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Monday, December 10, 2012
Tuesday, December 4, 2012
For Wednesday,December 12th:
Monday, December 3, 2012
Thursday, November 29, 2012
Monday, November 26, 2012
In his book Hit Lit: Cracking the Code of the Twentieth Century’s Biggest Bestsellers, James W. Hall sets out twelve ingredients that drive bestsellers to the top of the charts. I’ve written about Hit Lit in three separate posts: Thoughts from Hit Lit, More Features of Hit Lit, and Hit Lit – the Final Six Features. According to Hall, best sellers incorporate the following: (1) an offer you can’t refuse, (2) controversy of the day, (3) colossal characters doing magnificent things on a sweeping stage, (4) America as paradise, (5) an abundance of facts and information, (6) inner workings of a secret society, (7) bumpkins versus city slickers, (8) God sells, (9) re-enactment of American national myths, (10) rebels, loners, misfits and mavericks, (11) fractured families and (12) sex.
Do the same ingredients apply to historical fiction? This is the question I’ve been deliberating for the last two weeks and I have some preliminary thoughts. I would be grateful for your feedback.
To come up with this list, I’ve analyzed interviews with top historical fiction authors (my own and others) and looked at reviews of their works in a number of forums. I’ve also looked for materials discussing the ‘popularity of historical fiction’. The survey I conducted last spring showed that the top three reasons people read historical fiction are to bring the past to life, to enjoy a great story and to understand and learn. Not surprisingly, these reasons are reflected in the ingredients that distinguish favourite authors and best selling historical fiction.
My analysis suggests the following critical ingredients.
- Superb writing. Similar to Hall’s first feature – an offer you can’t refuse – this ingredient covers prose, pacing, emotional resonance, plot twists and entertainment value. Table stakes for high quality fiction of any genre.
- Dramatic arc of historical events. In essence, successful authors are masters at finding and selecting what Hilary Mantel calls ‘the dramatic shape in real events’.
- Characters both heroic and human. Readers want to experience famous figures as believable characters complete with doubts and flaws. Readers also seek stories showing every day people accomplishing heroic tasks in times so different from today.
- Immersed in time and place. Activating all senses, authors like Sharon Kay Penman, Bernard Cornwell, Margaret George and others transport readers to another era from the very first paragraphs of their novels.
- Corridors of power. Whether ancient Rome, Tudor England or the American Civil War, best selling novels expose the structure, corruption and machinations of monarchy, military, religion, law, nobility, and upper-class society.
- Authentic and educational. Readers love to learn. The hallmark of a top historical fiction author is meticulous research followed by carefully chosen information to create a seamless blend of history and story.
- Ageless themes. Instead of Hall’s ‘controversy of the day’, favourite historical fiction dramatizes thought-provoking themes that are as important today as they were long ago.
- High stakes. Life, kingdoms, epic battles, fortunes, marriage, family. In historical fiction, characters risk on a grand scale.
- Romance. Men and women from long ago rarely chose their partners. Love was often thwarted. Women were pawns. Favourite authors incorporate this type of conflict.
- Dysfunctional families. Kings beheading their queens, brothers killing brothers, daughters betrothed at the age of six, incest, rivalry between father and son, wives banished or locked away – merely a few examples of dysfunctional family life that are the subjects of successful historical fiction.
Tuesday, October 30, 2012
World War I, I thought it would be interesting to put a German character on the island whose life is suddenly turned upside down once the flag changes from Danish to American. He had to be a sympathetic character, one my readers could identify with by the basic fact that he is the ultimate outsider: a foreign soldier behind enemy lines in the middle of a war.
But who would be my German character? And, more importantly, how would I put this German character in the Danish West Indies in the middle of a war?
