Physicality in Fiction

Recently, I read a thought-provoking and helpful article on Writer’s Digest on using physicality to bring your characters to life. There’s some great advice here. Incorporating different senses and the physical signs of emotion can help immerse the reader in the setting, even in the mind of the protagonist. Being grounded in the story world makes it feel that much more real – and exciting – as a reader.

 

I think this can be especially important in historical fiction. The genre brings its own unique challenge of trying to recreate a time long past, and sometimes, as a writer, it feels like grasping at echoes. Of course, one of the joys of historical fiction – both as a reader and writer – is that once the details and story click into place, you do slip into another world entirely. I love the way being drawn into a historical world feels like new, uncharted territory, but history has left just enough imprints on the present for it to feel a little bit familiar. You might know the bare bones of the time period, but not what happens to the protagonist, or maybe you find comforting kernels of ‘sameness’ in the characters. People haven’t changed so much, really. Three hundred years ago, they still wanted to find love, or worried about their children, or struggled under the weight of family pressures.

Trying to capture the sounds and textures and the smells of the story’s setting bring it to life. For me, while I’m writing, trying to show those things end up helping me connect more strongly to the world, help me to better polish it for the reader. It makes the setting more vivid, so a reader can easily imagine the acrid black smoke from the burning Réveillon wallpaper factory, or airy softness of one of Marie Antoinette’s muslin gowns, or picture the scum of half-congealed blood tarnishing the Tuileries after it was violently mobbed, to use examples from my novel The Wardrobe Mistress.

That last one was a little dark. Sensory depictions can be delightful, too, especially if they’re food related. I still think fondly of the way Crystal King’s description of kitchens and food in her Roman historical novel Feast of Sorrow made me clearly imagine I could smell the mouth-watering aromas of Parthian chicken or the tang of mustard beets. Sounds and music can pull readers into the world, too. I can still remember the rebellious thrum of music in the Prohibition ‘juice joints’ that Bonnie (of Clyde and Bonnie fame) frequented in Jenni Walsh’s novel Becoming Bonnie.

A story or character can also be deepened by plot, as the Writer’s Digest article that sparked this whole post suggests. The article mentions a Stephen King novel where the narrator is diagnosed with cancer. Another example I can think of that I particularly enjoyed is Julia Heaberlin’s novel Lie Still, where the protagonist is heavily pregnant throughout the story. It added an extra layer of tension. As danger escalated all around her, I feared not only for her, but for her soon-to-be-born child.

Habitual gestures or nervous tics can strengthen characterization, too. Outlander fans know that Jamie Fraser often taps his two stiff fingers (from being broken) against his thigh when thinking. In Kate Quinn’s The Alice Network, her character Eve struggles with a stammer, which sometimes intensifies during moments of high stress. While reading, it makes you ache with sympathy for her – especially because the high stakes WWI environment makes everything extra scary and intense.

What physical description or sensory element has really stood out to you in a book? Please share!

 

Historical Fiction Book Giveaway

My debut novel, The Wardrobe Mistress, has been out in the world for over a month now, and to celebrate I’ve got a fabulous book giveaway! Three winners will get a historical fiction prize pack with six books!

NEXT YEAR IN HAVANA by Chanel Cleeton (February 6th 2018) – In 1958, the daughter of a Cuban sugar baron embarks on a clandestine affair with a passionate revolutionary. In the present, her granddaughter returns to Cuba and discovers the lessons of her grandmother’s past to help her navigate her own romance, and find the true meaning of courage.

THE ORPHAN OF FLORENCE by Jeanne Kalogridis (October 3rd 2017) – A young woman rises from pickpocket to the assistant of “the Magician of Florence” and becomes tangled in a web espionage and murder

LAST CHRISTMAS IN PARIS by Heather Webb and Hazel Gaynor (October 3rd 2017) – Told through a series of heartfelt letters, a privileged young lady and a soldier share their experiences of the First World War, and maybe even find love amid its horrors.

THE LOST SEASON OF LOVE AND SNOW by Jennifer Laam (January 2nd 2018) – A beautiful and intellectual young woman attracts the attention of Russia’s most lauded poet and embarks upon a passionate and tempestuous relationship that leads to a tragic duel.

THE MOST BEAUTIFUL WOMAN IN FLORENCE by Alyssa Palombo (May 1st 2017) – Set in 15th Century Italy, a beautiful woman navigates complex relationships in Florentine society – and develops a passionate intimacy with Sandro Botticelli, leading to her immortalization in his masterpiece painting, The Birth of Venus.

THE WARDROBE MISTRESS by Meghan Masterson (Aug 15th 2017) – One of Marie Antoinette’s wardrobe women is torn between her loyalty to the queen and her love for an idealistic revolutionary as the danger of the French revolution escalates.

