Category Archives: Historical

Jeanne Mackin: Characters, Setting, and a Problem to be Solved

In this post, Jeanne Mackin shares why she prefers writing historical fiction, how research guides her writing process, what her best piece of writing advice is, and more!

Jeanne Mackin is the author of acclaimed novels about ground-breaking, fascinating women whose lives intertwine with the political and cultural events of their times. Her novels have ranged from the salons of pre-revolutionary France to the cafes and conspiracies of France between the world wars. 

Jeanne Mackin (Photo credit Neil Sjoblom)

Her most recent novel, The Last Collection, based on the intense rivalry between Coco Chanel and Elsa Schiaparelli, takes the reader into a world of Parisian haute couture and dangerous politics just before World War II. She has also won awards for journalism and taught writing. She lives with her husband in the Finger Lakes area of New York State.

(21 authors share one piece of advice for writers.)

In this post, Jeanne Mackin shares why she prefers writing historical fiction, how research guides her writing process, what her best piece of writing advice is, and more!

*****

Whether history is a backdrop to your story or the focus of the story itself, this workshop will provide you with the tools to find the facts you need, organize the data in a functional manner, and merge that data seamlessly into your novel. You'll discover the appropriate level of historical data to include as a function of a particular writing goal, learn the definition of historical markers and how and where to unearth them, and uncover the tools to integrate history, research, and the fiction plot arc.

Click to continue.

*****

Name: Jeanne Mackin
Literary agent: Kevan Lyon of Marsal Lyon Literary Agency
Book title: The Last Collection—A Novel of Elsa Schiaparelli and Coco Chanel
Publisher: Berkley
Release date: August 11, 2020
Genre: Historical Fiction
Previous titles: A Lady of Good Family; The Beautiful American; The Sweet By and By; Dreams of Empire; The Queen's War; The Frenchwoman

Elevator pitch for the book: An American woman becomes entangled in the intense rivalry between iconic fashion designers Coco Chanel and Elsa Schiaparelli, just as Paris prepares for the Nazi invasion of World War II.

What prompted you to write this book?

Stories about powerful women fascinate me. And in Paris, in the years between the world wars, few people were as powerful, or as rich, as Coco Chanel. When the upstart Elsa Schiaparelli from Rome entered the world of Paris fashion and threatened to usurp Coco from her throne as queen of couture, the rivalry was intense, and almost fatal. 

The true histories of these two women, and the Parisian setting, were irresistible to me. As I researched and saw how closely fashion and politics were connected I grew ever more intrigued.

How long did it take to go from idea to publication?

It takes me several years to complete a novel, largely because of the amount of research I do. And yes, ideas always change during the actual writing process. I'd be worried if they didn't! The novel writing process, for me, begins with characters and a setting, and a problem to be solved, and goes from there. 

I often explore several solutions before I discover the one I want to stay with, to work with. Balance has to be constantly fine tuned. There has to be a love story—think of a single novel that isn't in some way, about love—but it has to be balanced with the historical plotting. 

(On writing better historical fiction.)

What most changed for me in this novel was how to solve the problem of my main character's grief. At the opening of this novel, Lily Sutter is a young American widow who must learn to live again—to heal her sorrow and feel the emotions of the living, all the joy and pain and pleasure and worry that life involves. She must abandon the grey numbness that has overtaken her. Her complex friendships with Coco and Elsa begin that process, but the ultimate solution, when it appeared on the page, surprised me.

Were there any surprises or learning moments in the publishing process for this title?

I was surprised, and reminded to be surprised, once again, by the brilliance of the editors and copy editors who are at Berkley. Writers often see what they think is on the page, what they meant to be put on the page…but often what has been typed in is not quite the same thing. And, when dealing with the historical facts of several real characters and weaving them in and out of the lives of fictional characters, as I like to do, anomalies can appear, as well as out and out mistakes. The editing and copy editing process polishes the work and helps make it the book the writer wants it to be.

Were there any surprises in the writing process for this book?

