I've long been a huge fan of Anne Gracie's, not only because she writes wonderful historical Regency novels (I always think of her as the Australian Georgette Heyer, only a little more risqué!), but also because she is so supportive of fellow writes and a bottomless pit of knowledge about the craft of writing and historical fiction in particular. I was thrilled when she agreed to an interview and I'm so delighted to be able to share her words and wisdom with others.
What is it about the Regency period which holds such great appeal for you?
I became addicted to Georgette Heyer novels from the age of 11, so in a way I feel as though I grew up in the Regency era. It's also an era in which many fascinating things were happening — the Napoleonic Wars, the industrial revolution, and the social and economic results of that, including great wealth and great poverty, huge leaps forward in technology, medicine and other areas, the tensions of colonisation and much more.
By setting my books in such a vibrant and energetic period of history, I've been able to explore a range of settings and backgrounds — people returning from years at war, people "lost" for various reasons, characters at either end of the privilege spectrum — I like writing about characters who've "fallen through the cracks." Plus there's the fun and lightheartedness of high society balls and parties, which can often balance the grim aspects.
Finally, Regency romances are often associated with humour and sparky dialogue, and I love writing that.
Luckily for me, it's also a period that's popular with the US market, and, as that's where my publisher is, it means it's a commercially viable, as well as a personally pleasing, choice for me.
Which Australian historical authors do you most admire and why?
Oh, that's a hard question. I read a great deal, though not always Australian writers. I love Sulari Gentill's crime novels — they're clever and fun and historically interesting; I adore Juliet Marillier's historical fantasy novels — she spins wonderful tales that take me into Celtic (and other) historical times, and though she can sometimes go dark, she always leads me back into the light. Jackie French's historicals are also wonderful, her Aussie-set ones and her European 'Miss Lily' series; Kate Morton spins enticing tales that pull me into the past; I like Kate Forsyth's fairy-tale spin-offs, and remember gobbling down her fantasy series as well. Alison Brideson has brought 1920's Singapore to life, as well as her Australian set historical series, and Tea Cooper has written some terrific rural stories. I could continue . . .
Which historical novels that you’ve read in the past couple of years have stood out for you and why?
Rachel Kadish — The Weight of Ink, a wonderfully rich interwoven story of an ageing English history academic called in to investigate a cache of documents found in a 16th century house, written in Hebrew and scribed for a blind rabbi. In her search to discover the story behind these documents, we also discover her story and the story of the scribe, life in 16th century London (just before the plague and the Great Fire of London) and much more.
Susanna Kearsley -- I read The Winter Sea first, and have bought and read all her others since then. Her stories weave the past and present together — some are time slip, others take threads from the past to shed light on the present. There's almost always a mystery, and a hint of romance. Her treatment of landscape reminds me a little of Mary Stewart's elegance.
Elizabeth Peters — Crocodile on the Sandbank. An old favorite that I recently reread. Set in Victorian-era Egypt, among the tombs and pyramids of ancient Egypt it has romance, mystery and comedy, with a delightfully feminist heroine, Amelia Peabody. Elizabeth Peters is herself an archaeologist and Egyptologist.
Bec McMaster An Aussie writer who blends the Victorian historical era with steampunk and vampire elements, creating a world all her own. Very clever world-building, too, twisting elements we know from history to add to the paranormal effect. Start with her Kiss of Steel.
What advice would you give to an aspiring historical author with regards research and the writing process?
Do your best to get your history right, for your own satisfaction as well as for those readers who care about history. Many readers, however, don't care. Sadly, good historical research won't necessarily make a book publishable — story telling is what counts most in fiction.
There are so many wonderful resources on line these days — old diaries, collections of letters and all sorts. For my Egyptian story, for instance, I was able to read diaries and letters from English people travelling in Egypt in the early 1800s, which was invaluable. I also found a collection of letters perfect for my characters' travels through Europe during the short-lived Peace of Amiens, and where they fled when Napoleon invaded the Piedmonte. But it's not all on-line — my first book was sparked by something I read when I was a student and paid to read old newspapers in the State Library for one of the professors.
