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2017 Archives > Writing Historical Fiction Author Q&A

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J. Else (JElse) | 27 comments
Our authors (alphabetically listed) include:

MICHELLE COX is the author of the Henrietta and Inspector Howard series set during the 1930s. Her books include A Girl Like You and A Ring of Truth

J. LYNN ELSE is the author of two historical fiction novels set in ancient Egypt, The Forgotten: Aten’s Last Queen and The Forgotten: Heir of the Heretic

M.K. SOUTH is the author of Of Our Own Device which starts during the summer of 1985, the so called “Year of the Spy,” and spans the final years of the Soviet bloc.

1. Where did the idea for your novel come from?

MICHELLE COX: I got the idea for A Girl Like You from an elderly woman I met at a nursing home.  She used to tell me that “once upon a time” she had had “a man-stopping body and a personality to go with it!”  She had all these stories about her amazing life.  Really fabulous stuff!  So I took her story and used it to build my heroine, Henrietta.  You can read more about which details are actually taken from her life here:

J. LYNN ELSE: My recent novel is similar to my first novel except that it’s from a different point of view.  Novel #1 explored the life of King Tut’s one-and-only wife, Ankhesenamun.  Novel #2 follows the life of Ankhesenamun’s oldest sister during what life might have been like when their father was changing the entire religious structure of their country.  After finishing ATEN’S LAST QUEEN, I really wanted to dig deeper into the ‘Amarna’ time period.  Thus, HEIR OF THE HERETIC was born.  I originally thought I’d follow the 2nd oldest child, Meketaten, but then I shifted my focus so the main character would have a more active role in the political decisions.  Thus, Merytaten became my muse. 

M.K. SOUTH: The idea first emerged in 2009, then it all started coming to me as I was riding a motorbike across Colorado and New Mexico a year later. Don’t ask me why, it just did. But most of all, I wanted to write a story of an impossible love. And I’ve done it: it’s Of Our Own Device :)

2. What kind of research did you do?

MICHELLE: Besides all the interviews I did with this particular woman in the nursing home, and many of the other residents, actually, I did a lot of Google searches.  Also, I used to live very near where the book is set, so that helped, too.

J. LYNN: I have 50 plus books on ancient Egypt in my personal collection (yep, I’m slightly obsessed).  So I keep one by my side as I write.  When I’m in a groove and don’t want to interrupt my flow, I’ll sometimes check the internet to answer quick questions like ‘what were the name of the Egyptian seasons again’ or ‘was that Thutmosis the II’s or III’s cat?’  When I’m writing something in a very specific place, like lowering the lids on a sarcophagus, then I take it slow and keep my books open beside my computer.  For instance, different flowers and shrouds were placed over each lid in King Tut’s sarcophagus, so I wanted to make sure I had this order correct!  Also when Merytaten is walking through Hatshepsut’s Temple of a Million Years, I wanted to make sure I had the description as accurate as possible regarding what the temple might have looked like two thousand years ago.  Accuracy is very important to me as a reader, so I’ve definitely kept it a priority in my writing.

M.K.: It took me over 4 years to research for the book, primarily because it is a fictional story interwoven into factual /historical events of the Cold War period toward the end of the Soviet times. In addition, I tried to write about the topic that I had only read in books or watched movies about – espionage, the world of intelligence, diplomatic wars and on top of that, the history of LGBT in both America and the Soviet Union, where the topic was and is still a taboo. So I had to read a lot of memoirs of spy masters from both camps, diplomats, scientists, gay writers etc. I was drawing on all sources of information (incl. CIA and FBI websites) freely available to the public. Plus scanning newspapers archives for events and occurrences on any particular day. For the latter, I am indebted to Los Angeles Times’ on-line news archives which I used extensively.

3. When did you stop researching and start writing, or was it an ongoing thing?

M.K.: I started writing shortly after I’d read the first few memoirs, but continued researching and cross checking every single fact and statement I made in the book till the very last page.

MICHELLE: I’m a bit of an odd duck when it comes to writing historical fiction.  Most historical fiction authors I know often get trapped down the rabbit hole of research, and many admit that this is as fun or more than the writing itself.  Not for me.  It’s all about the story for me.  So I once I have the basic outline down of how I want the story to go, I just start writing.  When I come to a spot that needs research, like a specific make of car from 1937, I insert “XXXXXX” in that spot and keep writing.  Then later I go back and fill in all the “XXXXXX” spots.  This way the flow of the story isn’t broken up for me as I’m writing.

