Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Historical Fiction Round Table Discussion - February Edition

Welcome to the February edition of the historical fiction round table. We have an interesting and diverse panel of authors, each with their own unique perspective and insight. On a personal note, I've enjoyed getting to know each author individually. I feel this blog series has helped make the world a smaller place. I'm thrilled to report our January post received over 1000 views! (Smiley Face emoji)

To learn more about an author and their books please click on their name and you will be taken directly to their Amazon author page. Please pour yourself a cup of coffee, or if the hour permits, an adult beverage of your choice. Chocolates are encouraged but not always mandatory. Good humor is mandatory, but not always encouraged.  And so, without further ado, here's our panel of authors:

Kathleen (Kathie) Shoop is the bestselling author of The Road Home and The Last Letter, which won the IPPY Gold Award in 2011 for Best Regional Fiction, Midwest. She has won numerous literary awards and has been featured in USA Today and her writing has appeared in The Tribune-Review and 4 Chicken Soup for the Soul  books.

Anna Belfrage is the author of the acclaimed time-slip series The Graham Saga, which won the Historical Novel Society’s Indie Award in 2015. Her new series, The King’s Greatest Enemy, is set in the 1320's and features the adventures of Adam de Guirande and his wife during Roger Mortimer’s rise to power.

Elizabeth Jane Corbett is a librarian, Welsh teacher, and book reviewer for the Historical Novel Society. An early draft of her first novel The Tides Between was short-listed for a HarperCollins Varuna manuscript development award and will be published by Odyssey Books in October of 2017. She blogs at elizabethjanecorbett.com

Cindy Rinaman Marsch is the Pennsylvania-based author of Rosette: A Novel of Pioneer Michigan. After three decades teaching writing, she is enjoying the adventure of finally penning her own novels. The illustrated paperback version of Rosette contains 24 charcoal illustrations by her talented daughter, Betsy Marsch. She is presently working on a new novel set during the Civil War era.

Vicky Adin is the author of The Girl from County Clare. She holds a Master’s Degree in English and Education and is fascinated by the 19th Century pioneers who undertook hazardous journeys to find a better life. She writes poignant historical novels that weave family and history together in a way that makes the past come alive.

Terri Nixon is the author of Penhaligon’s Attic and a half dozen other novels of Historical Fiction and Mythic Fiction. After moving to the village featured in Jamaica Inn, she discovered a love of writing that has stayed with her ever since. She works in the Faculty of Arts and Humanities at Plymouth University and is under contract with Piatkus Books of Little, Brown.

ElisabethStorrs is the author of The Wedding Shroud and several other novels of Historical Fiction. After discovering the little known story of the struggle between Etruscan Veii and Republican Rome, she was inspired to write the Tales of Ancient Rome series which are published by Lake Union Publishing. She is the co-founder of the Historical Novel Society Australasia.

Panelists, thanks for joining us! (Heart emoji) Please start by telling us where you were born:

Kathie:  Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
Anna:   Stockholm, Sweden
Elizabeth:  Essex, England
Cindy:   Jacksonville, Florida
Vicky:   Cardiff, Wales
Terri:    Plymouth, UK (at home!)
Elisabeth:  Sydney, Australia

What is the first book you read that took you to another time and place?

Kathie:  The first book I read that transported me was Gone with the Wind. I'd fallen in love with Judy Blume books and all the usual middle grade and young adult books of the late '70's and '80's, but because my family is full of history buffs, it didn't take long for my sister and I to get our hands on Margaret Mitchell's classic. That book turned me into a life-long reader. 

Anna:   The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry.

Elizabeth:  Probably my Brimful Book, a collection of stories, poems and articles. Also, Richard Scary's, What Do People Do All Day. We had a children's version of Oliver Twist that fascinated me too. In terms of novels, ever since I got lost on a lonely moor with the Famous Five, my life has never been the same.

Cindy:  The Magic Butterfly and Other Tales of Central Europe. I studied the intricate illustrations long before I had the skills or patience to read the stories.

