Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Historical Fiction Round Table Discussion – July-August Edition

Welcome back to the July-August edition of the historical fiction round table discussion. We have an interesting and diverse panel of authors, each with their own unique perspective and insight. To learn more about an author and their books click on their name and you will be taken directly to their Amazon author page. And so, without further ado, let me to introduce our panel of authors:

Featuring our panel:

Weina Dai Randel is the author of The Moon in the Palace, a Goodreads Choice Awards nominee, a RITA Awards finalist, and a RT Book Reviewers Choice Award nominee. A native of China, she holds an M.A. in English from Texas Woman's University in Denton, Texas.

AntoineVanner was dubbed the “Tom Clancy of historical naval fiction” by the author Joan Druett.  A prolific author of historical fiction, his most recent novel, Britannia’s Amazon, is book 5 in the Dawlish Chronicles. He has lived in 8 countries including Nigeria, which sparked a lifelong fascination with Africa.

Marie Laval is the author of the Dancing for the Devil Trilogy (The Dream Catcher, Blue Bonnets, Sword Dance) published by Áccent Press. She studied French History and Law and lives in Lancashire, Northern England, where she balances her busy family life with her passion for writing and her occupation as a teacher.

LindsayDowns has been an avid reader ever since he was old enough to hold a first edition copy of Sir Walter Scott’s The Lady of the Lake in his lap. A resident of Central Texas, he started writing romantic suspense since 2012 and is a proud member of Romance Writers of America.

Ruth Hull Chatlien is the author of Blood Moon: A Captive’s Tale, about the ordeal of Sarah Wakefield during the Dakota War of 1862, and The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte. An Illinois native, when she's not writing, she can usually be found gardening, knitting, drawing, painting, or studying Swedish.

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

Weina Dai Randel:  Wenzhou, China

Marie Laval:  Amiens, Northern France

Lindsay Downs:  Germantown, PA

Ruth Hull Chatlien:  Kankakee, IL

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

Weina Dai Randel:  Books by Jin Yong, a Chinese writer. I read them in middle school. 

Antoine Vanner: “Nada the Lily”  by H. Rider-Haggard, his novel about the rise of the Zulu nation under its leader Shaka. I was hooked and I started all over again once I’d finished. I was staying on my grandfather’s farm that summer and I made myself my own assegai and roamed fields and hillsides, imagining myself a Zulu warrior.

Marie Laval: Angélique, Marquise des Anges  by Anne Golon started my love affair with historical romance

Lindsay Downs:  Angélique, Marquise of the Angels  by Sergeanne Golon.

Ruth Hull Chatlien: Little Women. I first read it in 2nd grade, and I remember being very confused by some of the things the March sisters did but loving the book all the same.

Two writers on this panel fell in love with "Angélique, Marquise of the Angels".

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

Weina Dai Randel:  The Winter King by Bernard Cornwell

Antoine Vanner:  C.S. Forester’s magnificent Hornblower novels. In every case he brought the past credibly alive.

Marie Laval:   Alexandre Dumas, Barbey d'Aurevilly, Wilkie Collins and MR James.

Lindsay Downs:   Jane Austen. Even though at the time she was writing contemporary her books are now considered historical.

Ruth Hull Chatlien:  Gwen Bristow. I read Celia Garth when I was in high school and absolutely loved the spunky title character and her struggles to survive the Revolutionary War with her life and ability to love still intact.

Cecil Louis Troughton Smith (27 August 1899 – 2 April 1966), known by his pen name Cecil Scott "C. S." Forester, was an English novelist known for writing tales of naval warfare such as the 12-book Horatio Hornblower series, depicting a Royal Navy officer during the Napoleonic wars. Photo source: Fair use, Wikipedia. 

What are you reading right now?

Weina Dai Randel:   1984 by George Orwell

Antoine Vanner: The Barbed-Wire University, by Midge Gillies, about methods of coping with the experience of being a prisoner of war in WWII.

Marie Laval:    I just bought three novels from Daphné du Maurier I first read years ago: My Cousin Rachel, which is being re-released at the cinema, Jamaica Inn and Frenchman's Creek. Now the big question is which one shall I start with?

