Susan Vreeland's Thoughts on Writing

Award-winning author Susan Vreeland gives students advice on creative writing, from tools of the craft to revision strategies.
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Updated on: October 10, 2006
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Voice in Fiction
Historical Fiction
Vreeland's Revision Checklist Or Am I Really Finished?
I. The Genre

The case for writing or reading historical fiction lies in its stimulation of the imagination. Through fiction which sets us down in another time period, we are offered a window to other lives, other sensibilities, attitudes, values than our own. We escape somewhat from ourselves. Each time we enter imaginatively into the life of another, it's a small step upwards in the elevation of the human race. When there is no imagination of others' lives, there is no human connection. Where there is no human connection, there is no compassion. Without compassion, community, commitment, lovingkindness, human understanding, peace -- all shrivel. Individuals become isolated, the isolated turn cruel, and the tragic hovers. Historical fiction is an antidote to that.

A novel is a work of the imagination in which a life, or lives, or an aspect of a life is made understandable by conversations, pieces of days and nights, trivial and momentous actions, flashes of insight. Reading or writing historical fiction can be the means by which we can grasp the significance of a life, perhaps our own, in our own time.

It seems to me that there are two types of historical fiction which form a continuum. At one end is the novel devoted to a specific historical event or historical person who plays the major role, and at the other is the more personal, domestic, narrowly focused story which happens to be set in the past. To some critics, how precise and accurate an author is required to be depends on where the work is positioned on the continuum.

An historical novel is not a biography. It may not begin at birth and end in death, the conventional approach for biographers recording all the achievements of its subject. It is by nature exclusive, thematically based, with many more pieces left out than put in, rather than inclusive, which is the office of the biography. It shows rather than reports. It gives us the voice of the character, the vernacular and attitudes, not the academic voice of a narrator. It invites us in to the privacies of a person's soul. And it can tell ancillary stories of secondary characters which can give a broader window on the time period.

II. The Process

Writing historically-based fiction is first a matter of discovery, then focus, selection, and invention.

  1. Discovering the story one wishes to tell buried in known history is as exhilarating as finding hidden treasure. One asks oneself: Is the story heroic, domestic, tragic, comic, ironic, psychological, a quest narrative, character-driven or plot driven? Most likely, your answer will be a reflection of your sensibilities, and will position the work on the continuum.

  2. Focus: Decide upon a premise and themes

    What questions will you take up? The sooner one is conscious of the themes, character questions, and moral questions, and the more precisely one can articulate them, the easier and more naturally the work will take a conscious form rather than grow haphazardly.

    For example, in The Passion of Artemisia, my focus was the inner Artemisia, her developing state of mind, her transcendence over misfortune and resentment, the possibilities of forgiveness and love in a ruptured life. In The Forest Lover, my themes were Emily Carr's love of place over person and her passion to express her feelings about it on canvas; her fascination with Northwest Coast native art and First Nations people and her concern about their fate; her spiritual search; her development of a unique and unconventional sense of womanhood. In both cases, these themes governed the writing process.

  3. Select and Eliminate

    A person's real life involves a huge number of people, far too many to give focus to a novel. Narrative sprawl can be avoided by selecting only those events and aspects of a figure's life which contribute to the established or decided themes and focus, and eliminating those which don't.

    For example, in The Forest Lover, I eliminated references to Carr's dead brother. In The Passion of Artemisia, I eliminated Artemisia's brothers and her two sons who died in infancy. Those characters would have deflected my selected themes.

  4. Invention

    In Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own, the narrator, barred from the library, notes that women's history cannot be studied since most books were written by, for and about men. Instead women's history "will have to be read into the scene of its own exclusion. It has to be invented -- both discovered and made up." Ah, made up. Therein lies the historical novelist's permission. Emily Carr wrote in her journal, "There is something bigger than fact: the underlying spirit, all it stands for."

    Archival and published history often doesn't record the relationships that are significant, so characters have to be invented to allow the subject to reveal intimate thoughts and feelings through interaction. Artemisia had no known women friends, and her mother died when Artemisia was twelve. The invention of the two nuns allowed me to explore the roles, limitations, and yearnings of women at the time.

    Minor characters can have a story of their own which can parallel or contrast the major characters' concerns. This gives breadth to a novel which a biography doesn't offer. For example, The Passion of Artemisia, which focuses on Artemisia's inner development as an unconventional woman and a painter, also has half a dozen female characters -- a patron, a servant, two nuns, a daughter, a model/mistress, another model/prostitute all exhibiting the roles open to women in 17th century Italy. Thus the novel becomes more than a narrated biography. All but the daughter were inventions of mine.

III. The Research

In a letter to his aunt living in Dublin, James Joyce wrote from London:

Is it possible for an ordinary person to climb over the area railings of #7 Eccles Street, either from the path or the steps, lower himself down from the lowest part of the railings till his feet are within two feet or three of the ground and drop unhurt? I saw it done myself but by a man of rather athletic build. I require this information in detail in order to determine the wording of a paragraph.

This convinced me of the need for extensive research, not only for the sweep of history, but for scenic truth and time period accuracy.

For Girl in Hyacinth Blue, for example, I consulted seventy-six books, and probably as many paintings for visual references (food, clothing, furniture, townscapes, landscapes, architecture, transportation). I had to ascertain whether certain Dutch towns, canals, and roads existed at the time the story took place, or whether they hadn't been dredged and drained yet. When dealing with locales as well known as those in Rome and Florence in The Passion of Artemisia, I had to ascertain whether certain streets, architectural features, sculptures and paintings were in the same place in the year in which the action takes place as they are today. For example, only a chance reference alerted me that the Scalinata up to Santa Trinità dei Monti, later dubbed the Spanish Steps, wasn't built at the time Artemisia climbed the Pincian Hill.

To give you a glimpse of an upcoming work, my current research for Luncheons of the Boating Party (only a working title), extends far beyond Renoir and the painting. It includes the recorded history of all the figures in the painting, as well as topics such as 19th century French cultural history, other painters contemporary to Renoir, color theory, the Franco-Prussian War, cabarets, dance halls, music, dances, theater, currency, trains, pleasure boats, regattas, the Seine, flora and fauna, Paris streets and buildings, duels, leisure.

In truth, all of the research, both the major character biography as well as the tiniest scenic detail, is enjoyable to me because I feel it directing me and giving the work depth and authority.

IV. The Pitfalls

Research itself can be a pitfall -- not finding something you need as well as its converse, finding out something you don't want to find out. When fact conflicts with what an author needs a character to do, it's always a sensitive question. There is no universal answer. At times, one must hold one's ground, and resist the tyranny of fact for the greater good of the narrative, if doing so does not measurably alter history.

Insignificant departures from fact should not give you anguish. For example, I moved Renoir's broken arm forward by five months, moved Artemisia's illiteracy backward, and reduced Sophie's unbelievable 21 documented infant deaths to a more believable nine. These did not change the integrity of history, and served the narrative purpose.

However, if a story requires significant departure from known human history, one ought to rethink one's purpose. At the least, one must be willing to risk criticism.

The discovery of some detail so delectable that one is tempted to deflect the narrative direction in order to include it is also a pitfall. One must resist. Fiction is about character, not research.

In terms of character, there are, to my mind, three criteria: Readers must find them interesting and complex; believable; and sympathetic REGARDLESS of whether they are famous or not. By sympathy, I mean we must care what happens to them. "We care what happens to people only in proportion as we know what people are," wrote Henry James. That is, only as their interior is revealed. The fiction must provide understanding, not condonement, just enough so the reader can feel the pain or angst or fear or confusion along with the character.

A danger exists when an author falls in love with an historical figure so much that his or her faults or shortcomings are overlooked. On the contrary, such faults lend realism as well as authenticity. We are apt to stand in awe at the great art of the world, and rightly so, but the creators thereof are not gods and goddesses.

V. Advice Specific to Historical Fiction
  1. As in any novel, tell it as a story of dilemma, suffering and choice. The dilemma must have stakes.

  2. Make each chapter have a central focus, with each element contributing to advance the story in some new and deeply significant way. This will prevent unfocused history writing.

  3. Focus only on highlights and don't feel you have to connect scenes with irrelevant biographical or historical material.

  4. Let your imagination go freely to imagine more fictional interchanges and events, particularly private, domestic moments delivered against the background of details of the physical setting.

  5. Have POV character constantly relating to the physical scene. This will prevent it reading like a history book.

  6. Every detail that enters the story should have an influence on the characters. Check each chapter for this so you avoid research dumps.

  7. Work for humor or irony. Even in dark times, people must have found things amusing.

  8. Work into the story references to happenings of the time, even if it's only weather, music, a movie, an occasional hanging or two, German occupation decrees during WWII, etc. even if the story is a domestic, personal one.

  9. Discover and use historic expressions (used by most people at the time or by your unique character) with alterations which accumulate thematic significance at every repetition or echo. These come to mind:

    "I kiss your hand." "God willing." "I reckon..." "'T'ain't..." Use a light touch with dialect. It can be overpowering.

  10. Love every step of the way, every moment of discovery. Love your characters, your time period, your scenes. If you don't love a scene, then find out what's wrong with it. Love the story enough to ferret out details, though don't include them no matter how delicious if they don't contribute to your narrative arc. Love the revision process whereby your story develops texture, multiple dimensions and deeper thematic reach. Love the work enough to leave no stone unturned in its pursuit and refinement. And read, of course. Read widely and voraciously. Read fiction written at the time period you wish to write about. And read your work to discerning critiquers who have the best interest of the work at heart, as you do too.

Voice in Fiction
Historical Fiction
Vreeland's Revision Checklist Or Am I Really Finished?

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