Vicky:  I grew up reading Enid Blyton’s Famous Five series. As an only child, I always wished I could have friends to go on adventures with.

Terri:   I think it has to be the wonderful Faraway Tree books by Enid Blyton. Couldn’t go near woods for ages without looking up, and wondering...

Elisabeth:  I was a voracious reader from a very young age so it’s hard to pinpoint one particular book. Gone with the Wind was a favorite. I read it three times in a row so the cover fell apart. My mother kept complaining that I’d grow corns if I didn’t get up and move.

Two authors on this panel fell under the spell of Enid Blyton.

Who is the first writer that inspired you to become a historical novelist?

Kathie:  When I read Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephants (after getting an agent with women’s fiction and writing a ton of that) it really sunk in that I could and wanted to write Historical Fiction.

Anna:   Rosemary Sutcliff. I remember reading her books and then rushing off to find a notebook and start writing my own masterpiece, only to find I had mostly rewritten the book I had just read.

Elizabeth:  It took me a long time to get the confidence to start writing. I recall reading an article about Diana Gabaldon’s writing process one day and realizing I didn’t have to know everything to start writing. I decided to begin with the research and see if I could find a story. As emigration was the single-most defining moment of my childhood, I started out reading a biography of Caroline Chisholm, a woman who advocated on behalf of 19th century Australian Immigrants.

Cindy: Probably Willa Cather’s My Antonia. She really captured my imagination with her evocation of that time and place. But since I aspired to be a short story writer or a contemporary novelist, it took Rosette Cordelia Ramsdell Churchill’s journal—a thrift store find— to prod me into telling her story.

Vicky: New Zealand author, Deborah Challinor first and foremost. In my early reading days authors like Barbara Erskine, Jean Plaidy, Victoria Holt, Philippa Gregory, there are so many.

Terri:  It wasn’t a writer; in fact, it was my grandmother and her stories. I always said the one genre I’d never write, is historical!

Elisabeth:  Mary Renault.  I discovered The Persian Boy in the school library and found it a real eye opener. Renault’s prose was so lyrical and evocative, and she added a new dimension to historical characters which melded research with real emotion. I wanted to challenge myself to do the same.

What are you reading right now?

Kathie:  A Memory of Violets by Hazel Gaynor

Anna:  The Second Blast of the Trumpet by Marie McPherson and Elanor of Castile by Sara Cockerill

Elizabeth:  I just finished Hollywood Daughter by Kate Alcott and I’m about to start America’s First Daughter by Stephanie Dray and Laura Kamoie.

Cindy:  I just finished Pride’s Children: Purgatory by Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt and plan on reading Dorothy Sayer’s Murder Must Advertise.

Vicky: The Shifting Fog by Kate Morton. Before that, Fifteen Postcards by Kirsten McKenzie, The Craigsmuir Affair by Jen Black, The Cloud Leopard’s Daughter by Deborah Challinor, Castle of Dreams by Elise McCune, All the Light we Cannot See by Anthony Doer... shall I go on?

Terri: I’m currently reading (and loving) the third book in Anita Davison’s Flora Maguire series – historical mysteries.

Elisabeth:   All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. 

In your opinion, what are the necessary ingredients that create a breakout novel?

Kathie: Great characters and a suspenseful plot, events that make the reader want to know more. Other than that I think a writer simply needs to tell their story and not aim for any specific genre or era in the hopes that it fits a “breakout novel” mold. I’m sure that there are authors who’ve managed to succeed in doing just that, but I think most times, trying to craft a story with that intention might strangle the quality of magic in the story.

Anna:  Strong characters, a gripping plot, and a well-presented setting. The latter is especially important in historical fiction.

Elizabeth:  I don’t tend to read breakout novels. I prefer to read eclectically and favor novels with layers of subtlety.

Cindy:   Hmm . . . breakout as a commercial success? That would be savvy marketing. The book has to be competent but not necessarily special. I fear (or console myself!) that the lovely solid books of the world are mostly sleepers these days.

Vicky:   A good story, well told. Engaging characters who draw the reader in to share their troubles and joys, and care about what happens.

Terri: It has to have something fresh and new, whether that is an astonishing plot line, or brave subject matter, or the author’s voice is too strong to be ignored.

Elisabeth: Elegant prose, authentic research that doesn’t ‘show through’, flawed characters who are true to their times, and a narrative flow that drives the reader through to a nerve wracking or heart wrenching crisis.

Most readers would agree that The Help fulfilled the 3 necessary ingredients of a breakout novel: an astonishing plot, brave subject matter, and not 1, not 2, but 3 distinct character voices.

 In your opinion, what causes a novel to fall flat?

Kathie:  If I get hooked immediately on voice or character, I don’t need the book to be earth-shattering, plot-wise. Historical books that are too fact heavy (meaning info dumps) can be boring. I read a ton of nonfiction so it’s not that I don’t appreciate facts, but for me fiction has to have that feel of being drawn into a tale. I want to be part of the story, big or small, internal conflict or external, I just need to feel it.

Anna:  Characters that do not engage the reader. Plus, I hate it when the author uses the novel to showcase his/her huge knowledge of the period, treating the reader to endless and repeated “info-dumps”.

Elizabeth:  I read primarily for character and setting. Card board, clichéd characters deter me, particularly with regard to historical women thinking like modern women. Also, novels that have too many convenient occurrences are annoying. I like a well-developed sense of place.

Cindy: Laziness or failure of strength, or the squeeze of a deadline. I found that in a novel I read recently (a modern treatment of Shakespeare’s King Lear) that began so beautifully, with the evocation of Iowa farmland and agricultural life, but at the big reveal everything just tumbled downhill predictably and tediously for the rest of the book. [Editor’s Note: This particular novel won the Pulitzer Prize.]  Writing a solid novel takes endurance at every level over a long period of time. I’ve written only one so far, and I'm happy with it.

Vicky: Bad editing – bad grammar and spelling with typos turns all readers off. Also slow pace and flat characters.

Terri:  Several things can stop a person reading, but if a good many of them stop, it’s usually because the writer has shown a lack of respect towards the reader in one way or another; lazy writing, or assuming a lack of intelligence and ability to pick up clues and nuances. 

Elisabeth:  Books that don’t build on substantive history, and characters that don’t invite the reader to become invested in their plights. If you don’t care about a protagonist’s struggles, or if the antagonist is not driven by plausible motives, then it’s difficult to maintain my interest.

If you could go back in history and relive an event, what would it be?

Kathie:  The Titanic. I would survive of course!

Anna:   The fall of Constantinople in 1453. Or the defenestration in Prague in the early 17th century, one of the sparks that led to the Thirty Years’ War.

Elizabeth:  I'm currently researching a novel set in late 13th/early 14th century Wales that will be told from the point of view of Owain Glyndwr's wife, Marred. I would have loved to have been at Glyndyfrydwy on Sept. 16, 1400 when his rebel army mustered, to hear their speeches because no one really knows what happened that day.

Cindy:   The return of my paternal grandfather from a Japanese prison camp in the 1940’s to my grandmother, father, uncle, and aunt. It was a wrenching but joyous time on so many levels. Maybe I’ll write about it one day, using my grandmother’s poems as inspiration, and my aunt’s memory of waiting nervously on the front porch for the daddy she’d never known.

Vicky:  I’d like to have been with Kate Sheppard, the leading light in New Zealand’s suffragette movement. In 1893, she and her fellow suffragettes presented a 880 foot long petition to Parliament that contained the signatures of nearly 32,000 women. The Electoral Act of 1893 was passed by both houses of Parliament and became law on September 19th of that year. NZ Women voted in the November elections.

Terri:   I think it would be Armistice Day 1918.

Elisabeth:  I wouldn’t mind eavesdropping on one of Cicero’s speeches to see how he manipulated or inspired a crowd. His rhetoric is legendary and he was involved in momentous events in Roman history.

A chance to relive the sinking of the Titanic might raise your insurance premiums.

What do you think are the historical periods we’ll be reading about in 2017 and beyond?

Kathie:  I'm not sure. I love to read all eras. As long as the blurb summons me with the sense that someone is going to get lost and find her/his way, you’ve got me. 19th century and early 20th century are particularly enticing to me, but stories like Year of Wonders does the job, too! I’m easy.

Anna: There seem to be some perennial favorites, notably the Tudor period and WWII, but I think the late 19th century and the 17th century will be getting some of the limelight

Elizabeth:  I’m not certain about an era, but I believe books that show a woman’s alternate view of history are going to be popular.

Cindy:  WWII is a perennial favorite, but archaeological digs are teaching us a lot about past civilizations, revealing a level of sophistication not previously known – for example the Chinese culture that existed 1000 years before Rome, or the Giants of Mont’e Prama. [Editor’s note: Created by the Nuragic civilization of Sardinia, Italy, the giants are colossal statues that date from the 11th to 8th century BC.] 

Vicky:  Any history, but especially WWII. The world still has a lot of lessons to learn about how Hitler got to be the powerhouse he became.

Terri:  So much of what we consider ‘yesterday’ is actually proper history now, so I think our recent political decisions, (*ahem*) and the rise of social media over the past 20 years or so, are going to be viewed as the life-changing events they are, and studied quite closely.

Elisabeth:  Fiction set during the world wars. These periods seem to have replaced the world’s obsession with everything Tudor. Luckily I like both eras.

What an exquisite story this Nuragic sandstone warrior would tell! 
Photo © 2009 by DedaloNur 

What is the hardest thing about starting a new writing project?

Kathie:  Nothing!! I love the beginning of project. I love the research, the characters leaping to life in my mind, the possibilities, collecting artifacts that my characters will use—all of it. Writing first drafts is pure delight for me. The real writing, rewriting, is what is so hard for me.

Anna:  Letting go of the previous one. I develop a strong relationship with my characters, so telling them bye-bye while moving on is always a heart-wrenching experience.

Elizabeth: Deciding. Once I've found my topic, I'm pretty obsessive. I have no trouble sustaining the interest. Also, confidence. I feel nervous in front of a blank page.

Cindy:  Deciding how to frame it, what bounds to set, and how far to get into the depths of history. My work-in-progress, Solomon Ramsdell: A Novel of the Civil War Era, requires a certain amount of savvy in that history. I have to decide how accurate I need to be, how much of the war experience I want to tell, and how much to leave in the background, since Solomon’s REAL story begins after the war.

Vicky:  Getting into the character. It’s easy to start writing about the story, the hard part is living the story and getting inside the character’s heads to feel what they feel.

Terri:  For me, it’s the title. I need to have at least a working one in place, and I can’t ever call it ‘book 3’ or ‘new project’ for more than about ten minutes. But I am rubbish at titles; it sometimes takes weeks to come up with even a decent working one!

Elisabeth:  Escaping the tar pit of research. I love research but you need to stop at some point. I’m struggling with this at the moment!

How has writing about history changed your perspective about history?

Kathie: I have many primary sources for almost every story I write; therefore, I have a view into the “real” way people spoke, interacted, and saw the world. What I’ve found is the way popular culture portrays people and events is often very different than the way things were. Digging into a time period, going past the obvious or the popular memories of a time is very informative for me. There are times readers are put off by this, as they prefer to adhere to a certain worldview rather than to see something in a new way.

Anna:  I’m not so sure it has. I’ve always been a huge consumer of non-fiction history, and have always been a bit frustrated by the fact that so much of recorded history deals with the rich and famous, while all the people who were an essential part of life—the bakers, the butchers, the laundresses, the farmers—rarely get more than a mention. Writing historical fiction allows me to explore the “ordinary” lives, since most of my characters are “ordinary”, even if their lives are occasionally impacted by their interactions with the high and mighty. 

Elizabeth: I guess reading primary documents and seeing the fictional leaps that authors make has shown me how little we actually know. Also, the level of detail needed to write a scene is different from the information in official documents. I enjoy living history publications that help fill those gaps.

Cindy:  Oh, it was a great joy to dive into Rosette’s world, and to visit her farm and its neighbors not much changed in the last century and a half, to see her family tombstones, the house she and her husband Otis built, the river they crossed to the town she visited from time to time. I feel I know her now, and she will never know how many others do as well.

Vicky:  History is about ordinary people living their ordinary lives, just as we do today, while all around the world is changing. It makes heroes out of some people and victims out of others, but most people happily live their lives unaware. Politicians rewrite laws and create policies that change what has been into what will be. Sometimes life is better, sometimes not. War is about power and control. Humans are resilient and can adapt, but few learn from the mistakes of the past.

Terri: I don’t think any of us is ever quite prepared for the depth of experience we uncover. Reading almost exclusively for 2 years first-hand accounts of WWI from different perspectives left me both shaken and in deep awe. I’m sure that’s the same for everyone who explores the past in any detail.

Elisabeth: It has made me conscious that history is written by the victors. It is also quite elastic, especially when delving into periods where there are few written sources. Historians often hypothesize in very much the same way as historical novelists. When writing about the Etruscans I was faced with the conflicting theories of archaeologists. There was no ‘correct’ version of history in many cases.

“History is about ordinary people living their ordinary lives, just as we do today, while all around the world is changing. It makes heroes out of some people and victims out of others.” —Vicky Adin

Why did you choose your era?

Kathie: I write 19th century (American Midwest) because I have stores of family letters from the 1860’s-1910’s that show what life was like for the ordinary, but in some ways, extraordinary folks of that time period. The angles and storylines are endless. It’s amazing how the themes remain the same as now, though. I love that about life and historical fiction.

Anna:  I write both in the 17th century and the 13th – 14th century, and while my medieval addiction is the result of my years of reading about this period (or maybe it’s the other way around), my 17th century excursion was inspired by my husband-to-be's casually mentioning his family had come to Sweden in the early 17th century to escape religious persecution back in Scotland. Suddenly, I was reading all this stuff about a century I had previously dismissed as being full of fops with wigs and lace.

Elizabeth:  I set my first book in Australia as I wasn't sure I could do it. I had four teenage children living at home and no freedom to travel or indeed a research budget. I had to be able to get resources from the local library. However, my kids grew up and moved away and my simple Aussie emigration novel got hijacked by a fifteen year old girl who'd lost her father in tragic circumstance and the Welsh storyteller who helped her to face the truth about the situation. I learned Welsh, and immersed myself in Welsh fairy tales, and basically re-discovered my Welsh heritage as part of the process. The result is a historical coming-of-age novel about fairy tales and facing the truth.

Cindy: That’s when Rosette wrote her journal!

Vicky:  I love the late Victorian and Edwardian periods because of the huge changes in society, which had little to do with war and a lot to do with what people wanted. New Zealand at that time was a British Colony founded in 1840 – the same year Queen Victoria married – and still unaware of its unique identity. The young Queen Victoria and Prince Albert looked on the world with a totally different eye than her traditional older advisers. It was a time of huge changes in technology and social standing. I also loved the clothing: beautiful fabrics, feminine and graceful (even if a little restrictive and time consuming).

Terri:  I wanted to write my grandmother’s stories, but I wanted to set it against a background of enormous change, so I went back a few years, and chose 1912 as my starting point. The social upheaval and the approaching war made it possible to create some really tense and dangerous scenes.

Elisabeth:  I have been in love with the ancient world ever since I read a 100 year old copy of EM Berens’ Myths and Legends of Ancient Greece and Rome. Later, I was delighted to discover the civilization of the Etruscans because that society was so different to other cultures because it granted independence, education and sexual freedom to women. Now I’m absorbed in the story of the Trojan treasure which spans the Bronze Age through to the late 19th century to WWII.

The Edwardian Era has produced blockbusters like Titanic and Downton Abbey.

What is your favorite “writing drink”?

Kathie: Coffee!

Anna:   Tea

Elizabeth:   Coffee

Cindy:  Coffee, high-quality decaf of caffeinated depending on the time of day, with a little half-and-half.

Vicky:   Coffee in the morning, mostly water or Iced Tea during the day, and wine in the evenings.

Terri:   Boringly, water.

Elisabeth: English Breakfast Tea. No Earl Grey!

What would Hemingway say about this generation's coffee and tea-drinking writers?

What is your favorite “writing snack”?

Kathie:  Biscotti!

Anna:   Chocolate

Elizabeth:   Yogurt. I’d like to eat chocolate, but I’d get fat.

Cindy:  Apple and peanut butter (I’d pick chocolate or cookies or nachos except I avoid them.)

Vicky:   Crackers and assorted cheeses, or nuts and raisins.

Terri:   Twiglets, usually, which is probably why I drink so much water!

Elisabeth: Chocolate Chip muffin.

American authors may have a hard time finding Twiglets on their supermarket shelves.

Which authors have influenced you the most and why?

Kathie:  Sara Gruen, Geraldine Brooks, Debra Dean, Janis Cooke Newman and sooo many more!

Anna:   I remember how I fell in love with Kristin Lavransdotter when I was about 11. Some years later I discovered Sharon K. Penman, and she made a huge impact, so huge that my honeymoon was spent traipsing around Wales to see all the sites she wrote about. What these books have in common is life-and-blood characters, people you can relate to despite the centuries that separate us from them. I suppose Ms. Undset and Ms. Penman concluded that people are pretty much the same now as back then—or at least that was my conclusion after reading their books.

Elizabeth:  Dorothy Dunnetts's Lymond Chronicles opened me up to an online community of book-lovers in the days before social media. Edith Pargetter's haunting Heaven Tree trilogy showed me a richly imagined medieval world with stunning universal themes. How Green was my Valley opened me up to a distinctive Welsh narrative voice. Sharon K. Penman's, Here be Dragons, made me want to know more about Welsh history. Not For All the Gold in Ireland, by John James, showed me there had been another historical novelist in my family.

Cindy:  Willa Cather, Mark Helprin, Marilynne Robinson, David Guterson, because they write beautifully and deeply. I aspire to their craft.

Vicky:   No one author stands out. I read a lot but those who love their craft and do the research, who are meticulous, and still write a good story. Authors like the three I mentioned earlier, plus Diana Gabaldon, Sara Donati, Colleen McCullough, Geraldine Brooks, there are so many. Notice I mostly read woman authors.

Terri:  When writing relationships I often try to channel Diana Gabaldon and her ability to create the spark of realism in behavior. When writing horror, it’s naturally Stephen King, and his talent for making the everyday stuff terrifying.

Elisabeth: Mary Renault, Charlotte Bronte, and Jim Crace. I’ve already mentioned Mary’s influence. Charlotte Bronte’s writing showed me that romantic characters could be flawed. Jim Crace’s prose has a poetic quality that I wish I could emulate.

Author Sharon Kay Penman has had a huge influence on many historical novelists.
(Photo source: author's blog.)

What is your favorite historical movie?

Kathie: Atonement

Anna:   Gladiator, Gone with the Wind, or Alatriste.

Elizabeth: Victoria, Bright Start, My Week with Marilyn, The Theory of Everything, Pride. Anything set in the UK.

Cindy:  Henry V with Kenneth Branagh.

Vicky:  Gone with the Wind, although the book was better.

Terri:   I think it has to be Gosford Park. Beautifully written, acted, and shot.

Elisabeth: The TV series I, Claudius was as riveting as the book!

Gone with the Wind is the favorite historical movie of 2 authors on this panel.

If you could have dinner with any historical personage, who would it be and why?

Kathie: My great-great-grandmother who wrote a huge portion of the hundreds of letters I have. She was amazing and strong in the face of pioneering and a much weaker husband. I feel like I live the life she would have dreamed of (for a million reasons) and I would love to tell her that her life mattered in ways she couldn’t have imagined 103 years after her death.

Anna: After thinking long and hard, I’ve decided on Roger Mortimer, 1st Earl of March. Okay, I didn’t need to think that hard, as I’ve always found this gent fascinating. Why I would want to dine with him? To find out about his relationship with Queen Isabella, of course. Plus, maybe to discuss just how Edward II died – although I suspect this is a touchy subject.

Elizabeth:  Owain Glyndwr. Or perhaps, Llywelyn the Great. Maybe Gwenllian, who some say recorded the stories of the Mabinogion. [Editor’s note: These are Welsh princely rulers.]

Cindy:  Benjamin Franklin. Besides having one of the greatest scientific minds ever, he was also charming and funny. It would be unforgettable to have dinner with him . . . and of course my husband could come along.

Vicky:  Princess Mary of Teck who became Queen Consort to King George V. She suffered much heartache, burying three children, and living through the reign of five kings to see her granddaughter Elizabeth become Queen. She survived both World Wars and their aftereffects. I would like to know what she was like away from the public eye.

Terri:  Without question, Lady Dorothie Feilding. Her letters written from her independent ambulance station during WWI show a woman of incredible wit, courage, and selflessness.  

Elisabeth:  Eleanor Roosevelt. She championed so many causes and is a role model for her grace, intelligence and determination. I like the fact she held press conferences reserved only for women journalists because her husband denied them access to his. In the end, the male journalists were clamoring to be included in Eleanor’s!

Despite having his body gruesomely subjected to posthumous execution, Oliver Cromwell would make a fascinating dinner companion.

Where do you go for inspiration? Do you travel?

Kathie:  Yes, I gather inspiration every time I travel—there’s something about getting out of your normal day-to-day life to allow my mind to just go and unravel and imagine. But really, most inspiration is in everyday life. The people I meet and see, the things that happen in the world, the way people are shaped by events, all of those things make me want to tell a story.

AnnaMostly, I find inspiration in things that are far from the bustle of everyday life: an abandoned cabin in the nearby woods, a field of ripening barley in the afternoon sun, an osprey soaring overhead. Sights and places my forebears would have recognized and felt familiar with—I imagine those that went before would have leaned against the same stone wall as I do, would have walked the same paths, bathed in the same waters. It gives me a sense of continuity, I guess, thereby igniting my imagination.

Elizabeth:  Wales, I can’t get enough of the place.

Cindy:   Not a lot of budget for travel, but I live in beautiful rural countryside, so I just have to sit on my front porch or back deck or take a walk or gaze out the window to get a lot of mind expansion.

Vickie:  I travel a lot, but most of my research is done at home in New Zealand. My inspiration comes from genealogical research. My characters are based on real people, who underwent real hardships to survive and prosper in their new land.

Terri:  Not as much as I’d like – I enjoy museums, and I’m a member of the National Trust, but only really visit the local places, as I work full-time and need my weekends and holidays for writing. I mostly go into books, pick up some throwaway line, and pursue it until I find how it fits my story. Because it usually does!

Elisabeth: My inspiration comes from art, photos and historical objects. Etruscan art became a rich vein of inspiration for scenes in the Tales of Ancient Rome. I loved decoding the images and then bringing them to life. My new book is inspired by a photo of Sophia Schliemann wearing the ‘Jewels of Helen’. Sophia was an early female archaeologist who helped her husband, Heinrich, excavate the ruins of Troy. Research trips also assist me to find hidden details that inspire episodes in my books.

Two writers on this panel find their inspiration by exploring New Zealand.

Have you ever bought a historical novel based on the cover? If so, what was it that drew you in?

Kathie:  I don’t think I’ve bought a book because of the cover but the cover makes me read the back of the book and the first page and then I decide. There’s no question the cover is the first step in a sale for me. Covers that draw me in are usually mysterious in some way. It could be a moody cover with a portion of a woman on the front or it could be a more graphic, symbolic cover that makes me pick it up. Thank goodness there are so many great ones!!

Anna:   Yes. I buy a lot of books based on the cover and the blurb. In my opinion, a good cover should give an indication of the period and setting. I like covers that are colorful and artistic – I have a problem with bland, sepia-tinted stuff. I also have a major aversion to covers with “headless” women and with bare-chested men in kilts, especially for books supposedly set in medieval Scotland when—taa-daa—there were no kilts. 

Elizabeth:  I work as a librarian, so I see lots of covers. I prefer a detailed, embossed, mystic-swirled cover that evokes a sense of depth and the unexpected. I'm not keen on photographs of modern girls with orthodontic smiles in pretty dresses.

Cindy:   The cover wasn’t my first motivation, but the gorgeous jacket on All the Light We Cannot See really added to my pleasure as I read that one last year. I love my daughter’s original paintings for the covers of Rosette and Solomon Ramsdell—his is based on his actual photograph and his sweet, sad face draws me in.

Vickie:  Not really, I go more for the story, but I like Deborah Challinor’s covers: a mix of real women and historical scenes.

Terri:  I haven’t, no. Most of the historical books I’ve bought have been from antique shops and markets, and have had plain, old-fashioned covers. I suppose you could say that all those covers draw me in; anything red or green, with gilt edging, will make me look twice!

Elisabeth: Girl with a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier. I discovered it before it became a bestseller. I loved Vermeer’s painting and was intrigued to see how the author could weave a story around the girl.

What makes for a great historical cover? Tell us in the comments below.

When you read a novel, you enter a whole new world.

Readers: thanks for joining us on this 2nd installment of historical fiction round table. If you have a specific question for any of our panelists, please enter them in the comments section below and we will attempt to get an answer for you (and not just on Wikipedia). To learn more about the authors, please click on their names above and you will be directed to their Amazon author page where all their books are listed. Check back in March for the next installment!


  1. Kathie: Did you know that there's a pawn shop on the corner in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania? Goodness knows why, byy my Nan used to sing that song!
    Elizabeth: you & I have similar tastes as all the books that inspired you are in my library. For more Welsh stories try Alexander Cordell.

  2. I enjoyed reading this. Some of the comments definitely gave me food for thought.

  3. Wow, I loved reading everyone's perspectives, especially about what has prompted you to write about certain historical time periods. Now I am asking myself if I could re-live any historic event, what would it be? Hmmm...food for thought on my commute today.

    1. What started as a flash of inspiration has become an enjoyable get together for lovers of historical fiction.

  4. I really enjoyed reading this, and being included in such august international company! Now I need to read a Diana Gabaldon, clearly.

    1. It was great having you, Cindy. Thanks for helping to make it more interesting!

  5. This was very fun to read - I was sort of hoping Geoff would go with a decapitated Oliver as his dinner guest, but I guess decapitated men aren't much fun over a dinner table ;)

    1. I really look forward to reading everyone's answers for just this reason!

  6. Great interviews! I am now thinking of all the other things I could have said. It was an honor to be included.

    Elizabeth Jane Corbett
    (who Blogger will not allow to comment under her real name. Though, I guess you'll see those Welsh words and know who I am anyway. :-)

    1. It was great having you, Elizabeth. I feel like I got to know each one of you individually.

  7. What a great post . . . so chock full of information. I'm bookmarking this, so don't take it away. Thanks you-all guys for sharing your insights. Marilyn Johnston (aka "cj")

    1. So glad you enjoyed it, Marilyn. Thanks for dropping by!

  8. This comment has been removed by the author.