This could be you!

So how do you win? There are three ways to enter:

Facebook – Like and comment on the contest post. Extra entry if readers post a photo of one of the books with the hashtag #HistFicContest

Twittertweet using the hashtag #HistFicContest

Instagram – Tag a friend in the contest post, as well as using the hashtag #HistFicContest. Or, post a photo of any of the books in the prize pack, along with the hashtag #HistFicContest.

The winners will be announced on September 28th. Good luck!

 

Book Addiction: The Boat Runner

My latest book addiction is The Boat Runner by Devin Murphy, which publishes tomorrow. I got lucky enough to read this mesmerizing novel a bit early.

Captivating and powerful, The Boat Runner takes the reader to the perilous world of WWII, where young Jacob Koopman’s life wildly shifts from the prosperity of his family’s lightbulb business to the darkness of Nazi Germany as his father naively sends him to a Hitler Youth Camp and the outbreak of war shatters the peace. It’s a thought-provoking read that will have the readers feverishly turning pages and thinking about the story long after finishing the last page.

Devin kindly agreed to an interview on my blog. Welcome, Devin!

What was your inspiration for The Boat Runner?

One of the first sparks of this book came while reading a book about the Nazi navy written in 1945 by a German naval officer called, Defeat At Sea. Passages in the book referred to the sinking of ships only by their tonnage and supplies kept from being delivered to the Allies. The language was so cold toward the living people onboard that it haunted me. What mindset could be so void of empathy? That was the question I wanted to dig into, and led me down a long, fascinating road of research.

Did you get to visit any of the settings for your book? If not, where would you most want to go?

This novel travels across Europe but also takes place aboard ships at sea. As for Europe, my mother is from the Netherlands, and I have been there several times, but not during the writing of this book. Much of the land based scenes had to be drawn from memory, research, and talking to people who know about each place. The scenes based at sea were different. I spent 10 years travelling around the world working in the tourism industry. Along the way I realized that working aboard ships was the best option for me and I traveled to over fifty countries on all seven continents. I grew to know ships and the sea quite well – this pulses at the heart of my novel. Now, if I could go anywhere, I’d board a ship and sail the North Sea into the Ems Estuary which borders The Netherland and Germany. That fraught border that captured my imagination and led me into this novel.

Did you face any unexpected challenges or pleasant surprises while working on the novel?

I always liked history, but during the writing of this novel I really learned how to do research as a fiction writer. I stopped looking for just facts and details, but for scenes and events that I could hold up and ask, does this event reveal the complexity of what it was like to be alive at this moment for my character?  That is fun! I love finding something that leads me in a whole new direction and source of information to pour over.

What was your favourite scene to write?

There is a scene that one of my character’s inner conviction emerges from the shadows in such an epic, life-altering way that I get the chills every time it happens. I guess I’ll try not to spoil it, but watch out!

What’s your writing process like? Do you have a strict schedule or can you write anywhere, anytime?

I’m a professor so have to be pretty efficient about slotting my creative time or it tends to get swallowed up by other responsibilities. This means I try to write or edit at least four days a week and read every day. I do best when I am in a quiet place, but I have three small kids, a dog that loves to bark, and a cat that walks back and forth over my keyboard, so working outside of the house has become a necessity.

How can we stay updated on your book news?

Through Facebook, Twitter, and my author website.

From the book jacket:

In the tradition of All The Light We Cannot See and The Nightingale, comes an incandescent debut novel about a young Dutch man who comes of age during the perilousness of World War II.

Beginning in the summer of 1939, fourteen-year-old Jacob Koopman and his older brother, Edwin, enjoy lives of prosperity and quiet contentment. Many of the residents in their small Dutch town have some connection to the Koopman lightbulb factory, and the locals hold the family in high esteem.

On days when they aren’t playing with friends, Jacob and Edwin help their Uncle Martin on his fishing boat in the North Sea, where German ships have become a common sight. But conflict still seems unthinkable, even as the boys’ father naively sends his sons to a Hitler Youth Camp in an effort to secure German business for the factory.

When war breaks out, Jacob’s world is thrown into chaos. The Boat Runner follows Jacob over the course of four years, through the forests of France, the stormy beaches of England, and deep within the secret missions of the German Navy, where he is confronted with the moral dilemma that will change his life—and his life’s mission—forever.

Epic in scope and featuring a thrilling narrative with precise, elegant language, The Boat Runner tells the little-known story of the young Dutch boys who were thrown into the Nazi campaign, as well as the brave boatmen who risked everything to give Jewish refugees safe passage to land abroad. Through one boy’s harrowing tale of personal redemption, here is a novel about the power of people’s stories and voices to shine light through our darkest days, until only love prevails.

