Today, Courtney and I are going to talk about some of the challenges of writing historical fiction.
Your character descriptions are so vivid, it’s as though you are painting a picture with words. Did you have portraits to guide you for the real people in the book (like Captain Demere and Captain Stuart), or that you used as references for your fictional characters?
Thanks! I think it was T.H. White who said of Guinevere in The Once and Future King, “It is hard to write about a real person.” I would never even attempt to make one a main character! I feel such a sense of responsibility to portray real people fairly, and I’d be afraid of failing miserably. But in terms of physical appearance, yes, I used some contemporary portraits, some later artists’ renderings, and some journal descriptions.
Captain Stuart was well known for his hair: the Cherokee called him Bushy Head, and he had descendants among the Cherokee who took that name and were very proud of being related to him. He was larger than life in his day, though he’s mostly forgotten now.
Lieutenant-Colonel Grant was an amazing find, already more like a character than a real person even before I got hold of him. There are lots of portraits of him in later life: he had a successful military and political career, serving as a general in the British Army during the American Revolution. He claimed he “would go from one end of America to the other and geld all the males.” I have to laugh because it’s such a Grant thing to say.
I know what you mean about it being hard to write about a real person. One of my back-burner novels is the story of Princess Elizabeth of York who married Henry VII and became the mother of Henry VIII. She’s a fascinating person but very little is really known about her; we have to interpolate so much from documents written by and about people around her. But you have to do your best to get to know your subjects as real people, with inner lives as vivid anyone you might meet today.
On to fictional characters: There are also lots of descriptions of the men in the Highland regiments. I had to be careful not to make Malcolm too tall, because the tallest highlander was only around 5’10”, and most of them were closer to 5’6″. (I’m finding it to be mostly myth that most people are significantly taller now than in the past. The highlanders were considered on the shorter side. It seems like growth mostly has to do with nutrition, which of course is better now, overall.)There was much more of an ethnic split between the various people groups of the British Isles at the time, so I gave Malcolm my own coloring, what used to be called “Highland Black (hair) and Blue (eyes).” I also gave him my own birthday, because I could. Catie and her family are blond, as many lowlanders are described.
I love that you made Malcolm like you, just because you can. Oh, the delightful power of being a writer! 🙂
How did you find historic details about day-to-day life? I’m especially fascinated by your intricate knowledge of fashion and the many layers of Catriona’s clothing!
Paper dolls! No, seriously, check these out.
I’m also lucky that Fort Loudoun has an active reenactment group, and their resources and lists for reenactors were indispensable. If anyone’s researching a time period or place for which there are reenactors, I can’t recommend it highly enough. You do have to be careful to make sure you find the ones who are truly hardcore about accuracy, though.
Hmmm, I never really considered that for myself. I think I’ve been afraid of encountering the “Renaissance Fair” theory of medieval fashion: as long as the wenches are spilling out of corsets and the menfolk are wearing boots and slashed sleeves, it must be authentic. But maybe if they were “hardcore…” 🙂
Come back tomorrow for the final piece of my author interview with Courtney in which we delve into whether she’s as single-minded as her main character (“Are you calling me stubborn?”) and whether either one of us would want to live in the past.
Courtney McKinney-Whitaker grew up in Greenville, SC and now lives in Peoria, IL with her husband, young daughter, dog/officemate/boss, and cat, where she is very good about working out and eating well and very bad about procrastinating and watching too much TV. Unable to stick to one genre like a good girl, Courtney just finished a young adult fairy tale based loosely on the Black Death and is considering returning to historical fiction with a companion to The Last Sister. As a writer who spends most of her workday alone, she loves (is desperate) to connect with other people: check out her website, her Goodreads page, or her Facebook page, or follow her on Twitter @courtneymckwhit.