Lindsay Downs: Nothing at the present. Judging for a contest.

Ruth Hull Chatlien:  That Certain Age by Beatriz Williams, set in the 1920's. This is the second of her novels that I’ve read, and I enjoy her evocation of the Jazz Age.

What is your particular approach to researching and writing?

Weina Dai Randel:  I usually read articles on journals and then buy the books in the notes. Sometimes I send the titles to my local library and they get them through ILL. As for writing, one thing we all do is sit down and spend hours in front of the computer. 

Antoine Vanner: I’ve been reading history ever since I could read. The period 1850-1918 is my especial favorite and I know its dynamics and personalities well. It’s in this period that I set my plots, linking them to real events, and these plots drive my more focused research. I’m a member of one of the largest private libraries in the world, and that gives me superb access to what I need.

Marie Laval:  I buy maps, travel guides, and read everything and anything related to the setting, the plot or the characters that I can lay my hands on! I take lots of notes and make big folders for every story. Of course, I don't use half of it, but it's there, as background information if I need it.

Lindsay Downs:  If I get to the part of a book where I need to hunt something down I stop and do research.

Ruth Hull Chatlien:  So far, all my books have been about real people, so I start by reading biographies and general histories of the period. Once I feel that I have a handle on the events of their life, I create a general outline. Then, as I draft, I’m constantly running down the specific period details I need. Like what breed of chicken a settler would most likely raise in Minnesota in 1862.

Old maps are an important tool of historical novelists.

In your opinion, what characters in history have not been written about enough?

Weina:  Smart Chinese women, who refused to sell their souls and their bodies to the society. I probably will not write a book about courtesans, no matter how famous they were, because there are many books about them already.   

Antoine Vanner: The Thirty-Years War has always struck me as under-represented in historical fiction, not just for its scale and destructiveness, but for such remarkable characters as Gustavus Adolphus and Wallenstein. Early in the next century, Charles XII of Sweden and Marlborough, and their wars and adventures and intrigues, are also rich ground lying fallow.

Marie Laval: Oh dear, that's a tricky question. Sorry, I can't answer that one. I have no idea!

Lindsay Downs: I’m really not sure as all of my characters are from my mind. I try to avoid using real people for fear of getting facts wrong. That being said, I would like to see more historical fictions books involving the signers of the Declaration of Independence. And not the ones most frequently talked about, for example Jefferson, Franklin, Adams.

Ruth Hull Chatlien: I don’t think American history gets enough coverage because, for some reason, publishers think readers don’t care. Our history is relatively short, but there are many wonderful untold stories. That’s why my first two books focus on Betsy Bonaparte (an American who married Napoleon’s baby brother) and Sarah Wakefield (a survivor with her two young children of the Dakota War of 1862). They’re women whose stories demanded to be rescued from oblivion.

Thomas Jefferson would make an excellent subject of a historical novel. Source: Wikipedia, Fair Use

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

Weina Dai Randel: One thing that comes to my mind this moment is the burning of books by the First Emperor of China, Qin Shihuang. It would probably be too dangerous to be present, so I'd like to have a peek within the safety of a chariot.

Antoine Vanner: To be at Little Round Top with Joshua Chamberlain and the 20th Maine on the second day of Gettysburg. It’s a superb example of a man’s entire life made worthwhile by a single moment, rising to a challenge and tilting the balance of history. When I stood there some years ago I was overwhelmed.

Marie Laval:   It's not really an event, but I would love to attend a fête at Versailles under the reign of Louis XIV, see the fountains and the fireworks, dance at a masked ball and listen to music by composers Lully, de Lalande, and Charpentier.

Lindsay Downs:  Waterloo to experience it and what the soldiers had to go through. Reading about it is one thing, living it another.

Ruth Hull Chatlien: I would go back to Sweden in the 1890s and find out what my ancestors’ lives were like, discover why they emigrated to Canada, and perhaps take the journey with them. The only way I have of getting closer to my heritage is to study the Swedish language, which I started to do earlier this year.

