My cover

My cover
Nell and her oranges

Sunday, April 13, 2014

My Writing Process - Making History into Fiction

I’d like to thank my friend and critique partner Patricia Bracewell for inviting me to participate in the My Writing Process blog hop. Pat is the author of the wonderful Shadow on the Crown, the first book in a trilogy set in tenth-century England, featuring the little-remembered English queen Emma of Normandy. The second installment in the series, The Price of Blood, will be out early next year. You can learn more about Pat and her books by visiting her website,, and by reading her post on her writing process on her blog,

All the participants in the blog hop respond to the same questions. Here’s my take!

What am I working on?

I’m at work on my fourth book, as yet untitled. It’s a historical novel, but it’s a bit of a departure from what I’ve written previously in that it’s not based on a real person but is completely fictional. It takes place mostly on a remote island in the Scottish Hebrides in 1901-1902, has elements of suspense, and involves some spooky experiences. More than that I will not say just yet, but I’m having a great time working on it!

How does my work differ from others of its genre?

One of the things I really try to get right in my novels is creating the character’s world so vividly that my readers feel as if they’re there, experiencing the events of the story right along with my heroine. I try to evoke sensory elements—what does my character see and hear and how does it make her feel? What do her clothes feel like on her body? How’s the weather? What’s the quality of the light? Is it a brilliant summer day or is the scene taking place by candlelight. What smells permeate the places where the story takes place? What is the taste of what she’s eating and drinking? Does it bring up memories?

Here’s a little bit of The Darling Strumpet, my novel about Nell Gwynn, who rose from the streets to become one of the first English actresses—beloved by the playhouse crowds for her comic turns and likeable sex appeal—and eventually the longtime mistress of King Charles II. This scene takes place on Nell’s first day at work as an orange seller in the newly opened Theatre Royal:

The first interval came, and the musicians struck up.  Nell gazed at the empty stage and longed to know what it felt like to stand there.  Did she dare to try it?  Moll had given her permission, so Nell clutched her basket to her and climbed the steps to the stage and surveyed the scene before her.  She felt as if she were at the center of the universe. The galleries rose to the ceiling, enwreathing the space, and the sloped floor of the pit made it seem as if its benches were marching toward her. The theatre was a swirling sea of movement. The king in his box was not ten paces away. She took a breath and sang out “Oranges! Fine oranges! Who will buy my oranges, fine Seville oranges?”


The king smiled and beckoned. Nell went to him, her heart in her throat.


“Will you have an orange, Your Majesty? They’re very sweet.”


“How could they be otherwise, with such a peddler?  I’ll take two.” She held out two oranges, but the king took only one.


“One for you and one for me,” he said with a wink.


Nell’s scene with the king had been observed, and as she turned from him and sang her cry again, gentlemen pressed to the foot of the stage. By the end of the interval she had sold almost all that was in her basket.


When the play was done, the audience straggled out, pleasantly exhausted by the long hot afternoon, and ready for real food and drink. Before Nell went to reckon up with Moll, she stood and looked around the emptying playhouse, breathing in the scent of perfume and the smell of hot wax and oranges and flowers and sweat. She imagined the gaze of hundreds of spectators watching her. Caught up in the fantasy, she dipped in a curtsy and was brought up short as she noticed two gentlemen watching her with amusement. She threw them a smile and scampered off to find Orange Moll, blushing and laughing with delight.



And here’s another scene, in which Nell is waiting backstage at the playhouse for the arrival of the Duke of Buckingham, who’s asked to meet her:



Nell picked up her already-damp handkerchief and blotted it across her forehead and chest, then dusted powder across her face, hoping that it would dull the sheen of sweat without caking. She glanced in the mirror. Her hair was as good as it was like to get, the ringlets and curls pagan-wild in the damp heat of the tiring room.


Well. He had asked to see her, not she him. He had just had as good a view of her as anyone could desire, and she had been at her best today, she knew, carrying the house to wave after wave of laughter.  So she had nothing to fear. 

Lords were nothing new to her now, she reflected. 


And yet—the Duke of Buckingham. A duke was one step only below a prince, and some said he was less than that step, having been raised as he had almost as brother to the king when his own father died. 


What was it Hart had said once? “Like one of the royal pups.” 


To counter her nervousness, she leaned back in her chair and breathed deeply of the familiar mixture of smells—sawdust, paint, tallow candles, gunpowder, dirt, and sweat, overlaid with the sweetness of face powder and perfume. Motes of dust drifted in the rays of summer evening sunlight that came through the high window.


She heard a footstep in the hall and half rose, then forced herself to sit again.  She’d meet him like a lady. Or as close to that as she could manage. She turned as she heard the rap of his stick against the door, and then found herself rising, unable to keep her seat in his overwhelming presence.



Why do I write what I do?


I’ve loved reading historical fiction for as long as I can remember. When my sisters and I were little, my mother read us Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books, Sydney Taylor’s evocative All-of-a-Kind Family series set in turn-of-the century New York, Mary Poppins, the Narnia books (which opened during World War II, long ago enough to seem like ancient history to us), and many other stories set in times past.