J. LYNN: Ongoing.  When I hear of new specials on TV or in magazines, I watch, read, and learn.  Less than a year after ATEN’S LAST QUEEN (ALQ) was published, evidence was discovered that Tut did not die from a fall off a chariot but from a combination of factors.  I was like dang it!  So before I re-released ALQ with a preview of HEIR OF THE HERETIC, I made sure to update a few sentences to coincide with the recent archeological discovery. It wasn’t a huge plot change but a very minor detail that I ironed out. That’s the thing about writing historical fiction, new evidence can be unearthed at any time!

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J. Else (JElse) | 27 comments 4. Let’s talk characters. Are they all fictional or do you weave and develop historical people into your narrative?

J. LYNN: My main characters are people from history: Nefertiti, Ahkenaten, Merytaten, Ankhesenamun, Tutankhamun, etc.  Only minor characters like guards or love interests have been a creation of my own mind. 

M.K.: My main characters are fictional. However, they interact with quite a number of real life characters – diplomats, journalists, musicians and actors, whose names I have changed – for obvious reasons!

MICHELLE: Except for the woman I used to create the character of Henrietta, they are all fictional!

5. How do most people make a living in your time period?

MICHELLE: Interesting question, because my series is set during the Great Depression when most people were out of work.  People did whatever they could to get by.  Henrietta, for example, has a whole string of strange jobs—from “Dutch Girl” at the World’s Fair, to hair-curler demonstrator, to usherette at a burlesque house.  Interestingly, all the jobs that Henrietta has in the book are real jobs that the woman I interviewed actually had.  According to this woman, she did not have a problem getting a job, as did the rest of the country, probably because of her beauty, but she had a hard time keeping the job.  She was always getting fired for slapping an owner or manager for “trying to feel her up,” a problem I naturally gave to poor Henrietta, as well.

J. LYNN: My main characters are royalty, so I focus mostly on palace life.  Women had many rights in this society, so they held a variety of jobs including running businesses to being wet nurses for royal families.  There were priests and priestesses for the numerous gods Egyptians worshipped.  There was also the city where tomb builders and royal embalmers lived and worked.  Men were often scribes or laborers.  Building monuments, like the pyramids, was considered a sacred duty for Egyptians.  Unlike the stereotypical images of evil overlords whipping slave laborers, working on these large-scale products was actually a great source of income for families.  There were work camps created, and nourishing food was provided throughout the day evidenced by the remains of kitchens built in the camps. 

M.K.: All characters in my book have a day-job – spies, diplomats, journalists, scientists, musicians etc. -- or are students.

6. What things are considered normal and acceptable in your novel’s society that would not be considered normal or acceptable today?

M.K.: Hmmm. It’s the other way round probably: being openly gay is now acceptable in many societies. In others, like Russia for example, the situation moved 2 steps forward only to get pushed 1 step back most recently. As for acceptance of spying, well, you know the current status as well as I do! 

MICHELLE: Women did not have as many options and opportunities in the 1930’s as they do today.  Most women did not receive higher education and few had careers.  Most were expected to do menial labor or stay at home as a housewife.  Society was very much controlled by men.  This makes it very difficult for Henrietta to earn enough money for the family after her father’s death.  She strives to maintain her virtue, and yet most of the jobs open to her are unscrupulous.

Also, people’s perception of suicide was different then.  It was considered a shameful, sinful act, unforgivable by the church and society.  This makes the Von Harmon’s poverty all the worse when Mr. Von Harmon kills himself in A Girl Like You.  Not only is the family thrown deeper into poverty by his actions, but they are shamed as well. 

J. LYNN: I got a big one when writing about ancient Egypt: The concept of royal families “keeping the bloodline pure” by marrying their immediate family members.  Sisters and brothers.  Fathers and daughters.  First cousins.  Yikes!  The ancients thought this preserved their ancestral line, but really this just created problems for future generations--King Tut being a huge example.  He was the product of a long line of incest.  Note, this was not a practice of the common people otherwise Egyptians would have died out long ago!  Only the royal families practiced this in emulation of their gods Osiris and Isis, who were also brother and sister. 

7. What do people at various levels of society do for fun?

J. LYNN: Ancient Egyptians played board games.  We do not know the exact rules for these, but Egyptologists have put together some rules for the popular game of Senet. 

MICHELLE: The wealthy of the 1930’s were able to entertain themselves in a variety of ways, just as they do now.  Parties, balls, concerts, trips, dinners, golf, tennis—these are all things the rich would have done, even in the midst of the Depression.  The wealthiest members of society also usually belonged to private clubs, such as country clubs or gentleman’s clubs, which provided entertainment and social comradery.  Also taking pleasure rides in automobiles was becoming a popular form of entertainment—a “Sunday jaunt” in a motor car was considered fun. 

