The Fact Behind Historical Fiction
By Liza Perrat
I am only on my third historical novel, so I’m far from an expert on writing it, but it seems to me that very few historical fiction writers have university degrees in history. Authors of historical fiction are, first and foremost, novelists who must master the craft of fiction like any other novelist. Writing an enthralling story that hooks readers and keeps them turning the pages is as important as getting the historical details right.
Yet historical fiction does fall flat on its face when your 19th century heroine sports a Playtex Cross Your Heart bra or your 1960s hero whips out his Smartphone. But these days, with all the historical resources available, not to mention the internet, authors can far more easily unearth those nuggets that will breathe life into a story.
However, the web, public archives, old letters, postcards and diaries aside, there’s nothing more inspiring than spending time in the place in which your story is set, imagining how it might have looked, felt and smelt, in the past. Even if your story takes place centuries ago, sensing the “soul” of a place –– the flora and fauna, the seasonal light, the scents –– pulls a reader into a story.
A walk around the rural French village in which I live gave me the idea for Spirit of Lost Angels, the first novel in my historical L’Auberge des Anges series, published under the Triskele Books label in May, 2012. On the banks of the Garon River sits a stone cross named croix à gros ventre (cross with a big belly).
Croix à gros ventre (cross with a big belly)
Engraved with a heart shape, it is dated 1717 and commemorates two children who drowned in the river. Who were they? How did they drown, and where are they buried? From the local historical organization, I learned they were four and five years old, and are buried in the cemetery of a neighbouring village. I felt the urge to write the story of these lost little ones; to give them a family, a village, an identity. Thus was born the Charpentier family, the village of Lucie-sur-Vionne, the Vionne River and the family farm –– L’Auberge des Anges (The Inn of Angels).
Even before I had finished writing Spirit of Lost Angels, I knew the characters had more tales to tell, and I wanted to continue the story of this family, their farmhouse and their village, and what might have been their lives during different historical eras and upheavals. The characters already had strong bonds: their village of Lucie-sur-Vionne, L’Auberge des Anges (Inn of Angels) farmhouse, and their bloodline. The women also shared the same profession: healer, midwife and angel-maker.
The second book in this series (also a standalone story) –– Wolfsangel –– follows the descendants of the Charpentier family a hundred and fifty years after the French Revolution, when Lucie-sur-Vionne comes under the heel of the German occupation. This story was directly inspired by a true-life WWII war crime, but telling you about this particular event would spoil the story! I’ll just say that this tragic site has haunted me since I visited it many years ago, and you can find information about it in the Author’s Note section at the back of Wolfsangel.
Local people have also been great sources or inspiration for my historical novels, providing first-hand insight into past professions and activities. One of the characters in Spirit of Lost Angels is a rémouleur –– an itinerant knife-grinder –– and local resident, Georges, is a vestige of this profession that dates back to 1300. Lugging his odd-looking grinder-bicycle along to the marketplace every Saturday morning, Georges sits amidst the convivial banter, punnets of raspberries and strawberries, the boudins and saucissons, cycling in earnest to sharpen scissors, shears and knives.Georges, knife-grinder:
For Wolfsangel, I was fortunate enough to meet and speak with “Agent Du Roc” a proud WWII French Resistance member, who explained to me how it really was, to fight against the German occupation.
I am currently working on the third, and final novel in L’Auberge des Anges series, Midwife Héloïse – Blood Rose Angel, which is set in the same French village of Lucie-sur-Vionne, and explores the same family, during the Black Plague years of the 14th century. I have spoken at length with a retired university professor, who specializes in the medieval period. Discussions like these are invaluable to the historical novelist.
Historical fiction has become a hot genre in recent years, with many historical novels featuring on bestseller lists, and while historical accuracy is important, I feel the characters and the story they tell are even more crucial. I would like my characters to tell their tales with emotional honesty, without evading any horrifying truths, at the same time evoking the facts about life and the choices we make. I want them to capture the readers’ imagination and empower them to think about their own lives. And if I can do that, I’m one happy writer!
Liza grew up in Wollongong, Australia, where she worked as a nurse and midwife for fifteen years. When she met her French husband on a Bangkok bus, she moved to France, where she has been living with her husband and three children for twenty years. She works part-time as a French-English medical translator, and a novelist.
Several of her short stories have won awards, notably the Writers Bureau annual competition of 2004 and her stories have been published widely in anthologies and small press magazines. Her articles on French culture and tradition have been published in international magazines such as France Magazine and France Today.
She has completed four novels and one short-story collection, and is represented by Judith Murdoch of the Judith Murdoch Literary Agency.
Spirit of Lost Angels, the first in the historical L’Auberge des Anges series was published under the Triskele Books label in May, 2012. The second in the series –– Wolfsangel –– was published in October, 2013, and Liza is working on the third novel in the series –– Midwife Héloïse – Blood Rose Angel –– set during the 14th century Black Plague years.
Liza is a co-founder and member of Triskele Books, an independent writers’ collective with a commitment to quality and a strong sense of place.
Contact and Other Information
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