The research always leads to surprises. It's one of the many reasons I write historical fiction. I want to learn about the world that came before me. It helps me understand where the world is now. I also like to swim against the tide, as it were: Take a historical meme and relearn it, rework it. 

This novel gifted me with two important lessons: Fashion is not trivial. It reflects its own historical moments and philosophies and attitudes. When we decide to wear a specific piece of clothing or style, we are making a statement that goes far beyond fashion and says things about ourselves and our beliefs and worldview.

(10 questions you need to ask your characters.)

A specific fact that startled me during this research was that German prisoners of war were housed in this country, as well as in England. And those POW camps in this country had special sections for German deserters, men forced into the military who did not agree with Hitler, did not want to fight for him and his evil.

What do you hope readers will get out of your book?

The same lesson I hope they take away from all of my novels. That glorious John Dunne poem: "No man is an island, entire of itself, every man is a piece of the Continent, a part of the main." 

We are all connected and history shows us over and over that if we harm others that harm comes back to us, one way or another. And on a lighter note, Elsa Schiaparelli, in her autobiography Shocking Life, made a list of 12 commandments for women, and this is my favorite: "Ninety per cent (of women) are afraid of being conspicuous and of what people will say. So they buy a grey suit. They should dare to be different."

If you could share one piece of advice with other authors, what would it be?

Give yourself permission to dream! 

Each day when you begin your work remind yourself that you are engaging in a creative process. This is the time to experiment, to try various "what if" situations and imagine those voices, the dialogues between characters. When things happen that you didn't plan, when characters surprise you, that often means the creative process is now in control…and that's good.

Why I Write Jewish Historical Fiction

Novelist Michelle Cameron explain why she's driven to write Jewish historical fiction and why it's not about the Holocaust.

I never set out to write Jewish historical fiction. I was brought up in a secular household and, until my family moved to Israel when I was 15, my Jewish roots remained incidental at best.

But I did of course notice that the books I loved – particularly Regency and Victorian literature – didn’t treat the Jews well at all. With rare exceptions – George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda and Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe come immediately to mind – there was no sympathy for the Jewish character. Even Georgette Heyer, the historical romance novelist I loved the most, portrayed Jews as villainous money lenders. There is a searing scene in The Grand Sophie where the heroine bests the sniveling, stereotypical Jewish money lender through her pluck and determination. Not a fun passage for any Jewish reader to read.

Still, it wasn’t what I set out to write. The books I admired with Jewish protagonists were either Biblical – The Red Tent and that ilk – or contemporary, such as the novels of Chaim Potok. When I wrote, as I did in my high school yearbook, that I wanted to become a historical novelist, I wasn’t thinking Jewish. In fact, my first published work was a verse novel set in the Globe Theatre during Shakespeare’s time. Since I never mentioned The Merchant of Venice, In the Shadow of the Globe contained no Jewish references whatsoever.

I believe strongly that my stories find me, not the other way around, and that was certainly the case with The Fruit of Her Hands. I was leafing through a family genealogy chart, compiled by a distant cousin, when I stumbled across a description of the life of my 12th-century rabbi ancestor, Meir of Rothenberg. His story called to me and the resulting novel entered me into the ranks of Jewish historical novelists.

There were not that many of us out there at the time. Happily, this isn’t as true now. I recently took part in one of the Jewish Book Council’s author pitch sessions, in which I was given two whole minutes to present my novel (online this year, of course) to the roughly 120 member organizations across North America. In preparation for the event, I took the time to cull some statistics from the JBC’s 2020 catalogue. I counted 233 total books – fiction, nonfiction, and children’s – of which 34 were categorized as historical novels. Sixteen of these were set during or immediately following World War II, dealing with the Holocaust and its aftermath. The other 18, including my own, ranged through the rest of Jewish history.

I also posted on a couple of Jewish Facebook forums, asking my fellow authors why they write Jewish historical fiction. Being the Jane Austen fan that I am, I was entranced by this response by Mirta Ines Trupp: “Alas, it is a truth universally acknowledged that there are few Jewish characters of worth in historical novels.” Zeeva Bukai echoed that sentiment: “I love the connection between past and present, and the way Jewish identity has remained, but has also altered, shaped by history and events. And I think it's important to see us represented on the page.”

