Hi, Kelly. Thank you for having me back to The Written World. Yesterday, I promised to share a few tips on writing historical fiction. I hope this helps any budding historical fiction authors in the audience.
The Writing Process
Blending fact with fiction is one of a writer’s most difficult jobs when attempting historical novels. You don’t want to sound like an encyclopedia, but then you don’t want to be able to have your setting so loosely drawn that your characters could be taken out and placed anywhere in the world and still speak and perform the same. In her historical fiction debut A Girl With A Pearl Earring, Tracy Chevalier strikes the perfect balance of fact and fiction. But how does she do it?
If you’ll take a moment to read the first few pages of Chevalier’s novel, (paying attention to the phrases that I’ve underlined), I’ll try to show you how she achieves that balance.
Excerpt of A Girl With a Pearl Earring
My mother did not tell me they were coming. Afterwards she said she did not want me to appear nervous. I was surprised, for I thought she knew me well. Strangers would think I was calm. I did not cry as a baby. Only my mother would note the tightness along my jaw, the widening of my already wide eyes.
I was chopping vegetables in the kitchen when I heard voices outside our front door -- a woman’s, bright as polished brass, and a man’s, low and dark like the wood of the table I was working on. They were the kind of voices we heard rarely in our house. I could hear rich carpets in their voices, books and pearls and fur.
I was glad that earlier I had scrubbed the front step so hard.
My mother’s voice -- a cooking pot, a flagon -- approached from the front room. They were coming to the kitchen. I pushed the leeks I had been chopping into place, then set the knife on the table, wiped my hands on my apron, and pressed my lips together to smooth them.
My mother appeared in the doorway, her eyes two warnings. Behind her the woman had to duck her head because she was so tall, taller than the man following her.
All of our family, even my father and brother, were small.
The woman looked as if she had been blown about by the wind, although it was a calm day. Her cap was askew so that tiny blond curls escaped and hung about her forehead like bees which she swatted at impatiently several times. Her collar needed straightening and was not as crisp as it could be. She pushed her grey mantle back from her shoulders, and I saw then that under her dark blue dress a baby was growing. It would arrive by the year’s end, or before.
The woman’s face was like an oval serving plate, flashing at times, dull at others. Her eyes were two light brown buttons, a color I had rarely seen coupled with blond hair. She made a show of watching me hard, but could not fix her attention on me, her eyes darting about the room.
“This is the girl, then,” she said abruptly.
“This is my daughter, Griet,” my mother replied. I nodded respectfully to the man and woman.
“Well. She’s not very big. Is she strong enough?” As the woman turned to look at the man, a fold of her mantle caught the handle of the knife, knocking it off the table so that it spun across the floor. The woman cried out.
“Catharina,” the man said calmly. He spoke her name as if he held cinnamon in his mouth. The woman stopped, making an effort to quiet herself.
I stepped over and picked up the knife, polishing the blade on my apron before placing it back on the table. The knife had brushed against the vegetables. I set a piece of carrot back in its place.
The man was watching me, his eyes grey like the sea. He had a long, angular face, and his expression was steady, in contrast to his wife’s, which flickered like a candle. He had no beard or moustache, and I was glad, for it gave him a clean appearance. He wore a black cloak over his shoulders, a white shirt, and a fine lace collar. His hat pressed into hair the color of brick washed by rain.
“What have you been doing here, Griet?” he asked.
I was surprised by the question but knew enough to hide it. “Chopping vegetables, sir. For the soup.”
“And why have you laid them out thus?” He tapped his finger on the table.
I always laid vegetables out in a circle, each with its own section like a slice of pie. There were five slices: red cabbage, onions, leeks, carrots and turnips. I had used a knife edge to shape each slice, and placed a carrot disk in the center.
The man tapped his finger on the table. “Are they laid out in the order in which they will go into the soup?” he suggested, studying the circle.
“No, sir.” I hesitated. I could not say why I had laid out the vegetables as I did. I simply set them as I felt they should be, but I was too frightened to say so to a gentleman.
“I see you have separated the whites,” he said, indicating the turnips and onions. “And then the orange and the purple, they do not sit together. Why is that?” He picked up a shred of cabbage and a piece of carrot and shook them like dice in his hand.
I looked at my mother, who nodded slightly.
“The colors fight when they are side by side, sir.”
He arched his eyebrows, as if he had not expected such a response. “And do you spend much time setting out the vegetables before you make the soup?”
