Susanne Dunlap

How do you write an historical novel?

In Historical Fiction, The writing life on June 28, 2010 at 8:22 am

It’s my great pleasure to present today’s guest blogger, Stephanie Cowell. Stephanie is the author of five books of historical fiction, her most recent, Claude and Camille, is a romantic and beautiful imagining of the relationship of painter Claude Monet and Camille Doncieux. It is a stunning book, full of passion and told with a light touch worthy of Monet himself. Definitely put this one on your “to read” shelf!


How do you write an historical novel? Slowly. Like building and furnishing a new house.


I ask myself this question each time I begin writing a new novel. I look at other writers and sigh and say, “How do they do that?” I think some people write straight through though I believe these writers are rare. I have a fantasy one should start with Chapter I and write on in a neat, coherent way until the words The End….and then. But that doesn’t happen to me.

I once saw a typeset page of one of Balzac’s novels. His revisions and insertions in ink came to twice the total of typeset words and none were legible.

There are two types of writers: plot driven and character drive. The plot driven ones think of the plot first and the others (of which I am one) fall in love with characters and then try to come up with a sequence of events of what I call a rising plot line. This is where I start pulling out my hair and throwing it around the house.

There is a saying that novels are rewritten more than they are written. For me that is the case. There is also the wisdom that you can wait forever to find the perfect place for a particular sentence. And the frustrating and wonderful thing is when the novel is done, it seems as if it has fallen from heaven to the page, and you look back and can’t figure out why it ever took you so long.

For me the hard part isn’t the research. In fact I generally cut out 95% of my research in the final draft. I wrote a novel set in the ancient world once (still unfinished) which had so much history and what they drank and ate and wore that you had to get a shovel to find the plot.

Novels are so not much written as sculpted or molded from thousands of different things: history, a real character, a feeling you had when your mother left you when you were six, something you always longed for, a blue dress, a young man with dark eyes, a war, a dream. Then you combine hair styles, warm ale for breakfast, cobbled streets and so on. Thousands of things somehow finally come together in a plot line and become a novel.

I think I wrote my last novel CLAUDE & CAMILLE about ten times at least. I wasn’t sure how I wanted to tell the story. I had fallen in love with Claude Monet’s works from his twenties when no one wanted his art (a critic called it a bad design for wallpaper) and I knew I wanted it to be about his growing into a painter, and his great love who he lost, and his strong friendships with the other painters, especially his best friend Frédéric. It wasn’t until I decided to do it from the time when he was old and painting his water lily garden at Giverny, asking himself questions about this girl he had loved so much when he was young and his friends back then who would become the impressionists, that it found its center.  And a lot of the scenes had to be cut, dozens of them. I worked very hard with my editor and the book finally found its shape.

Someone once wrote, “There are three rules for writing novel; unfortunately, no one knows what they are.” Each novel has its own shape and problems and strengths, just like each person. As a historical novelist, I think you just find a period you adore and some characters who won’t leave you alone and have faith that you will bring everything together eventually into a wonderful story.


Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: