[The first time I played verbal baseball catch with fellow historical fiction writer Wayne Turmel, I got more than triple my usual number of page views. So I thought we’d toss the ball around again, this time on character and setting in historical fiction.]
So which comes first when you’re at the back-of-the-cocktail-napkin phase of sketching out a new book—character or setting?
Wayne: I could get all MFA and go on and on about how the two are intertwined and character is defined by setting blah blah blah. Truth is, it depends. With The Count of the Sahara [set in the 1920’s on an African expedition and other locales], it started with a real-life person, so setting was non-negotiable.
Jeff: When I was first noodling around with a “coming home from war” story, I intended to set it present day—Iraq and Afghanistan. Then I started feeling like I was misappropriating stories of quite young men and women who’ve only started telling their own stories, so I transported my story back to the First World War. It was shocking how easily the themes I wanted fit into that period, but that move immediately controlled a lot of character development. For example, there were no female soldiers in WWI, so if I wanted to expose a woman protagonist to the unimaginable violence of the Western Front, I was stuck with a nurse or an ambulance driver or a war refugee. Those were the only believable front-line roles for women during that conflict. In the end, however, those very limitations made Deirdre Brannigan a much richer character.
Wayne: With the Lucca Le Pou stories, I started with setting—wouldn’t it be cool to do a story like Kipling’s Kim, only during the Crusades? But then this picture flashed around the world. Until I saw this now-iconic photo of the young Syrian boy in an ambulance after the Aleppo bombings, Lucca was pretty much a vague caricature. Then I saw a young child from that area really traumatized by war. I made Lucca older, able to comprehend his situation a little clearer and be enough of a smart-ass to be believable and add some humor to make it tolerable. This also guided the story, because whenever I thought I was putting the poor little guy in too much danger, I remembered what REALLY happens to kids in war time.
Jeff: That’s such a powerful image. It hadn’t occurred to me while reading your book, but as soon as you said it here, I thought, “Of course. THAT’S the 21st century Lucca Le Pou.”
We both write historical fiction, so we’ve painted ourselves into a corner and are stuck holding the brush from the get-go. Does staying true to a chosen historical epoch limit or enhance your character development?
Wayne: If I had to say definitively, being really clear about the time and place makes it easier to do character. If you start from a gut-level understanding of the time period, you can take motivations and emotions and create constraints. How would they swear? How much can they stray from societal norms without being excommunicated or shunned? The same behavior set in a different time period and place creates a different story.
Jeff: Certainly that was the case with Deirdre, my Irish nurse in None of Us the Same. In my second book, Truly Are the Free, I set a lot of the story after the War in Jazz Age Harlem and avant-garde Paris. That’s such an iconic period, the 1920s. It was almost an embarrassment of riches. I mean, come on—I got to make one character an out lesbian who models for nude French postcards. The backlash from the War changed views on everything—sexuality, racial discrimination, disability. Even what constitutes art, what makes a family, to whom is loyalty owed? The utter collapse of the 19th-century arrogance about modernity and progress brought by the death and destruction of the Great War blew everything wide open socially, culturally, and politically. It was great to romp through all of that while making up stories.
How much are you willing to sacrifice gnat’s-ass historical accuracy for the sake of character? Developing them the way you want or placing them in a particular situation or place for plot purposes? Any examples one way or the other?
Wayne: Mark Twain supposedly said, “Never let the truth get in the way of a good story.” Twain never said that, but it sounds like something he would say so it neither diminishes his brilliance nor detracts from the excellent point being made, so who really cares? With historical fiction, most readers have a personal threshold. For me, story comes first. As long as I’m in the story and moving along, my tolerance for less-than-perfect history is very high. On the other hand, if it’s an era with which I’m familiar, dissonance can pull me out of the story. In Acre’s Bastard, Lucca watches the Battle of Hattin from the top of a mountain. There’s no way he’d really be up there—it’s not that big of a hill. Even Crusades buffs haven’t called me on that one though. I got the action he witnessed more or less correct, so I got a pass on the fact he was up there at all.
