I write historical fiction to reveal old worlds through a new lens.
On a trip to the Loire Valley in 2000, I was struck by the beauty of the vineyards and impressed by how generations of French families had battled blight, mildew, rot, and pests to produce superior wines. This centuries-old blend of passion and persistence, art and science, sparked the idea for my series about the ambitions of two French-born vintners to establish an American winemaking dynasty at the turn of the twentieth century. After my initial impression of the vineyards’ beauty and complexity, I had to know more to write the story I wanted to tell. I soon discovered that a historical novelist’s love of story must be wed with an endless enthusiasm for and dedication to research.
Researching vineyard life in the late 1800s was a pleasure. I visited a Loire Valley vineyard, and toured historic Napa vineyards by bike and on foot. I snapped photos of ripening grape clusters, scribbled down notes about historic gravity-flow wineries, sifted the rough, porous clay loam through my fingers, and, of course, sampled the wines! I also delved into French and California history books, read years of nineteenth-century trade papers, consulted a master winemaker, and reviewed old maps and photographs at The Napa County Historical Society. Although I had a vague outline for the novels when I started, my research fueled the stories for The Vintner’s Daughter and The California Wife.
The turn of the twentieth century was rife with innovation and conflict. The glittering Paris World’s Fair, the advances in travel, medicine and economic opportunity, the destruction of saloons by hatchet-wielding temperance advocates, and tragic natural disasters riveted the citizens of our world. North American women led one of the most promising revolutions of that time: they left their kitchens in droves to fight for their rights. These historical elements also provide a treasure-trove of historical drama for the backdrop of the series.
When I finally put pen to paper, the demands of writing historical fiction surprised me. I had to learn how vineyards operated at the turn of the twentieth century, and study photos and accounts of period clothing, manners, literature, education, food, rents, and architecture. I read French civil and criminal codes, researched the smell of creosote and how it feels to hold a beating heart in one’s hand (I didn’t actually do this one—I consulted a surgeon!).
How does one aptly convey the thrill of assisting in your first heart surgery, or the horror of trying to escape San Francisco’s Great Earthquake and Fire of 1906? To lead readers deep into the scene with the characters—so they experience everything just as the characters do—an author must include historical details that will enrich the story and raise the stakes for the characters.
During the first editorial phase of The California Wife, one of my beta-readers said something I’ll always remember. He read a scene I’d crafted about a historic celebration at the Italian-Swiss Colony in Asti, California in 1898. He said, “This is a beautifully written scene. I can smell the grass, feel the breeze and taste the food. But what’s the point?” My historical details—gleaned mostly from newspaper and eyewitness accounts—were all accurate, but I had failed to advance the story. To solve this problem, I swiftly inserted an explosive argument between the two main characters. Now, every time I write a scene, I ask, “How do this scene and its details advance the conflict/drama/story?”
Choosing whether or not to use dialect or historical slang in your story can also make it or break it. Dialect or slang should be used to deepen the reader’s understanding of a character or community, but both can become tiresome distractions. When in doubt, I always read the scene aloud or rely on my beta-readers and editors to steer me in a direction that best serves my readers and their experience.
The best historical fiction entertains and educates readers seamlessly. It challenges readers’ perceptions of the past, present and future and often stimulates debate. Perhaps some of the best advice comes from one of my favorite historical fiction authors, Isabel Allende: “Write what should not be forgotten.”