 

Author Biography:

Devin Murphy grew up near Buffalo, NY in a family with Dutch roots. He holds a BA/MA from St. Bonaventure University, an MFA from Colorado State University, a PhD from the University of Nebraska—Lincoln, and is an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Bradley University. He has worked various jobs in national parks around the country and once had a three-year stint at sea that led him to over fifty countries on all seven continents. His fiction has appeared in over 60 literary journals and anthologies, including The Missouri Review, Glimmer Train, The Chicago Tribune, New Stories from the Midwest, and Confrontation. He lives with his wife and children in Chicago.

 

Book Addiction: The Other Alcott

It’s been a while since I had a new Book Addiction post, but I’m really excited about this one. The Other Alcott by Elise Hooper captures the magic of Little Women, which I read probably a dozen times growing up.

Amy March, of Louisa May Alcott’s beloved classic Little Women, often gets the short straw compared to her feisty sister Jo, but in this novel, her real-life inspiration, Louisa’s sister May Alcott, gets a chance to shine. May’s determination to cast off the shadow of Amy March and to prove herself as an artist depicts her as a strong, likable heroine. Elise Hooper’s period details and elegant writing bring the story vividly to life, making this story one to be cherished alongside Alcott’s classic.

And now some insights from Elise on her wonderful book…

What was your inspiration for The Other Alcott?

I attended drama camp at Orchard House in Concord, MA, the former Alcott family home-turned-museum, when I was in elementary school and never could quite shake my interest in the Alcott sisters after that. I read all of Louisa’s books and wanted to know more about the sisters behind Little Women.

Did you face any unexpected challenges or pleasant surprises while working on the novel?

Once I delved into researching May’s art studies, both in Boston and Paris, I became fascinated with all of the other women who were trying to develop artistic careers. These women came from different backgrounds but all were drawn to the goal of becoming professional artists. That doesn’t seem so extraordinary in 2017, but it was pretty audacious for the late 1800s.

Which of the “Little Women” do you identify with most closely?

I always admired Jo’s single-minded drive to becoming a writer, but I think I have Amy’s optimistic spirit.

What was your favourite scene to write?

I loved writing the scenes with Jane Gardener. She seems like such a pistol! I’ve been told to write a novel about her next.

What’s your writing process like? Do you have a strict schedule or can you write anywhere, anytime?

I wish I had a strict schedule! Since I had two young daughters and teach part-time, I must be flexible. You can find me hunched over my laptop at my daughter’s gymnastics studio, at the pool while my girls swim, and in my minivan while I await my kids to get out of school.

How can we stay updated on your book news?

Someday I’m going to put out a newsletter. See? Now that I’ve said that here, I really will do it, so please sign up for it! In fact, I have some deleted chapters from the end of the book that I’d like to send out in a newsletter sometime this fall. In the meantime, Instagram is my social media outlet of choice.

You can also find Elise on Twitter. 

From the book jacket:

Elise Hooper’s debut novel conjures the fascinating, untold story of May Alcott—Louisa’s youngest sister and an artist in her own right.

We all know the story of the March sisters, heroines of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. But while everyone cheers on Jo March, based on Louisa herself, Amy March is often the least favorite sister. Now, it’s time to learn the truth about the real “Amy”, Louisa’s sister, May.

Stylish, outgoing, creative, May Alcott grows up longing to experience the wide world beyond Concord, Massachusetts. While her sister Louisa crafts stories, May herself is a talented and dedicated artist, taking lessons in Boston, turning down a marriage proposal from a well-off suitor, and facing scorn for entering what is very much a man’s profession.

Life for the Alcott family has never been easy, so when Louisa’s Little Women is published, its success eases the financial burdens they’d faced for so many years. Everyone agrees the novel is charming, but May is struck to the core by the portrayal of selfish, spoiled “Amy March.” Is this what her beloved sister really thinks of her?

So May embarks on a quest to discover her own true identity, as an artist and a woman. From Boston to Rome, London, and Paris, this brave, talented, and determined woman forges an amazing life of her own, making her so much more than merely “The Other Alcott.”

 

Author Biography: 

Although a New Englander by birth (and at heart), Elise now lives with her husband and two young daughters within stone-skipping distance of the Pacific Northwest’s Puget Sound. When she’s not writing, she’s in her classroom making American history and literature interesting for high school students. Want to try your hand at creating a pitch for Shark Tank: Colonial America Edition? Stop by her classroom.

The Other Alcott is Elise’s debut novel and will be released by William Morrow/Harper Collins in September 2017.

Feuding with Marie Antoinette – guest post

I examined a couple of Marie Antoinette’s most prominent feuds, and you can find the details – and determine if they were justified or not – over at Jenny Q’s wonderful blog, “Let Them Read Books.” Definitely check out her site – she has some exciting book giveaways running right now!

