Celebrating Women’s History Month at Read-A-Romance!
Since some of my favorite books are set in a variety of historical time-periods, I thought it would be fun to check in with some great authors in romance and women’s historical fiction, and explore their connection to history. Since the female perspective in history and fiction has been ignored so often, for so long, I find it heartening to see so many books representing romance and/or women’s history, telling such mesmerizing stories against the backdrop of some of the most intriguing and pivotal moments in time. I hope you find these essays as fascinating and fun as I do. You can see the full calendar of authors here.
Turning To The Past, Making It Real
I’m always a little shocked when I encounter someone who claims not to like historical fiction. Because what’s not to love? I have so many questions. Are you afraid it’s going to be like one of those history lectures at school, and you sat through enough of those already? Do you think everyone’s going to speak like a Shakespeare play, and the narrator’s going to interrupt every ten pages in the voice of a BBC World News presenter, delivering exposition by the marbly mouthful?
Do you imagine it’s not going to be—gasp—relatable?
Of course, if you’re reading this post, you’re probably already a greedy consumer of historical fiction. Like me, you’ve probably stood on a battlefield or the Tower Green or the streets of Pompeii and caught your breath at the presence of raw history before you. You don’t need to be told that there’s nothing more relatable than history, nothing new under the sun, nothing more magic than the proximity of some legendary queen, some ordinary midwife, some war-weary poet, contained in the air you breathe and the earth under your feet. They were human. They were us. They lived and loved, they ate and drank, they fought and were bored and played games and learned their letters. They watched the same rain fall and the same dusk gather, they observed the bursting of spring blossoms and the fall of autumn leaves, they kissed and yearned and perspired, they had orgasms and bore children, they heard music and danced, they grew old and died. In a hundred years, you’ll be history, too. What could be more relatable than that?
The thing is, when you’re living your life, it’s not history, is it? The times you inhabit are modern ones. You are all the rage. The events you experience are not described in books but in newspapers. When I write novels, I try to keep that in mind. Call it the Beatriz Williams Theory of Historical Storytelling. History is the stage and the set and the costumes, but what matters are the characters: people like us, navigating the world into which they’re born, trying to eke out some kind of meaning from life. Trying to find someone to love. Never mind the billion details you uncovered in your research. The only thing that matters is the right detail: the one true detail that makes everything real. Makes everything new again.
As the great opera composer Giuseppe Verdi—whose every work was a passionate romance, though I’m afraid it rarely ended well—once said: Let us turn to the past: that will be progress.
Right now I’m enthralled by an advance edition of Lucy Foley’s The Invitation, out this summer. It’s set on the Italian Riviera in the 1950s, glamorous and romantic and bittersweet all at once. She’s a new author – her wonderful debut, The Book of Lost and Found, came out last year – and her prose and her storytelling are so good. My kind of author. (Follow Lucy on Facebook.)
If you like a little magic woven into your historical fiction, you should be reading M.J. Rose – mjrose.com – who spins the most amazing yarns. The Witch of Painted Sorrows, set in Belle Epoque Paris, is out now; this summer brings The Secret Language of Stones, which I had the pleasure of reading early. It’s about a woman who communicates with lost soldiers of the Great War and ends up entangled in the mystery of the Romanovs. I stayed up into the wee hours with that one!
Questions for the Author:
Tell us about a moment when you felt a deep connection to history.
There are so many moments, but I think one of the most transformative occurred when I read Vera Brittain’s devastating First World War memoir Testament of Youth in the early 1990s. I didn’t include this book in my recommendation list because it’s not exactly joyful (per our theme!), but there’s a moment in Vera’s war experience when I actually could not continue. I just felt the loss too keenly. Vera and her friends could have been me and my friends, separated only by the passage of eight decades. A few years later I went to visit her fiancé’s grave in a tiny crossroads cemetery in northern France, and the sight of that familiar line of poetry on his headstone – “Good night: Till life and all take flight, Never good-bye” – just broke me.
Do you have a specific place or sound that makes you feel connected to history? Why?
The experience of visiting historical sites has such a powerful effect on me—you feel so easily the thinness of that one dimension that separates you from all that came before, it’s almost frustrating that you can’t see and hear and smell what happened. And now it’s gone, and yet it’s still there. Battlefields and military cemeteries are especially moving for me. I named my son when I visited the American cemetery in Normandy while pregnant. At the moment I’m living in a house that’s around 300 years old, and every night I think about the people who slept in my room and tended the fire in the corner. So many births and deaths took place right where I sleep. I keep hoping a ghost will turn up, but no luck so far!
What is your (or a) favorite historical era or event?
I almost hesitate to use the word “favorite” here, but since college I’ve been fascinated to the point of obsession with the First World War and its aftermath in Western culture—I guess anyone who reads my books could guess that! Right now I’m writing about the Jazz Age, which occurred at the exact moment that our modern culture was born from the crucible of the war, and I love the way all those elements came together: Prohibition, women’s suffrage, mass media, a revolution in sexual behavior, the rise of youth culture, the general sense that the old world had broken and the old rules were smashed. It’s the moment when we started becoming who we are today, and I can’t get enough of it.
Is there a moment in your research when some specific historical moment or event came to life for you? Tell us about it.
I do love all the research rabbit holes I get to scurry down during the course of my research, even if I look up from my screen after a couple of hours and realize I haven’t written a word! While I was researching the old Roosevelt Field airport for my upcoming novel A Certain Age—set in 1922—I spent an entire day trying to determine the field’s exact location on a map of modern Long Island, from tracing the route and the history of the now-abandoned Long Island Motor Parkway to figuring out how my characters would have gone to Hempstead and back from Manhattan. And when you overlay the past on top of the present like that, you do get a tremendous feeling of connection with history.
And for fun ~ Tell us about your Favorite Historical Crush. ;o) (This can be either a historical or fictional crush.) Why?
Well, of course I went through a series of crushes on all the poets and warriors of the First World War, starting with Vera Brittain’s fiancé Roland Leighton and moving on to Julian Grenfell and then Hobie Baker for American color. You might say that my first hero, Julian Ashford of Overseas, was an attempt to resurrect them all into one man who actually survived! But since they didn’t survive, and this is supposed to be fun, I’m going to go with my longstanding vintage crush on Gordon McRae, a lovely man with a gorgeous baritone voice and a marvelous charm, who starred as Curly in the film version of Oklahoma!, and whose “You’ll Never Walk Alone” as Billy Bigelow in Carousel always brings me to tears. Was he the world’s greatest actor? Well, no. But that voice! And he charms my socks off as Bill Sherman in On Moonlight Bay, and that’s all that matters.
Beatriz is generously giving away 1 hardcover copy of Along the Infinite Sea for US readers, and 1 trade paperback of Tiny Little Thing for international friends. To enter the giveaway, leave a comment below or on the Facebook post you’ll find here (or both – Share the Love!) ;o) by 11:59 pm PST March 27, 2016. Good luck!
Beatriz Williams is the New York Times bestselling author of five novels, including A Hundred Summers and The Secret Life of Violet Grant, and The Forgotten Room in collaboration with Karen White and Lauren Willig. Her next novel, A Certain Age, arrives in June 2016 from William Morrow. She lives with her husband and four children near the Connecticut shore, where she divides her time between writing and laundry.
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