History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

17 August 2011

Ghost Light & Bringing History to Life

I just got back from a lovely few days at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland. Among the highlights were a superb Measure for Measure, a very fun, exuberant Pirates of Penzance, and a brilliant new play called Ghost Light. Ghost Light was conceived and developed by Jonathan Moscone (Artistic Director of the California Shakespeare Theater) and Tony Taccone (Artistic Director of Berkeley Rep), written by Taccone and directed by Moscone. It explores the 1978 assassinations of Moscone’s father, San Francisco Mayor George Moscone, and Supervisor Harvey Milk by Supervisor Dan White. But rather than being a docudrama that recreates historical events, Ghost Light focuses on Jonathan Moscone’s response to the loss of his father, both as a fourteen-year-old boy and as an adult man, struggling to direct a production of Hamlet.

The story that emerges is rooted in historical events (events that I remember vividly, as a twelve-year-old at the time of the assassinations) yet at its heart it is an intimate look at coming to terms with the loss of a parent. As such it is both specific to the characters involved and wonderfully universal. We all struggle to understand our parents as individuals. Loss of a parent is a wrenching fear, and losing a parent is never easy, at any age.

Ghost Light is a haunting play, beautifully acted and directed. It was the first play we saw on the trip, and I thought about it and talked about it a great deal afterward. Among other things, I found myself mulling over what it is to write historical fiction. Real events form the framework in my books (particularly my recent books), but within those events, the arc of the book focuses on the personal journey of the characters. Both the fictional characters and also the real historical characters, such as Wilhelmine of Sagan and Dorothée de Talleyrand-Périgord in Vienna Waltz and Hortense Bonaparte in The Mask of Night. Hopefully there’s something universal in those character arcs, at the same time the story is rooted in a specific time and place. It’s a tricky balancing act, that I struggle with constantly when I’m writing. Often in the first draft I’m focused on just having the historical narrative in place, and a lot of my work in subsequent drafts involves adding layers to the character arcs. My own struggles made me appreciate the brilliant writing in Ghost Light all the more.

What appeals to you most in historical fiction? The historical narrative or the personal stories of the characters? Both? Writers, if you write historical fiction how do you balance historical context and character development?

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Blogger Isobel Carr said...

I’d have to go with the personal narrative of the characters. If all I wanted was history, I’d buy a non-fiction book. When I’m reading historical fiction, I want to understand more how the events affected people, what the stakes really were, what the outcome meant to the people who lived it, all of which means I want personification and character.

7:36 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

For me I think it's a combination, Isobel. I definitely want to be engaged by the characters (otherwise, as you say, one could read a nonfiction history book). But I do like books where characters are engaged with the history, and I love politics, so I like stories where characters are intertwined with the events of the time, like in "An Infamous Army." But I also enjoy books like "Venetia" where historical events are more in the background.

9:03 AM  
Blogger Isobel Carr said...

I like both kinds too. I think the former (AIA and books like your Vienna Waltz) are much harder to do well. First you have to find an interesting historical event, and then you have to REALLY understand it. That's a lot of very specific research. I’m pretty much in awe of authors who pull that off (I’ve thought about attempting it, but have never worked up the chutzpah, cause, well, it would require plotting, and you know how much I love that LOL!).

9:43 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

But historical events give one a structure to build round, which can actually be helpful. Plot does the same thing. I'm more in awe of authors who can make an interesting, compelling story based just on character development :-).

11:45 AM  
Blogger Juliet Grey said...

Fascinating post, Tracy! For me, it's always the balance. The human story is always the most compelling but without the historical backdrop and strong underpinnings it lacks context and foundation. And I prefer a very solid foundation, both as a reader and as an author. One of the challenges with BECOMING MARIE ANTOINETTE was that because it focuses on the early years of her life and because it's written in the first person POV, Marie Antoinette would only be privy to a limited amount of information, but my readers needed to know more about the wider world, which not only encompassed the Austrian and French courts, but 18th c. politics across much of Western Europe and the North American colonies.

Speaking of plotting, I'm in awe of writers like Tracy who can weave such inventive plots around historical events. So far I've let the events themselves dictate the framework of the plot while I focus more on characterization. Maybe that's my theatre training coming to the fore as well.

7:44 PM  
Blogger Kathrynn Dennis said...

I enjoy the personal narrative---I often wonder what were the emotions of great historical characters---and the everyday person who was an eye witness to some profound historical event.

It's weird though, I don't like reading those "Eyewitness To History" story collections and letters written by people of the day who lived through a historical event---their tales are often too tragic and so real, I have to wince.

In the end. I will always look to an HEA, even though I know often in history, it just didn't happen.

10:32 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Thanks, Juliet! I think that balance is inherent in historical fiction. The history needs to be part of the story, or why is it historically set, but if the characters aren't vibrant and compelling, it might as well be nonfiction, as Isobel says. I do think the balance shifts, though, with the type of historical story one's telling, as with my Infamous Army and Venetia examples.

How did you real with the things the reader needed to know that Marie Antoinette wasn't privy to? Did you use a different POV? I had a similar problem with the Waterloo scenes in Imperial Scandal. In the midst of the battle, my POV characters weren't often aware of how the battle overall was unfolding. I dealt with it some by using different POVs, on both the French and Allied sides. And some things I decided the reader didn't have to know--my aim was to tell my characters' experience of the battle, not give an overview of Waterloo.

10:34 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

I like happy endings too, Kathrynn, which is why even with real historical people as major characters in my books, I like to have main characters who are fictional, so I can control their story :-). I think you've hit on another thing historical fiction can do that nonfiction can't so much - get it into the minds of the people going through the events, whether major players or onlookers.

10:54 PM  
Blogger Juliet Grey said...

Tracy, I used some of Empress Maria Theresa's letters to Marie Antoinette and I also took advantage of the historical record -- knowing that the Austrian ambassador to Versailles, the comte de Mercy-Argenteau, had been asked to counsel her (he was also secretly spying on her daily activities on behalf of her mother) -- so that in the scenes with Mercy, MA learns some of what's going on back in Austria or why, for example, it's imperative that she acknowledge Madame du Barry. And, without giving too much away, in one scene, for example, she avails herself of a masquerade situation to get physically closer to du Barry and her clique, which gives her a sense of what her detractors are thinking and saying about her.

In book 2 of the trilogy, DAYS OF SPLENDOR, DAYS OF SORROW, there will be other POVs because it's imperative that the famous Affair of the Diamond Necklace unfold and I wanted to show how all of the events transpired long before the trial itself took place -- because Jeanne de Lamotte-Valois was playing the Cardinal de Rohan for many, many months before she even hit upon the necklace scheme.

6:59 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

That sounds fascinating, Juliet, and like a great way to handle it. This discussion makes me realize that some historical fiction by it's very nature requires multiple POVs to capture the different aspects of the events in question.

12:30 PM  

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