“Oh, no, sir,” I replied, confused. I did not want him to think I was idle.
From the corner of my eye I saw a movement -- my sister, Agnes, was peering round the doorpost and had shaken her head at my response. I did not often lie. I looked down.
The man turned his head slightly and Agnes disappeared. He dropped the pieces of carrot and cabbage into their slices. The cabbage shred fell partly into the onions. I wanted to reach over and tease it into place. I did not, but he knew that I wanted to. He was testing me.
“That’s enough prattle,” the woman declared. Though she was annoyed with his attention to me, it was me she frowned at. “Tomorrow, then?” She looked at the man before sweeping out of the room, my mother behind her. The man glanced once more at what was to be the soup, then nodded at me and followed the women.
When my mother returned I was sitting by the vegetable wheel. I waited for her to speak. She was hunching her shoulders as if against a winter chill, though it was summer and the kitchen was hot.
“You are to start tomorrow as their maid. If you do well, you will be paid eight stuivers a day. You will live with them.”
I pressed my lips together.
“Don’t look at me like that, Griet,” my mother said. “We have to, now your father has lost his trade.”
“Where do they live?”
“On the Oude Langendijck, where it intersects with the Molenpoort.”
“Papists’ Corner? They’re Catholic?”
“You can come home Sundays. They have agreed to that.” My mother cupped her hands around the turnips, scooped them up along with some of the cabbage and onions and dropped them into the pot of water waiting on the fire. The pie slices I had made so carefully were ruined.
Metaphor and Simile
Literary devices are great tools. But if an author wants to stay true to their time period, so should their metaphors and similes. Before you begin using similes like Chevalier’s, ask yourself:
Brass: has it been invented yet?
Flagon: did such a thing exist?
Buttons: were they invented?
Cinnamon: have you set your novel in a country that would have grown or had access to cinnamon?
Sea: has your character actually seen the sea, or is s/he landlocked? Before comparing something to the sea, consider where you character has lived and is currently living.
Candle: are candles in use, or would your characters have used oil lamps instead?
Evoking A Sense of Place and Time
You don’t have to sound like a history book to evoke a time in history. Notice that Chevalier doesn’t need to have a character say, “Wow, it’s unseasonably warm for this time of year in Holland,” for us to know the setting of her novel. Nor does she have to point out that the story takes place several hundred years in the past. She does all of this through conversation and light (not heavy) description.
“You will be paid eight stuivers.” Stuivers was a coin that was used in the Netherlands until the Napoleonic Wars. Simply by having one character tell another how much she will be paid allows the reader to recognize the time and place. Even if you can’t date a stuiver, you know it’s not anything that was ever used in England or America, and that it’s probably not in use today.
“On the Oude Langendijck, where it intersects with the Molenpoort.” Having one character give directions to another character is a clever way of telling the reader where the story is located.
“I could hear rich carpets in their voices, books and pearls and fur.” Obviously, it’s long enough ago that owning a carpet, books and pearls was a sign of wealth. Today, it’s a sign that you went down to Walmart and picked up a few things.
“He wore a black cloak over his shoulders, a white shirt, and a fine lace collar.” It’s the phrase lace collar that tells you we’re not in the 21st century anymore, the land of mini-skirts and tube tops.
“Papists’ Corner? They’re Catholic?” Although religious conflict exists today, the fact that Griet is shocked that she will be working for a Catholic family dates the story. We have already been told that this is Holland, and in 21st century Holland I highly doubt anyone would be shocked to go to work for a Catholic family.
Also consider the Three Js of writing
Journey, Jeopardy and Justification
Where is the character going and how will the journey change him/her? Griet is going to become a maid for the first time in her life, and it will not only involve leaving her younger sister Agnes, it will involve moving away from her home. This journey changes her dramatically so that by the end of the novel there are times when Griet feels that her parents can’t understand her anymore.
Why is the character in danger? Is it his life? Is it her reputation? In Girl With a Pearl Earring it is Griet’s reputation, her place in Vermeer’s household, and her chastity in jeopardy.
Why does the character feel this way? Griet feels threatened by Vermeer’s household because they’re Catholic.
I hope this has given a few writers out there some food for thought. Researching historical fiction is great fun, but artfully placing the facts into a novel so that the story still flows can be challenging. Thank you for having me for a second day, and I look forward to returning again tomorrow!
Author of Nefertiti: A Novel