Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Writing Historical Fiction--Susan Higginbotham

My guest is the award winning historical fiction author, Susan Higginbotham. Susan writes biographical historical fiction.

I've always loved history. Some of my favorite authors (Roberta Gellis, for one) could keep me enthralled for hours happily visiting medieval Europe. Those sort of epics completely immersed me in the culture of the times. I remember something Roberta Gellis once said about historical fiction. To para phrase, she said that history is a beautiful tapestry, rich with characters and events. The skilled author merely weaves a story in the existing threads of history.

So what’s the difference between an author who writes historicals and biographical historical fiction? I asked Susan that very question. I was curious what drew her to this type of fiction. She indulged my curiosity, with the following:   

All of my four historical novels have been biographical historical fiction—that is, historical fiction centered around actual historical figures, as opposed to fiction that’s set in the past but where the main characters are entirely fictional.

So what draws me to biographical fiction? For one thing, for the lazy plotter, it’s a godsend. The outline of my story is there; all I have to do is add the fun stuff—the dialogue, the motivations, the characterizations. For another, it gives me a chance to go where the responsible historian dare not tread: I can resolve unsolved mysteries, choose which conflicting account of an event to believe, explain a character’s actions where the historian can only speculate.

There are two other reasons that writing biographical fiction especially appeals to me, however. First, through biographical historical fiction, a novelist can bring to life a little-known historical figure—one who might not be important enough to merit more than a line or two in history books, but whose life was fascinating or inspiring. For instance, my first novel, The Traitor’s Wife, features Eleanor de Clare, the niece of Edward II and the wife of his notorious favorite Hugh le Despenser the younger. Eleanor survived her husband’s horrific execution, her own imprisonment in the Tower, and the forced veiling of her daughters; she was also the subject of litigation challenging the validity of her second marriage. How did she find the strength to endure these ordeals, any one of which might have overwhelmed a lesser woman? The Traitor’s Wife allowed me to answer this question. In doing so, I hope it shed some light not only on Eleanor’s courage, but on the incredible strength of medieval women in general. They were no damsels in distress, waiting for their shining knight in armor.

Another reason for writing biographical historical fiction is the chance to portray a maligned figure in a sympathetic light. Margaret of Anjou, the heroine of The Queen of Last Hopes, has been vilified by everyone from her Yorkist opponents to modern novelists. Yet when I encountered her in researching my third novel, The Stolen Crown, I got a picture of a very different woman: a woman who struggled against overwhelming odds to uphold the rights of her husband and her son to the English crown. Only when all was lost did she give up—and even then, her fight laid the foundation for the Tudor dynasty.

Writing this biographical novel about Margaret allowed me to share my own view of the woman I had come to deeply respect and to admire—and, I hope, to change the minds of those who have seen her portrayed in fiction only as an insanely vengeful, twisted she-wolf.

But if those aren’t good enough reasons to write biographical historical fiction, I can suggest five more:

  • 1.  If your hero is riddled with angst, it'll be because someone is trying to overthrow him, not because he is having a mid-life crisis.

  • 2. You can buy all sorts of books in your field of interest and tell your spouse that they are for research purposes.

  • 3. You will not have to write 400 pages about a woman who is juggling her family and her career.

  • 4. You can kill off your main character once you get tired of him or her, and blame it all on history.

  • 5. You’ll never be at a loss as to what to name your main characters.
The Queen of Last Hopes--Story of Margaret of Anjou

When fifteen-year-old Margaret of Anjou journeys from France to marry England’s Henry VI, she hopes that her wedding will mean a lasting peace between England and France. Instead, England’s losses of French territory infuriate the people, resulting in the horrific murder of Margaret’s first friend in England, William de la Pole.

Pregnant at last after eight years of marriage, Margaret places her hopes in her coming child. Then the worst happens: the gentle, ineffectual Henry suddenly goes mad and cannot even recognize his longed-for son. As feuding nobles rush to exploit the situation, Margaret determines to protect the rights of her husband and her child.

Undaunted by exile, poverty, danger, and the slanders of her enemies, Margaret remains loyal to her cause even as those around her falter in their allegiances. For the man and the boy she loves best, she will risk everything—her reputation, her safety, and the future of England itself. Excerpt

"A beautiful blending of turbulent history and deeply felt fiction, Susan Higginbotham, brings alive an amazing woman often overlooked or slandered by historians...a gift to treasure." 

So which do you prefer, historical fiction about real historical figures or historical fiction about purely fictional ones?
Susan Higginbotham's meticulously researched historical fiction brought to life by her heartfelt writing delights readers. Higginbotham runs her own historical fiction/history blog and is a contributor to the blog "Yesterday Revisited." Susan has written four historical novels, including The Traitor's Wife and The Stolen Crown.

Susan has awarded for her historical fiction: Gold Medalist, Historical/Military Fiction, 2008 Independent Publisher Book Awards. Silver Award, Historical Fiction, ForeWord Magazine's 2005 Book of the Year Awards.

She has worked as an editor and an attorney and lives in Apex, North Carolina, with her family.