I met Jenny at the Historical Novel Society Conference in June, and even though she was extremely busy helping to make sure it was the best conference ever (and it was), she found time to chat with me and is one of the nicest people you could ever meet. I’m so excited to have a guest post with her today.

Speaking of posts elsewhere on the internet, I also have an interview with Carrie Pestritto, and an essay about my inspiration behind The Wardrobe Mistress over on Women Writers, Women’s Books.

Available at:

Amazon
Barnes and Noble
IndieBound
Booksamillion
Macmillan
Kobo
Chapters/Indigo
iBooks

In Which My Book Becomes Completely Real

Today is publication day for my novel, The Wardrobe Mistress, the story of one of Marie Antoinette’s wardrobe women who casually spies on the queen during the French Revolution and finds herself torn between her loyalty to the queen and her sympathy for the revolution.

I feel a bit dream-like, my thoughts blurred around the edges. It’s almost hard to believe that a story I wrote is actually sitting on shelves, available for readers to pick it up. It’s becoming a real thing – not just a bundle of paper, but something that someone might connect or react to. It made me think of a quote by Ursula K. Le Guin: “The unread story is not a story; it is little black marks on wood pulp. The reader, reading it, makes it live: a live thing, a story.”

If that’s true, then the book has been gradually sparking to life for a while now, since publishing is a team effort and I’ve been lucky and grateful to have some early reviews and lovely quotes from other authors and very supportive friends. But today, the book is out there for everyone, and it makes it different, more vibrant. It’s a live thing. It’s not just mine anymore. And I can hardly describe how exciting that is. Happy Book Birthday, The Wardrobe Mistress!

 

Available at:
Amazon | B&N | IndieBound | BAM | Macmillan

 

The Myth of ‘Let Them Eat Cake’

For many people, the first thing that jumps to mind upon hearing Marie Antoinette’s name is the phrase ‘Let them eat cake.’ This quotation is frequently ascribed to France’s doomed queen, given as her careless response to the famine affecting the people as the revolution began.

‘Let them eat cake’ is evidently a catchy phrase, because it’s been recorded in use multiple times, dating back to sometime earlier than 1737. It was first ascribed to a Spanish princess, Marie Thérèse, who was the wife of French king Louis XIV, who reigned several decades prior to the French revolution. Marie Thérèse’s apparent use of the phrase was slightly different, being more in reference to crusts of bread left in the pan.

In 1751, four years before Marie Antoinette was even born, the phrase was again attributed Madame Sophie of France and other times, to Madame Victoire of France. Sophie and Victoire were both great aunts of Marie Antoinette’s husband, Louis XVI, and high-ranking within the royal family.

But the most telling proof of its origin prior to Marie Antoinette’s reign as queen is that it can be found in Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Confessions, which was a popular work during the queen’s lifetime. Completed in 1769 but not published until about twenty years later, the work contains the line, “At length I recollected the thoughtless saying of a great princess, who, on being informed that the country people had no bread, replied, “Then let them eat cake!”’ Sometimes it is translated as pastry, but the sentiment remains the same – an utterly naïve royal lady betrays a lack of comprehension and sympathy by making such a frivolous remark.

It must have been particularly frustrating for Marie Antoinette to hear slander that attributed the quotation to her. After all, she would have been familiar with Rousseau’s work since it was very popular at the time, and one of her closest ladies in waiting, Madame Campan, often read aloud to her. I had some fun writing this scene in The Wardrobe Mistress.

It’s often thought that the cake of the quotation refers to brioche, a rich type of bread, which could account for the alternate translation to pastry. The texture of brioche is a cross between pastry and bread, with an even crumb and a dairy-sweet flavour – due to the high butter content. The richest brioche (which the upper classes would have eaten) can contain up to 80% butter! It’s best baked in a metal tin, to create a delicate, hairline thin crust. Less decadent brioche is closer to 20% butter, and ranges in the middle can be baked as well.

It’s especially delicious with strawberry jam, as I can personally attest.

Since Marie Antoinette undoubtedly would have eaten brioche sometimes, even if she never suggested it as an alternative to plain bread for the peasants, I wanted to try baking it. My mom and I made it together, so now I can not only recommend brioche as tasty, if rich, but it was also a fun activity to do together. I couldn’t help but think of Marie Antoinette while I ate it, enjoying the connection to history.



The Wardrobe Mistress, a novel of one of Marie Antoinette’s wardrobe women who casually spies on the queen during the French Revolution and finds herself torn between her loyalty to the queen and her sympathy for the revolution, is available now.

Buy links:
Amazon | B&N | IndieBound | BAM | Macmillan