Later I devoured such books as K. M. Peyton’s Flambards trilogy; Joan Aiken’s Nightbirds on Nantucket, Black Hearts in Battersea, and The Wolves of Willoughby Chase; Elizabeth Marie Pope’s The Perilous Gard and The Sherwood Ring, and of course Gone With the Wind. I wanted to lose myself in the worlds those authors created.


As an adult, I still love getting lost in a well created world, like those in Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander and Lord John books; Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin series; Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe novels; George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman adventures; Margaret George’s novels based on Henry VIII, Queen Elizabeth, Mary Queen of Scots and others; and many more, including Michael Faber’s The Crimson Petal and the White, Emma Donoghue’s Slammerkin; Michael Cox’s The Meaning of Night; and Malcolm Macdonald’s The Rich Are with You Always.


So I think that to some extent I write the books that I would like to read. Part of the joy of writing a book for me is the research process, finding the pieces of the puzzle that illuminate my character’s life and experience.


How does my writing process work?


Years ago when I was working on a couple of screenplays, I was introduced to Syd Field’s book Screenplay, which analyzes the three-act story structure that is the basis for most film scripts. I still use what I learned from that book and the follow-up, The Screenwriter's Workbook, in structuring a novel and creating a story arc out of the facts of a person’s life, since my first three novels are all about historical people.

After I’ve done some basic research, I create a timeline of events in the life of the person I’m writing about and major events that would have affected her. Then I decide what events seem appropriate for the turning points in the story, the “plot points,” as Field describes them, that spin the action in a new direction about a quarter of the way into the story and again about three quarters of the way through, the midpoint and the “pinch” scenes that keep the story on track, the climax, and the resolution.


Then I write a scene sequence, describing in a couple of sentences the scenes that will take me through the narrative. That gives me a skeleton to hang the story on, and tells me what I need to know more about or gaps that I’ll have to fill creatively. Sometimes I start by writing what I think of as the “tent-pole scenes”—the opening, the closing, the climax, the plot-point scenes, and then fill in the rest. But I wrote my most recent book, Venus in Winter, based on the life of the formidable four-times widowed dynast Bess of Hardwick, straight through from beginning to end, maybe because I felt overwhelmed by the tight deadline and felt the need to just keep plodding ahead.


I continue researching as needed while I write, and I keep adding to my chronology, putting in historical facts along with events that I’ve invented. There are limits to what is known about the life of any historical person, and not much was recorded about the early lives of any of my three heroines. When that’s the case, it’s necessary to flesh out what’s missing. When I do this, I try to write what seems likely or possible to have happened. But sometimes, the gaps in fact are enormous, and more creative license is necessary. Then, an author has to remember that the most important part of their job is to write a compelling story, and that generally means making the choice that presents the main character with the greatest danger and trouble and the most to lose.


That’s what happened with The September Queen, the story of Jane Lane, who helped the young Charles II escape after the Battle of Worcester in 1651. Because many people published accounts of their part in helping the king, there’s a record almost hour by hour of what Charles did, said, wore, and ate during parts of his odyssey. But Jane Lane didn’t write about her experience, so I had only the barest facts about what happened to her when she wasn’t with Charles, and I had to invent parts of her story.

Ultimately, historical novelists have to remember that it’s fiction we’re writing. It’s our job to breathe life into our characters, and to transport readers back across the centuries to stand in the character’s footsteps, to feel the rocks in their shoes and the sun on their face, smell the blossoms on the air, see the eddies in the river, and feel the beating of the heart and the rise and fall of the breath of a person long gone, but who once lived, and was as real as we are.


I hope you enjoyed your stop with me on the blog hop! To learn more about my books and me, and to find the link to my other research blog and some of the articles I've written, please visit my website,


If you’re in the San Francisco Bay Area, please come hear Patricia Bracewell and me talking about “Melding History with Fiction: the Fugitive King and the Forgotten Queen” at 7 p.m. on April 30 at Laurel Book Store in Oakland: We’ll be talking in depth about the history behind our novels and the process of fictionalizing history, and our books will be available for sale and signing.


And next Monday, April 21, please visit the blogs of my fellow historical novelists Grace Eliot and Julie Rose and read about their writing process!


Julie K. Rose's novels feature complicated, compelling characters seeking to overcome their pasts—and themselves. Her stories evoke a vivid sense of time and place through a keen ear for dialog and beautifully elegant prose. Oleanna, short-listed for finalists in the 2011 Faulkner-Wisdom literary competition, is her second novel. You can find her website at:

Grace Elliot leads a double life as a veterinarian by day, and author of historical romance by night. Grace works in a companion animal practice near London, and is housekeeping staff to five cats, two teenage sons, one husband and a bearded dragon. She believes intelligent people need to read historical romance, as antidote to the modern world. Please visit Grace’s blog, Fall in Love with History, at

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Cleopatra in Restoration London!

Welcome, all! This post is part of the Facebook party celebrating the release of Stephanie Dray's Daughters of the Nile. Join me and the many other guest authors for piles of prizes and interesting articles about Cleopatra, Ancient Rome, history, and historical fiction in general.

On January 30th, from 12pm EST to 10pm EST, an impressive roster of historical fiction authors and bloggers are hosting a Facebook party in honor of historical fiction, the 2,023rd anniversary of the Ara Pacis, and the release of Stephanie Dray's newest book, Daughters of the Nile: A novel of Cleopatra's Daughter.

Readers can win free books, lunch at the next Historical Novel Society meeting, swag, gift cards, and other prizes from some of the hottest authors of the genre. Please join us, and RSVP!

When Charles II was restored to the throne in 1660, he very soon authorized the reopening of the theatres, which had been closed since 1642 under Oliver “Killjoy” Cromwell. Since there were no new plays, the acting companies first turned to works that had been popular in the past. The King’s Company and the Duke’s Company divided Shakespeare’s plays between them. Among those assigned to the King’s Company were Coriolanus, Titus Andronicus, Julius Caesar, and Antony and Cleopatra, all of which were set in ancient Rome.

Shakespeare’s plays were some of among the first to be presented, but once the playwrights got busy, turning out an enormous volume of new plays, there was less call for Shakespeare. But the histories, and especially the Roman plays, were popular, partly because they could be used as political propaganda. Coriolanus, for example, with its struggle between those born to govern and those elected to govern, would have had a lot of resonance for English audiences whose lives had been very much affected by the overthrow and execution of King Charles I, the installation of Cromwell as Lord Protector, and finally the restoration of the monarchy—the Restoration, which gave the era and its name.

Shakespeare’s plays were often performed in adapted versions, which frequently contained political overtones. Nahum Tate’s adaptation of Coriolanus, The Ingratitude of a Commonwealth, used about sixty percent of the lines from Shakespeare’s play, though many of them were revised. It appeared in the wake of the Popish Plot, as Parliament was debating the Exclusion bills, which would bar the succession of the exiled Catholic Duke of York (later James II).

Edward Ravenscroft’s adaptation of Titus Andronicus has a preface stating that “it first appear’d upon the Stage at the beginning of the “pretended Popish Plot,” a period of anti-Catholic hysteria in the autumn of 1678. Its prologue and epilogue have been lost, but those customized bits appended to the beginning and ends of plays were frequently very topical. Julius Caesar, with tyranny and rebellion at its heart, could be made to have contemporary parallels, as it still can and is.

One of the most popular revisions of Shakespeare’s Roman plays was All for Love, or the World Well Lost, an adaptation of Antony and Cleopatra by John Dryden, who had been made Poet Laureate in 1668. Presented in 1678, the play’s action takes place over a few days and entirely in Alexandria, unlike the original, which spans years and continents.

On February 12, 1677, the Duke’s Company presented Sir Charles Sedley’s new version of Antony and Cleopatra, with a musical setting by Jeremiah Clarke, , with the stellar actor manager Thomas Betterton in the role of Antony and Mary Lee as Cleopatra. The show played on the next two days, too, indicating that it was a hit.

Restoration playwrights wrote original works set in Rome, as well. Dryden’s tragedy Tyrannick Love, or The Royal Martyr tells the story of St. Catherine, who was murdered by the Roman emperor Maximus because she wouldn’t submit to his sexual advances. Nell Gwynn played Valeria, the daughter of the tyrant emperor. She stabbed herself and died at the end, but the tragic mood didn’t last. When two solemn Romans came to carry off her body, she jumped to her feet and cried, “Hold, are you mad? you damned confounded dog, I am to rise, and speak the Epilogue!” And then she did, declaring:

I come, kind Gentlemen, strange news to tell ye;
I am the Ghost of poor departed Nelly.
Sweet Ladies, be not frighted; I’le be civil;
I’m what I was, a little harmless Devil.

The Romans in Shakespeare’s plays are essentially Elizabethan Englishmen, and he made no attempt to keep out anachronisms. [clock] If there were attempts to suggest period dress in the costumes, they weren’t accurate, and the same was true in the seventeenth century. Just as we can usually identify pretty well in what era a historical movie was made because the style of the modern period overlays the historical dress, the clothes of the Restoration “Romans” were more like what the audience was wearing than what would have been seen in ancient Rome.

Classical subjects were also used for court masques, and there the costumes were wildly extravagant and highly fanciful. Calisto, presented in 1675, featured Roman combatants in silken armor of gold and silver decorated with gold fringe, “gold purle rosets,” jewels, spangles, and feathers. The costumes for the one-time performance cost more than £5000, at a time when shopkeepers and tradesmen earned about £10 a year, and more than enough to pay off the entire company of a ship that had been at sea for a couple of years, when sailors were perpetually begging for past-due payment.

A sketch for a “Roman habit” based on a contemporary records shows a gentleman in heeled shoes, cuffed gauntlets, long hair, and a skirted coat very much in the Restoration style. A sketch for Diana shows the goddess of the hunt pulling her bow, but she would have had a hard time running in her stays, enormous hooped skirt, and three-foot feathered headdress.