The court of Louis XIV, the Sun King, would be fascinating to witness.

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

Weina Dai Randel: To have a concept that's so intriguing that when I mention it to my editor she would say, “Write it, Weina, I want that book!”

Antoine Vanner: Refining the plot before I start. I believe in “Planning the Work and Working the Plan” I want to feel that the plot is about 80% correct when I start, with the remaining – scantily defined – 20% subject to modification as the writing proceeds. It works most of the time, though on one occasion a book had to be massively reconfigured when I was half-way through.

Marie Laval:  I think it's knowing that it's going to take months, if not years, to get it finished. I am by nature a very impatient person, and writing is a very long process for me.

Lindsay Downs: The first paragraph followed by the first page. After that it gets easier.

Ruth Hull Chatlien: For me, the task of building up emotional momentum for a project is very difficult. Research doesn’t excite me the way writing does, so for the first several months, trying to get hooked on the new project is a bit of slog. But once I can start playing with the outline and character sketches, I usually pick up steam.

Where did the inspiration for your current project come from?

Weina Dai Randel: While I was having breakfast at a writers’ conference I happened to mention a strange thing that happened to me, to which one of the ladies said, “Weina, you are looking for an idea for a book, right? That's a good idea!” The other lady said, “I just took a workshop about dual time, why don't you make it a dual time?” And that’s how I got the inspiration!

Antoine Vanner: Always from actual events and personalities from the 1880’s. They provide the stage on which my puppets perform, and the background to their actions (I’m beginning to sound like Thackary here, who several times addressed the reader in similar terms in Vanity Fair.)

Marie Laval: I can pinpoint the exact moment when inspiration struck. I was visiting the beautiful John Ryland's Library in Manchester, and in the room where the ancient manuscripts are displayed was an interactive computer with lots of information about illuminated manuscripts and Paris in the Middle Ages. I sat down, started scrolling down the screen, pulled my notebook and pen from my handbag, and started writing. So although it's not an actual historical novel, medieval history plays an important role.

Lindsay Downs:  As with most of my books the first one in the series starts out as a “what if”. As in ‘What if a young lady…” that’s all I can say about this project without giving the story away.

Ruth Hull Chatlien:  My next book is still in the early stages, but it’s probably going to be about Dolley Madison. She was a character in my first book The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte. She was one of the few people to befriend Betsy Bonaparte during a period when society threatened to turn its back on her. Everyone loves Dolley Madison, particularly for her heroism in the War of 1812, but there are some dark patches in her story that aren’t as widely known. I’m interested in finding a way to explore those without destroying the beloved parts of her image.

Dolley Madison 

Why did you choose your era?

Weina Dai Randel: The era is not important to me at all. If I pick an era, that's because the story and characters scream to me. Since they come from that period, I faithfully follow. 

Antoine Vanner: I’m fascinated by how much change—societal, technological, and economic—occurs in the span of an average lifetime and how people cope so well with it. The second half of the 19th century, which saw the second wave of the Industrial Revolution, was just such an era. The protagonist of my series was born in 1845 and dies in 1918, while his wife is born in 1855 and dies in 1946. They both grow up in the mid-Victorian period, but go up on their first flight just before WWI and one of them lives into the nuclear age.

Marie Laval: So far my historical novels have taken place in the 19th century at the time of Waterloo, or during the 1840's. I can't really explain why, it's a period I’ve always been very attracted to.

Lindsay Downs: I didn’t pick Regency. It picked me back in 2011 when I penned my first book set in that era.

Ruth Hull Chatlien: I'm more attracted to the psychological aspects of individual stories. It just so happens that I have chosen three women who lived in 19th century America. It’s an interesting time because women were starting to realize that they needed more equality, but their lives were still terribly circumscribed. However, I don’t know if I’ll stick with this century or move on to something else. It all depends on which historical personage grabs me by the throat and says, “Tell my story so I’m not forgotten.”

What is your favorite “writing drink”?

Weina Dai Randel:  Does water count? I drink 2 liters of water every day.

Antoine Vanner:  Black coffee, but strictly rationed!