Jeff: I call it “avoiding groaners.” And I literally groan out loud when I hit an historical anachronism or significant factual error—drives my wife bonkers reading before bed. From a practical viewpoint, we hist fic schlubs spend a lot of inspiration and perspiration trying to lull our readers into that elusive Fictive Dream—why would we carelessly jerk them out of it? But I also very much agree story is everything. And let me add the “Historical Note” at the back of the book is The Duct Tape of Historical Fiction. Own up to your factual deviations there, but make sure you have a compelling character development or plot line purpose for your deviations. It’s factual sloppiness that’s inexcusable. And it shows disrespect for your readers, too.
As we’ve touched on already, there’s that problem of writing historical women. Your Lucca Le Pou series—at least in Book 1—seems to slot most of the women into nun roles. In my first WWI book, as I mentioned, I was stuck making my female protagonist a nurse in order to get her to the front lines. Any more thoughts on this ticklish problem?
Wayne: My first two novels were almost estrogen-free. Lucca grew up in an all-boys Hospitaller orphanage, so yes, his exposure to women was limited to nuns or the occasional woman on the street shooing him from her fruit stall. In the second book, Acre’s Orphans, one of the nun characters is much more fleshed out and human. There’s also Lucca’s first introduction to a girl his own age. I’m terribly fond of Nahida, but my beta readers will tell me if I got her right or not.
I admire the women in your stories, and I think you’ve done a good job with them. Of course, your in-house consultant has no doubt played a role in that. Two of the stories in my “future projects” file have female protagonists, and another is a full-on love story, so I’m going to have to write rich female characters soon. Let’s see if I’m up to the task.
Jeff: Why thank you, Wayne. I specifically set out to write complex, fully-fleshed women characters. My counter-example for this has long been Leon Uris. I love his books—I mean, Exodus? QB VII? Trinity?—but his women are so two-dimensional, basically men with higher voices and skirts. Kinda like Michelangelo’s women, who always seem to look like young men with coconut-bra boobs to me. But it’s a struggle when writing hist fic—it’s hard to have a woman knight (unless you’re writing Joan of Arc). Or a woman captain of a pirate ship (unless you’re writing Anne Bonny). Huh. So I guess there are always exceptions—and great possibilities, if done with originality and a deft touch.
OK, the big reveal. Have your characters ever spoken to you? [Cue eerie music]
Wayne: You mean yours don’t? Of course they talk to me… the trouble is getting them to shut up. I’m an auditory learner—I literally hear things as I write them. I have a very clear sense of what each character sounds like… the tone of their voices, the slam they use, the accents. I was obsessed with Byron de Prorok for years before writing Count of the Sahara, and I can tell you to the note what that phony baloney mid-Atlantic baritone of his sounds like: Benedict Cumberbatch channeling Christoph Waltz. Sister Marie-Pilar in Acre’s Bastard sounds exactly like Genevieve Bujold. I figure as long as each of the voices in my head has a name, I’ll be fine
Jeff: <sigh> Genevieve Bujold will always be a young and beautiful Anne of a Thousand Days to me. But I wax nostalgic. At first, I thought “this character’s talking to me” was a lot of writerly affectation—until one of my main characters stopped talking to me. I’m decidedly a visual learner, so while writing None of Us the Same, I hadn’t even realized they were talking to me until one day I stopped hearing the wildly conflicted and thoroughly battle- damaged Will Parsons. Scared the bejeezus out of me. I spent most of a day handling stuff from the War and trying to get him back. I even listened on YouTube to versions of every one of the songs off a program I have from a 1916 Red Cross show for soldiers in London. Lieutenant Parsons came back the next day, but it converted me into a believer in hearing—and listening to—my characters.
You can check out Wayne’s books and his blog on his author website. I’m a big fan of his intrepid scamp, Lucca Le Pou, the main character in Acre’s Bastard and of an upcoming second installment, Acre’s Orphan. My own third novel, No Hero’s Welcome, the last in my Sweet Wine of Youth trilogy, will be out this winter.