On Creating Authentic Historical Fiction
I have had the enormous privilege of interviewing Shelley Adina who has chosen to write a variety of fictional works, many grounded in history. Who better to tell us about the importance of research in historical fiction?
Shelley is the author of 24 novels published by Harlequin, Warner, and Hachette, and more than a dozen more published by Moonshell Books, Inc., her own independent press. She writes the Magnificent Devices steampunk series; as Charlotte Henry, writes classic Regency romance in the Rogues of St. Just series; and as Adina Senft, writes the Whinburg Township Amish series. She holds an MFA in Writing Popular Fiction, and is currently working on her PhD in Creative Writing at Lancaster University in the UK. She won RWA’s RITA Award® in 2005, and was a finalist in 2006. When she’s not writing, Shelley is usually quilting, sewing historical costumes, or enjoying the garden with her flock of rescued chickens.
I had to begin with the most basic question.
What is the attraction of historical fiction?
I think it’s twofold—reading historical fiction is like taking a vacation of the mind to a place long ago and far away, even if the actual physical location happens to be close by. And the second attraction is that, because it tends to be really well researched, the reader learns something. Facts, people, places, yes … but also something about themselves.
Who are your favorite authors in historical fiction?
Sherry Thomas, Deanna Raybourne, C.S. Harris, Anne Perry, Kristin Hannah … I could go on and on.
Talk about the importance of research in writing historical fiction.
One of my favorite subjects! My goal in writing a novel is not only to create characters with whom the reader can identify, and a plot that is both logical and believable for those characters, but also a world that the reader can sink into and experience as though they were there. My first Regency novel as Charlotte Henry, The Rogue to Ruin, recently got a review that said, “Alwyn’s [the heroine’s] England came alive for me wit Henry’s descriptions.” I felt my work there was done 🙂
Generally, what is your approach to research?
I believe in “feet on the ground.” I’ve been to London several times (steampunk), to Cornwall twice (Regency) and to Pennsylvania many times (Amish). For me, there’s no other way to experience a setting but to walk through it—climbing a stone stile as my Regency heroine might have done and smelling the sea air, walking through a field looking for plants for herbal remedies as my Amish healer might have done, strolling through the squares and crescents of Belgravia as my steampunk heroine might have done on her way home and judging distances and walking times.
For me, it’s important that my readers can experience these details in their minds the way I do in my memory of having been there. “Feet on the ground” isn’t for everyone. There are tools that give a pretty good approximation of it, though, like Google Earth, and books written by people local to the area you’re writing about. Historical societies and museums are really good sources of information, and live to point authors to all kinds of books and maps.
As Charlotte Henry, you write Regency romances. What attracted you to this time period?
I’ve always loved the Regency, even before the A&E version of Pride and Prejudice came out and kicked off the Jane Austen craze. I love the language, the clothes, the sheer style of it. Plus, the steam engine was invented in Cornwall during the Regency, so that’s always an attraction for me. I’ve coined the term Prinnypunk for the steampunk books I’m going to write in that period!
How and where did you research the Regency period?
When I sat down to write The Rogue to Ruin, book one of the Rogues of St. Just series, I found a couple of dozen research books already on my shelves from before I was ever published. I had books on clothing, customs, history, royalty … and thanks to a trip to Cornwall in 1998, I had books from my setting that are long out of print, and that I couldn’t get anywhere else. I mean, where else would you get a little book entitled, Cornish Names for Cornish Homes? Which is, of course, what I used to name all the estates in the Rogues of St. Just series. Morvoren Manor, Minear Park, Gwennel Cottage … all authentic Cornish names from that little book.
Even steampunk requires research
You have most recently been known for writing steampunk fiction in the Magnificent Devices and Mysterious Devices series. Define steampunk.
Steampunk is high technology in the Victorian age, with a little undercurrent of subversion—of female roles, of tropes, of society. It’s enormous fun.
What are the particular demands of historical research for steampunk?
Some authors create fantasy worlds, but I chose to set mine in alt-1800s Earth. So my research into steam vehicles, cities, the Wild West, and other settings is as close to real as I can make it, with little twists here and there to spin it into an alternative reality. For instance, in my 1889 London, Prince Albert is still alive and he and Queen Victoria are happily married and dancing at balls. Venice is a setting in a later book, but it rests on a giant clockwork invented by Leonardo da Vinci, because the Doge at the time was paranoid about being assassinated. Every day or two, the church bells ring, the bridges go up, and the various neighborhoods of Venice revolve into a new position. Highly disconcerting to the tourists.
What inspired you to write this genre?
I’ve loved steampunk since the sixties, when my favorite TV show was Wild Wild West. I always wanted to be Artemus Gordon, but when us kids recreated and embellished the episodes after school, the others always made me be James West because I was the oldest. When I wrote the first book of the Magnificent Devices series, Lady of Devices, my agent sent it to ten publishers, all of whom turned it down because they didn’t know how to market steampunk (eyeroll). I indie published it myself … and that was the beginning of a series that’s 18 books now, and counting.
Creativity in historic dress
You are a seamstress and quilter. Talk about the joys and challenges of including period detail in the dress of a given time period. What are your personal favorites?
The best part about this is being able to wear the dresses to reader events! In steampunk, it’s sort of expected that you’ll appear in costume. I’ve got in the habit of creating clothes in the stories that I can make, so that my public appearances are all of a piece with the books. Probably the greatest difficulty in making period clothes is finding sources for the detail. Janet Arnold’s Patterns of Fashion books are very helpful here. There are online sources for patterns, too, such as the La Mode Bagatelle pattern for the Regency Wardrobe. It’s a tragedy that this pattern is out of print. I’m hoarding my single copy like a dragon hoards gold.
Learning through writing historical fiction
Share insights that you have reached through writing historical fiction.
One of them is that women in history didn’t think the same way women do today. Their expectations of life were much different, and they had restrictions that are unimaginable to us. I walk a very fine line in bringing to the reader a character she would want to spend hours of her life with, whom she can understand, while at the same time placing her believably in a time and location. This is easy in steampunk, where one of the tropes of the genre is the woman who defies society in order to realize her own potential. It is more difficult in both Regency and Amish fiction, where those societies are constructed so that the woman occupies a sphere that is simultaneously very restricted and yet her own unquestioned domain.
In a previous interview, you mentioned “little gifts” from God. Can you tell us about some “little gifts” you have discovered in your historical research?
China clay was a little gift. Who knew that one of the very few locations one could dig the fine white clay from which porcelain was made … was in China, yes, but also right there in Cornwall not twenty miles from my imaginary parish of St. Just! So of course that became the source of wealth for the Penrose family.
Another little gift was my husband’s unexpectedly producing the murder weapon from The Matchmaker Wore Mars Yellow, which is the third book in my Mysterious Devices steampunk mystery series (releasing May 29!). I said I needed an Old West kind of gun that had a certain number of specific characteristics … and he went out to the Garage of Mystery and found it for me! A third little gift was discovering that one of the only two Zeppelin airships left in the world was moored half an hour from my house. One of the best experiences of my life was going up in it with my husband and several other adventurous souls, and really living the sensations of flight in a Zeppelin. It’s not like an airplane, that’s for sure.
Thanks so much for hosting me, Gale! And now, might I offer you a cup of tea and a short flight aboard this airship? We’ll set a course for 1889 London, shall we?
How delightful! Oh, yes, please!