You can visit Susan's blog: Medieval Woman, Website, Facebook


~Sia McKye~ said...

Susan, welcome to Over Coffee. I'm so glad you are able to visit with us.

I've ordered your book. I liked your excerpt. I have this feeling I'll be ordering all your backlist.

As for your question; I love to read historical fiction with characters drawn from history. I do like historical romance but I sure miss the epic novels that had romance but the fictional character freely interacted with the historical figures of the time.

Today, it seems like so much of the culture and history has to be cut to move the story at a fast enough pace to keep the current readers interested and that's a shame, in my opinion.

Jenyfer Matthews said...

Personally I love love love biographical historical fiction and couldn't think of a more pleasurable way to get an idea of a time period than to read it through the eyes of a compelling character. I recently read "The Other Boleyn Girl" and loved it and assume that at least the broad strokes are historically accurate.

Off to look up your book now!

Kat Sheridan said...

Susan, so nice to "meet" you, and I'm pretty sure this book and your entire backlist on immediately going on my to-buy list. I adore biographical fiction. LOVE it.

As a writer, I like finding historical characters with enough ambiguity or mystery around them to leave a hole big enough for me to fill in with my own imaginary "what if" kind of story. In fact, I have an old incomplete WIP about an historical figure that I'm suddenly itching to dig out and start back in on, thanks to you.

And one of these days I want to look further into the story of my own ancestor, Margaret Tudor.

Can't wait to read your work, Susan!

VA said...

I enjoy both biographies and biographical fiction. I do prefer in the case of biographical fiction that it surround less prominent figures, secondary or tertiary historical figures. Another story about Henry VIII or QEI is not really going to appeal to me. The plots are too well trodden to be entertaining.

Question, Susan. You appear to have a interest in rewriting and re-evaluating maligned females in history, do you consider yourself a feminist? There has been a lot of great work to recast previous assertions to reflect a more democratic/less sexist viewpoint.

Susan Higginbotham said...

Thanks, Sia, Jenyfer, and Kat!

VA, I do consider myself a feminist in the sense that I believe that women are equal to men, and I certainly believe that historical women like Margaret have been condemned for traits that in a man would be applauded. On the other hand, I don't think Margaret's treatment can be explained by sexism alone--some of the most hostile fictional portraits of Margaret have been by female novelists. I think it may be simply that some people prefer to see historical figures in black-or-white terms, and Margaret is one of those who usually ends up on the "black" side.

Elizabeth Loupas said...

I love all sorts of historical fiction. It's virtually impossible to write a story set in history without bringing in at least some historical characters, even if it's just to set the scene and give readers some idea of where in history--place and time--the story takes place. I agree with VA, though, that stories exploring lesser-known historical figures have some of the best of both worlds.

I'm presently reading THE TRAITOR'S WIFE... so good!

Jo said...

Before I give any opinion, I will have to read some of your books. I generally don't like stories of any kind which distort the facts or have well known characters doing things which are totally out of period. The movie Elizabeth was a case in point. However, it sounds as though your books would be good dealing with lesser known characters.

Isabel Roman said...

I love your 5 reasons to write historical fiction, Susan! I especially love the naming one. Characters are so difficult to properly name!

Historical characters, just like friends and family, are grey, but because of the distance of time and history written by the winners, it's often difficult to discern this. I've read several of your books and do enjoy the way you texture your characters with very real human flaws.

Marci said...

Biographical historical is the type of fiction I prefer.
Sia-I so agree with you about history and culture being cut to keep the pace engaging. I certainly don't mind a slower pace. I think The Other Boleyn Girl was over 200K words and I found it engaging throughout!
Congrats, Susan. I can't wait to read Queen of Last Hopes.

~Sia McKye~ said...

Jo, I get really, really ticked when screen writers or authors don't get the history correct. As much as everyone touts The Other Boleyn Girl, I wanted to throw it across the room. Anne Boleyn was one of my favorite historical women.

I'm by no means an historian, but the author got sooo much wrong in her story. While I understand writer's fictional license with some facts, I could give you a list on some major errors in that story. That's not even counting what she did to Anne herself, Blech.

~Sia McKye~ said...

Elizabeth, I'm the same. Historical markers are necessary if you write historical fiction and those markers can either be events or people. Actually, I do love fictional characters that interact with historical people and in a realistic way. The fictional character can add a shading or even a better understanding to an event, the culture, or historical person. Of course that means the author had better know the historical period well enough to extrapolate.

I have The Second Duchess and I'm really looking forward to reading it.

Elizabeth Loupas said...

Sia, hope you enjoy Barbara's story!

I agree with you re TOBG. I don't have it at hand at the moment and I can't remember if PG used an Author's Note to explain some of her choices. I don't mind a certain amount of fiction in my historical fiction if the author adds a note to explain what's what and perhaps give an idea of why he/she told the story in a certain way. That's what sends me off to research for myself, and research is my favorite favorite thing to do.

I also enjoy some alternate history and historical fantasy--I just like it to be labeled as such. :)

VA said...

Great interview and discussion, Sia. Thanks, Susan.