Marie Laval: Tea or black coffee during the day, and in the evening it's either tea or a glass of wine at the weekend. 

Lindsay Downs:  Coffee

Ruth Hull Chatlien: Homemade cappuccino using organic, decaf, French roast coffee beans! While drinking decaf runs against the stereotype of writers, I had to go off caffeine for medical reasons and now I don’t miss it!

Homemade cappuccino sounds like a delicious writing drink!

What is your favorite “writing snack”?

Weina Dai Randel:  70% dark chocolate. I eat that to reward myself, or just to be happy.

Antoine Vanner: The guilty pleasure of digestive biscuits, even more strictly rationed!

Marie Laval: Cake or biscuits (preferably chocolate!) in the afternoon, and if I’m having a glass of wine in the evening, then I'll have to have some cheese - the smellier, the better!

Lindsay Downs:  Potato Chips

Ruth Hull Chatlien:  I don’t think I have one. If I’m engrossed in the writing, I tend to plow through and not stop for snacks.

Which authors have influenced you the most and why?

Weina Dai Randel: Mary Stewart's Merlin trilogy made an indelible impression on me in the sense that everything could be as the way they seem, but nothing should be as the way they turn out. Arthur Golden's Memoirs of a Geisha told me the narrative itself should be as seductive as the characters. And Geraldine Brooks. I want to write like her.

Antoine Vanner:  Henry Fielding for the sheer exuberance of his writing, Thackary for his ability to make flawed characters still lovable, Dickens for his humor and for plots that initially appear anarchic, but are in fact intricately constructed. I’ve reread Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago  countless times since I first read it at 15. But I owe a personal debt to a naval novelist, Douglas Reeman who died recently. Hearing him talk at a local bookshop resolved me to settle down at last to writing seriously. He was inspirational. He may not have remembered me, but I’ll never forget him.

Marie Laval:  Alexandre Dumas, Barbey D'Aurevilly, Colette, Joseph Kessel, and poets Jacques Prévert and Aragon, because they've all made me dream, think, cry, or laugh

Lindsay Downs:  Again I turn to Jane Austen, the way she brought her characters to life on the page.

Ruth Hull Chatlien:  Charlotte Brontë, for the way she influenced me in a subconscious way. Sharon Kay Penman, for renewing my love of historical fiction. And while I was writing Blood Moon,  I fell into a funk [at the brutality of the Indian Wars]. Kate Quinn’s books rescued me and helped me to insert some episodes in which I had fun with my characters, which lightened up the story. Now those scenes are some of my favorites in the whole book.
Jane Austin is a perennial favorite of historical novelists.

What is your favorite historical movie?

Weina Dai Randel:  Farewell, My Concubine by the Chinese director Chen Kai Ge.

Antoine Vanner:  Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon, based on the Thackary novel. Everything is just right – the script, the music, the superb candle-lit scenes, the terrifying final duel, the sense of real people in a real world that’s gone forever. No less than the whole movie, I regularly watch out-takes from it on YouTube and am always inspired.

Marie Laval: The Count of Monte Cristo, without a doubt. It's got everything - love, greed, revenge, mystery, treasures. I particularly loved the TV series with Gérard Depardieu, Ornella Muti and Jean Rochefort.

Lindsay Downs:   Emma and Pride and Prejudice

Ruth Hull Chatlien:  Right now, I’d probably say Lincoln  starring Daniel Day Lewis. I especially loved Sally Field’s portrayal of Mary Todd Lincoln, who was a difficult personality and hard to like.

Daniel Day Lewis as Abraham Lincoln in "Lincoln".

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

Weina Dai Randel:  Empress Wu, or Wu Zetian, the main character of my two novels. I want to meet her and see what kind of a ruler she was, so I could confirm that the Confucian scholars were wrong about her and I was right!

Antoine Vanner: Abraham Lincoln, possibly the most impressive and admirable man I know of in history. And a great raconteur and humorist to boot!

Marie Laval: Napoleon Bonaparte. I have a great admiration for the man, for his incredible ambition, vision and work capacity. He achieved so much, not all good of course, but so many of his reforms are still in effect in France.

Lindsay Downs:  Arthur, 1st Duke of Wellington, for no other reason than to share a simple meal with a great man. Then of course, Jane Austen for tea. Just to be in her presence would be reason enough.

Ruth Hull Chatlien:  I think I would choose Lincoln. I’d love to pick his brain about that mysterious blend of pragmatism and idealism that informed his decisions. I think human beings are incredibly complex and do things from such mixed motives. That’s a trait I like to explore in my writing.

Wu Zetian (624 – December 16, 705), also known as Wu ZhaoWu Hou, and during the later Tang Dynasty as Tian Hou, referred to in English as Empress Consort Wu was a Chinese sovereign who ruled unofficially as empress consort and empress dowager and later, officially as empress regnant (皇帝) during the brief Zhou Dynasty (周, 684-705), which interrupted the Tang dynasty (618–690 & 705–907). Wu was the only Empress regnant of China in more than two millennia.

Where do you go for inspiration? Do you travel?

Weina Dai Randel: I just stand by the window and let my mind run wild – yes, I do that a lot!  I'd love to travel, anywhere around the world is fine with me, and I would love to live there for a few months in order to feel the culture, eat the food, and make friends.

Antoine Vanner:  I’ve been travelling all my life – I’ve been to over fifty countries but I’ve lost count due to some breaking up or reconfiguring! But it’s not just travel and reading and experience that inspires, it’s every aspect of living. One’s whole life has been a preparation for the moment you sit down to write the first line of your book.

Marie Laval: Ideas for stories pop into my mind all the time - at work, whilst walking, listening to some music or watching a TV program. I don't really need to go very far since there are beautiful, inspiring places near where I live. It's my birthday soon and my birthday wish is to spend a day on a canal boat!

Lindsay Downs: No I don’t travel. Costs too much and now a days is too dangerous. However, I would love to visit England.

Ruth Hull Chatlien: I take research trips for my books, which can be a source of inspiration. When I visited Fort McHenry in Baltimore during my Betsy Bonaparte research trip, I suddenly felt like I was channeling her emotions. I felt Betsy’s terror so deeply that I began weeping in the midst of the NPS ranger’s presentation about the siege of Fort McHenry, and that experience strongly informed one of the chapters in that novel.

Fort McHenry in Baltimore, the location of a furious British naval battle witnessed by Francis Scott Key, who penned America's national anthem "The Star Spangled Banner" as a result.

What is the je ne sais quoi that makes a novel unforgettable?

Weina Dai Randel: Surprisingly, it's the language. It flows so naturally, imperceptibly, like water, that it nourishes you and you drink all in without knowing it.  

Antoine Vanner: The fact that the book answers the questions that listeners to storytellers in markets or around cooking-fires have asked since time immemorial: “What happened next, and should I care about the characters?” A plot that does not prompt these questions will never be remembered, even if the reader has persevered to finish the novel with gritted teeth.

Marie Laval: The characters and the magic that happens between them.

Lindsay Downs: Suspense. Since I write regency romantic suspense those two elements have to blend perfectly for me to keep going back to the book again and again.

Ruth Hull Chatlien: Characters that come to life vividly and play out some compelling aspect of the human dilemma for us.

Open book, free image on Pixabay.

Readers: thanks for joining us on this latest 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. To learn more about the authors, please click on their names above and you will be directed to their Amazon author page. Check back here later for the next installment!😻😂💕👯😹


  1. Thanks for allowing me to take part in this most interesting event.

  2. Many thanks for including me - I thoroughly enjoyed the experience! Best regards to all others who participated!

    And specially for Ruth Hull Chatlien here's a link to the Irish tune "Madame Bonaparte"

    Best Wishes: Antoine

  3. Weina Dai Randel, I enjoyed meeting you at the HNS Conference in Portland! Eager to read your book.

  4. Thank you for letting me be part of this roundtable. I enjoyed reading eveyone's answers. Ruth

  5. Great interviews! Loved the format and the questions.

    1. Thank you for joining us! Check back in early September for our next installment when we'll have a whole new group of writers.

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