Slowly over time, I devised a plot in which an officer from a German U-boat, Leutnant zur See Erich Seibold, deserts his ship because he refuses to sink any more passenger ships and cause the deaths of innocent civilians. He waits for the right moment, when the u-boat is prowling the waters of the
When he arrives in
Unbeknownst to Abby and Erich, a twist of fate brings Erich's true identity to the attention of the Director of the Hamburg-America Steamship Line, Lothar Langsdorff, who is also the German Consul. Langsdorff blackmails Erich into committing sabotage, setting the stage for the climax, which occurs when Langsdorff plots an assassination of the Danish Governor, setting the stage for the Germans to invade and install him as the first German governor of a German West Indian territory.
Once I had my three main characters set, the story flowed naturally. I took my German U-boat character (Erich Seibold), brought him to the Danish West Indies, introduced him to the island girl character (Abby Maduro), then added the element of danger when the German spy character (Lothar Langsdorff) discovers his presence and cunningly exploits his tenuous position by blackmailing him into assassinating the Danish Governor, to cause a riot and scare away the Americans from going through with the transfer.
To heighten the drama and add some local color, I introduce some real-life characters as well, such as Governor Helweg-Larsen, Queen Coziah (the legendary leader of the coal carriers), David Hamilton Jackson (a newspaper editor who challenged King Christian X for freedom of the press in the colonies), and Dr. Viggo Christensen, a physician who worked feverishly in the interest of public health.
Above all, authenticity was key. I was determined to portray life in the Danish West Indies during World War I as accurately as possible and spent many hours in exhausting, thorough research. It was a daunting task; however, once I scratched beneath the surface, I found that it was impossible to capture the captivating atmosphere of the islands, the culture, and the mannerisms, hopes, dreams, and fears of her people. Once I connected with my characters, I let them tell their story in their own words. In the end, a certain magic was created. The magic of bringing the past to life.
If the reader walks away knowing a little more about this forgotten historical event and being entertained and thrilled in the process, I will feel that I have more than accomplished my goal. When I look back on these five long years, I often feel that the characters guided me down this path, and that their story existed somewhere out there. I just had to find it, write it down, and share it with the world.
Now that I had my main character, I needed to introduce the element of danger. From scouring old New York Times articles, I knew that an important office of the Hamburg-America Steamship Line was located on the
To find out more about this
I turned to the National Archives in
to analyze the records and photocopy them. By the end of the day, I came home loaded with precious documents about his grandfather's dramatic last days on the island.
I had uncovered hand-written letters, formal memos and documents written by Swiss diplomats and State Department officials, emotional telegrams where he reaches out to his wife and colleagues, official documents regarding his internment in
society in the years leading up to and during the Great War contained a well-entrenched, affluent, influential German colony that invested huge sums of money in real estate, docks, warehouses, and a coaling depot. The German captains, officers and engineers who operated the steamships were all reserves in the Kaiserliche Marine. The upper management in the steamship office were German nationals as well, maintaining close contact with
While I was growing up in
Since no novel had yet been written that could satisfy my desire to read about and get lost in this fascinating world, I decided to write my own. Where to start?
The most momentous event to occur in this former Danish sugar colony was its 1917 sale and transfer to the
I decided to tell the story through the eyes of a blossoming young woman. For purposes of cultural exoticism, I made her a member of
When I was a child, one of the questions that had often swirled in my head concerned the ubiquitous island name Maduro. Lots of Virgin Islanders are named Maduro. It's almost as common as Smith or Jones are in the States, even belonging to a certain popular Senator. But the name always struck me as unusual, odd even. Island names such as Maduro, Robles, De Castro, and Henriquez exist even today. They are exotic, having an unmistakable Spanish-sounding ring to them. But where did they come from? How did these West Indian natives of a former Danish colony wind up with Spanish-sounding names? In my research, I learned that the name Maduro was actually a Sephardic Jewish name, brought to the island by 18th and 9th century immigrants whose roots spread all the way back to Holland, Portugal and Spain. This surprising discovery made my curiosity grow by leaps and bounds.
The name Maduro was adopted by 16th century Conversos from the Hebrew tribe of Levi who fled the Iberian peninsula for