Remembering how the young reader in me was shocked and dismayed by the portrayal of Jews in the books I loved, I wholeheartedly agree: it is important to not only see us represented on the page, but also not portrayed as stereotypes. And once I started writing about the lives of Jews during the Middle Ages, a period not well known, it became a way to reach out, to let people – both Jews and Gentiles – learn more about our history. So many of my readers told me that they had no idea before reading my novel how antisemitism gained strength during the Middle Ages. My current novel, Beyond the Ghetto Gates, is also set in unfamiliar territory, that of the Jewish emancipation from the ghettos in Italy, performed by none other than a young General Bonaparte. Napoleon and the Jews? Who knew?

Another Facebook response resonated with me, this one by Naomi Blass: “Because readers need Jewish fiction that isn’t centered on the Holocaust.” With sincere respect to those writers who give voice to that unforgivable tragedy, I could never write about it myself. Having lost half my mother’s family to its horrors, the Holocaust strikes too close to home. Everything I write about my people is embodied with the sense of “this is my story.” I simply could not face the nightmare of that era for the several years it would take to write a novel set then and there.

I write Jewish historical fiction from a deep sense of my people’s history and culture. Having lived in Israel during high school and university, I have a distinct advantage over other American Jewish authors who attended secular schools: the Israeli curriculum calls for a deep dive into Jewish history, beginning from Biblical times to present day. I will be forever grateful to my high school principal, Dr. Erwin Birnbaum, who brought all those moments of our history to vibrant life.

The fact that I’m not religious bewilders some readers. But the themes in Jewish history that call to me – particularly the tug-of-war between assimilation and maintaining religious tradition, the antisemitism that touches us all, religious or not – distinctly qualify me to tell these stories. And the eras I’ve explored, from the medieval advent of antisemitism to the ideas of the Enlightenment giving the Jews of France and Italy revolutionary new choices, are clearly reflected in our modern lives. One more Facebook response, by Janice Weizman, encapsulates my own feelings about the question brilliantly: “Jewish historical fiction offers writers an amazingly rich resource from which to draw on a seemingly endless range of issues, settings, and dilemmas, all of which resonate with each other, and with our lives as Jews today. The tension between the individual and community, modernism and tradition, faith and skepticism, as well as timeless moral questions, make for narrative potential that feels urgent and relevant.”

So why do I write Jewish historical fiction? These are the stories of my people. My culture. My history. Their issues are the issues I still personally grapple with today. In this era of #ownvoices, I cannot think of anything more important for me to write.

Order your copy of Beyond the Ghetto Gates

IndieBound | Barnes & Noble | Books a Million | Amazon

[WD uses affiliate links.]

Learn everything you need to know about selling your books on Amazon with this Writer's Digest University online course.

Writing in the Shadows: On Writing Better Historical Fiction

In this post, novelist Pamela Binnings Ewen shares her thoughts on writing better historical fiction by writing in the shadows of history and historical research.

When researching and writing historical fiction, a writer opens doors into the past and prepares for surprises. As I dug into Gabrielle (Coco) Chanel's written history when I began my latest novel, The Queen of Paris, I found right away that I could not trust many of her biographies. While she was alive, Chanel demanded absolute approval before cooperating with a writer. She nixed most of them. Her image was carefully structured and protected, as were the now-famous witty quotes that seemed to fall impromptu from her lips before the press.

(8 rules of writing historical fiction research.)

In fact, as my research began, I soon realized that despite Chanel's public image and those beautiful, clean couture designs—the bias cut satins and silks, the lace inserts, soft jersey dresses, diamond hair clips and romantic perfumes—the real Coco was still a mystery. Because her life during the war years when the Nazis occupied Paris remained hidden until only recently as her secrets gradually came into the light.