The poor, on the other hand, usually did not have much time for fun. 
When they did have free time, a Sunday picnic or a walk in a park or on the outskirts of town or a game of cards might have occurred. Children made up their own games and played them in the street, such as stickball, kick-the-can, and Red Rover. Children also made scooters from scraps they found and played hopscotch and jacks. Dance halls were all the rage, and a man could pay a “taxi-dancer” ten cents a dance if he didn’t have a partner.

One thing that united both the rich and the poor was radio. Radio shows of every variety were in their hay day in the 1930’s, entertaining people with dramas, comedies, advice, mysteries, news, sports and of course, music.

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J. Else (JElse) | 27 comments 8. What was the hardest part about bringing your historical world to life?

M.K.: Being as accurate about facts while giving readers a different perspective on things, historical and obscure, that they weren’t aware about before. Giving a human face and life to the different perspective, since lots of readers might be antagonized by that perspective due to years and years of prejudice and pure propaganda. Hope I have succeeded in this quest.

MICHELLE: Making sure the characters don’t use modern slang in their dialog, or what readers perceive to be modern, which isn’t always the case.  Also, it’s making sure that I don’t use modern verbs, such as scan, rewind, fast forward, etc.

J. LYNN: Working with ancient societies, I have a lot of freedom to create, but this can also pose a challenge.  There’s just so much we do not know.  The period I write about was considered heretical after King Tut’s death, and many of the structures and records of the time period were destroyed.  Some bricks were reused in other building projects, which archeologists have unearthed.  However, its hard to truly appreciate the beauty of the society when all we see today are crumbling washed-out ruins.  Things were colorful and grand in scale.  Modern scientists are unsure how Egyptians erected obelisks because that stuff isn’t documented.  I guess erecting a ginormous monument was just an ordinary day in the life of the common Egyptian!  Pharaohs didn’t even record these events, and they liked to brag about their accomplishments on their tomb walls.  So when reenacting these moments, it really takes a lot of cross referencing different theories and scant records to bring something so obscure to life.  My books do not have an obelisk being raised, but I do walk through some wonders of the ancient world in my stories.

9. What are some books you’d recommend to readers who love your novel and want more from that time period?

MICHELLE: If you like this time period, plus a little mystery (like mine!), I’d recommend Rhys Bowen’s Her Royal Spyness series, Kerry Greenwood’s Miss Phryne Fisher series, Charles Todd’s Inspector Ian Rutledge series or his Bess Crawford series, or Jacqueline Winspear’s Maise Dobbs series.

J. LYNN: Nonfiction, I’d recommend either The Woman Who Would Be King by Kara Cooney or Red Land, Black Land: Daily Life in Ancient Egypt by Barbara Mertz.  Fiction-wise, I’d recommend Child of the Morning by Pauline Gedge, Year of the Hyenas by Brad Geagley, Murder in the Place of Anubis by Lynda Robinson (this is more a cozy mystery during King Tut’s childhood and is a completely different take on the characters I write about - just FYI - but still an interesting read), and The Heretic Queen by Michelle Moran.

M.K.: The Russia House, The Perfect Spy and The Spy Who Came in From the Cold by John Le Carre. I would stop here, but in case anyone likes more action than Le Carre offers, then also The Cardinal of Kremlin by Tom Clancy and Red Sparrow by Jason Matthews.

message 4: by Mary (new)

Mary Woldering | 56 comments J. wrote: "
8. What was the hardest part about bringing your historical world to life?

Being as accurate about facts while giving readers a different perspective on things, historical and obscur..."

J Lynn I've just stumbled onto this line of questions. My series Children of Stone is set in Old Kingdom Kemet and uses a mix of real and speculative characters. Most consider it more SciFantasy than Historical fiction because most of what we really know of that era is based on Herodotus (questionable) and limited tales passed into the later eras

message 5: by J. (new)

J. Else (JElse) | 27 comments Thanks for sharing! There's been a lot of exciting discoveries recently about ancient Egyptian culture, so be sure to keep watching and reading! My books have included some of that exciting stuff including DNA evidence, PET scan discoveries, and new unearthed evidence. Its pretty exciting!

message 6: by Mary (new)

Mary Woldering | 56 comments J. wrote: "Thanks for sharing! There's been a lot of exciting discoveries recently about ancient Egyptian culture, so be sure to keep watching and reading! My books have included some of that exciting stuff i..."

will do

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