Writing the Past: The Devil’s in the Details

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.

Biking between the vine rows in the Carneros region

Biking between the vine rows in the Carneros region

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.

Regusci Winery, Napa, built circa 1878

Regusci Winery, Napa, built circa 1878

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.

Wine caves dug by Chinese circa 1877, Napa

Wine caves dug by Chinese circa 1877, Napa

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.”

The Knocking at My Door

Since this is my first post about my writing life, I’d better come clean.  My love of writing evolved in a somewhat pathetic, although commonly tragic way.  I ignored my passion for writing for over a decade, but it kept nagging me, like a toddler vying for attention.

It all started with Mrs. Morris, my formidable English teacher at St. Bernard High School in Uncasville, CT.  She was whip-smart, tough as nails, and rarely cracked a smile, but man, did she know her stuff.  “People,” she’d coo sweetly, and let what was to come hang in the air like the silence before you lay your head down on the block, “your twenty-page paper is due Friday.”

This was one of the few assignments that struck terror in the hearts of the AP English crowd.  I feigned horror, but deep down, I was giddy with excitement.  I wrote twenty pages on The Importance of Trees and Stone Walls in American Literature and received an A.  Yet, even better than that A (and Mrs. Morris’ obvious delight over such a, I admit, lame topic), was the sheer exhilaration I felt when I sat down to write.

Soon I was off to college and, not trusting in my ability to parlait my love of writing into a financially flush career, I chose to major in the next vaguest subject I could find: Economics.  Loved the theoretical writing, abhorred the regression analysis.  Before I knew it, I had graduated from Villanova and had a tidy, enviable career at Chase Bank.  Flash to nine years later:  I’m pushing thirty, a retail sales director for a Boston bank, earning a decent living, but I’m completely uninspired.  The only thing that fired me up was sitting down to write marketing memos and copy for our sales contests.  Sad, but invevitably true.

Besides writing, I was inspired by the idea of starting a family with my new husband.  We moved from Boston to Connecticut for his work; I stopped working and was pregnant in, like, a minute.  While vacationing in the Loire Valley in 2000, I was standing in the middle of a Vouvray vineyard and was handed the inspiration for my first historical novel, The Vintner’s Daughter.  I wouldn’t seriously commit to its completion until six years, three writing classes and two kids later (with a third on the way).

Fast forward to May 2012.  The Vintner’s Daughter has been finished for 6 months now, edited, enjoyed by friends, family and a few writing professionals and I’m on the lookout for a literary agent to represent me.  Seriously, they need a “match.com” for finding one.  “Tall, dark, bookish, enjoys Cabernet and stepping out with a smokin’ 325-page historical fiction read.”  That would work.

So far this year, I’ve attended my first writer’s conference, pitched my book, sent out fifteen queries and received just as many rejections. Clearly, I’m still in the early stages of this ego-crushing sport.  If my queries don’t catch someone’s eye soon, I will move to plan b (stay tuned–still formulating that).

If you’re a fledgling writer looking to swap stories from the trenches, stop by this page whenever you’re feeling bummed out and I’m sure you’ll find something to make you laugh (or cry again)!

At this moment, however, I have a groggy three-year old wriggling her way up onto my lap and begging for chocolate milk behind the familiar sucking sounds of her pacifier (no, we haven’t given it up at naptime – mommy needs to blog!)  So, there’s nothing left to do but go enjoy a glass of liquid sunshine with my youngest daughter, Julia.

What’s the dream that’s been knocking at your door?  Tell me about it!