Many had already absorbed the news that Chanel was a collaborator during the years of occupation. What else could one think, since she resided in the Hotel Ritz in Paris alongside the Nazi High Command. But I never expected what I found a few years ago—had never understood the depth of Chanel's connections to Nazi Germany.

When writing historical fiction, the frame of the story is first constructed with facts. But to test the depth of a character as complex as Chanel it was necessary to get past the obvious. In an excellent nonfiction book (Sleeping with the Enemy, by Hal Vaughn) I found explosive new facts to fit into the frame of the story. Photographs of only recently released WWII military files on Coco Chanel showing Chanel was more than a mere collaborator during the Nazi occupation of France.

She was a spy.

Writing in the Shadows

Often this is a matter of putting two and two together, connecting rumor or innuendo from bits and pieces of history with the facts. Sometimes a writer will find odd, off-beat information about their subject which rises above coincidence. Information which fits so well into the frame of the story that they're convinced it could be true. 

In this case, the writer should also assure that the fictional conclusion does no harm. In other words, writing in the shadows is fascinating and fun, and sometimes it swoops off into new fascinating directions, but it shouldn't change the frame of truth surrounding the story.

I think of this as writing in the shadows of history.

(Historical fiction: Discover new truths in the past.)

It is amazing to me that so much has been written about Coco Chanel, and yet so little has been written about her life in Paris during the war years. I'm not certain, but I think The Queen of Paris is the first historical fiction to explore in depth the explosive decisions Chanel made during those four years, some kept secret until only recently.

For instance, I'd not known that she was recruited to spy for the enemy of France by the Abwehr, German Military Intelligence during WWII, and had an assigned number and a code name—Westminster. Thanks to author Hal Vaughn's book Sleeping with the Enemy, that information was verified in his photographs of recently released military files on Coco Chanel.

I'd not known that she visited an SS Officer in Berlin during the war years to accept a mission to Spain, while her own country suffered under the boot of the Nazi occupation. Nor had I known that Chanel traveled to Spain on missions for the Reich. Likewise, I'd not known how fiercely anti-Semetic she was, or that she'd used Nazi law prohibiting Jews to own businesses or work within German territories in a battle against her Jewish business partner over Chanel No. 5.

And yet, on the other hand, she'd helped rescue a Jewish friend taken hostage by the Gestapo. She was a complex woman.

*****

Write Historical Fiction

Whether history is a backdrop to your story or the focus of the story itself, this workshop will provide you with the tools to find the facts you need, organize the data in a functional manner, and merge that data seamlessly into your novel. You'll discover the appropriate level of historical data to include as a function of a particular writing goal, learn the definition of historical markers and how and where to unearth them, and uncover the tools to integrate history, research, and the fiction plot arc. 

Most of all, find out how to honor verisimilitude—the goal of any historical writing—and avoid the dreaded anachronism. You'll learn to write scenes utilizing historical markers that further the plot and put your reader firmly in the place, time, and setting.

Click to continue.

*****

On Writing Better Historical Fiction

In writing The Queen of Paris, I found myself up against two major problems.

First, Chanel had a strange ability to distance herself from the war and its victims and consequences. The question which rose over and over again as I began working on this story was, 'why?' Why would one of the richest and most famous women in the world—an icon of apparent strength, determination, and independence—agree to spy for Nazi Germany? Why betray her business partner over her signature perfume, No. 5? For me, the question of her motivations quickly became the keystone to the story.

But in addition—second—I had yet another problem to resolve. Coco Chanel was not a likable character. The thinking among fiction writers in general is that a heroine must be likable, someone readers can empathize with. But Coco Chanel was not your average heroine. In fact, perhaps, looking back, her life was one long struggle to survive, and to succeed on her own terms.

(Heroin vs. Heroine vs. Hero)

Was this enough to balance the dark side of my heroine?

There was no way to satisfactorily answer that question, I finally realized. But Coco Chanel's story during WWII was too interesting to abandon. And how many others looked the other way in order to survive? As history is constantly being rewritten, I suppose we will never really know.

So I have left it to you, dear reader, to judge.