those eager to take charge of their careers. And wonderful organizations like indieBRAG have done the angels’ work by putting a spotlight on the many superb indie authors out there. I do wish more Americans took historical fiction as seriously as the Brits do. I’m envious when I see how valued and esteemed historical novelists are held in the UK.
What are the important steps in writing HF?
Don’t write a story unless you have a passion for it. Champion your characters with the zeal of a trial lawyer pleading their cases before a jury. Learn the mythic structures of the classics–start by reading Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell–and develop the second sight of a sculptor who perceives the outline of his finished masterpiece in the unhewn block. Accuse history’s victors and comfort its losers. And never forget Shakespeare’s admonition: “It is a heretic that makes the fire, not she which burns in’t.”
What must you not do writing in this genre?
Two sins I see committed most often: Jarring point-of-view shifts and information dumping, especially in dialogue. After you’ve done so much research, you want to demonstrate your acquired knowledge about the subject. But you must avoid that temptation, and instead apply time-tested techniques for weaving backstory into the action. Informing the reader of historical context should be like slowly boiling a live chicken; turn the temperature up degree by degree, and by dinnertime, the bird is on the plate without a squawk. No one wants to endure a lecture.
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 don’t collect pictures, but I do gather maps to orient myself to place and distances. And I find it helpful to play music evocative of the period while writing. I used Loreena McKennitt’s songs for my Scotland novel, troubadour music for my Cathar novel, and blues/jazz for my Depression-era novel.
Thank you, Glen!