So know your period well, but don't go down research rabbit holes looking up small details. Your story might change in the writing, and weeks of research can be made redundant. Worse is when you've put so much effort into your research that you can't bear not to use it, and so your novel becomes so research heavy that the story is lost. You need enough detail to evoke the times and the atmosphere, and to make the issues you're dealing with come to life. It's a bit like an iceberg — most of your research will be invisible to the reader.
How do you go about creating the characters who inhabit your historical novels?
My stories always begin — in my mind, at least — with a character in a particular situation. I ask myself how they got there, and why. I dig around in their backstory — working out the people and events that helped to shape the person they are at the start of the book. I think of it as a bit like archaeology; the story is there, I just have to find it.
I ask myself who they are, in what ways are they "stuck" in life, and how do they need to change to get 'unstuck'. (I'm in the business of writing happy endings, so this is important.) Change is always difficult and a struggle, and it's a good source of tension. I also think if characters don't learn and change by the end of a novel, it's less satisfying to me as a reader.
As I write, I'm constantly asking myself, what are they thinking? What are they worrying about? What's their problem now? Because the problems change as the story progresses.
Once I'm 'in the zone', if I'm lucky, the characters will sometimes take over; dialogue will flow and sometimes it feels as though I'm madly scribbling it down, trying to keep up. Characters can surprise me. I do believe in 'the muse' because it's the only way I can explain the alchemy that sometimes happens.
2020 has been a challenging and confronting year for so many of us. Given our preoccupation with current circumstances, why should a reader read historical fiction?
Firstly it's a great escape, particularly if the novel concerned ends on an upbeat note. Plunging into another time, in maybe another place, can take us into a different mindset, and help give us relief from our current worries. Stories don't even have to be fun and lighthearted — even reading something that's dark and dramatic and disturbing can help, because the characters' worries are not our worries. Escape is a hugely undervalued quality — I've had readers write to me telling me how they read my books while going through chemo, sitting with a dying partner, being treated in hospital — enduring all sorts of grim situations.
Secondly, history can give us insights about our current situation. People have endured plague situations, mad dictators and so on, many times in different periods of history. And in a novel, while you're reading for story, you're also absorbing how people lived in the past, different mindsets, different ideas, different expectations, and how can we not benefit from that?
I know 2020 has been far from typical, but could you give us a brief description of your writing year?
I usually have quite a few teaching and speaking engagements, but of course they've all been cancelled and some have been taken on line. My annual writing retreat also had to be cancelled. I used to write a monthly craft-of-writing column for Romance Writers of Australia, but after six years I decided to step down. I blog with the Word Wenches twice a month — they're a collection of historical writers — historical romance, historical novels, and time slip — from the US, UK and Australia. I also write a mild little blog of my own.
I have a contract to produce one book a year, and that hasn't changed, but I'm curious to try indie publishing (ie self e-publishing) which many of my friends do, so I'm hoping to find time for that. I had a book out at the end of May and did all the promotion on-line — which is par for the course.
How has the current isolation restricted or impinged on you as a writer? Have there been any positives?
At the beginning of Lockdown, it felt very peaceful, but gradually as everyone started using Zoom and arranging on-line things, it got busy again. I have a tendency to be a bit of a hermit anyway, so not going out hasn't been a huge hardship for me. I miss catching up with friends, and watching movies and things like that, but not desperately. I talk to friends on the phone or on Facetime or email or Zoom.
I'm writing forward, but I don't know whether it's this particular book or the CoVid situation but I'm writing a lot of scenes, deciding they're irrelevant and having to delete them. Fuzzy thinking.
A positive of CoVid? No visitors, so housework slides. My dining room table is covered with documents!
Anne Gracie is an award-winning Melbourne writer. Anne Gracie started her first novel while backpacking solo around the world. She's now working on her 24th book. A bestselling author in the USA, her Regency-era novels have been translated into more than eighteen languages. www.annegracie.com
Follow Anne on amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Anne-Gracie/e/B001H6NLHA/
Follow Anne on FaceBook: https://www.facebook.com/1AnneGracie/