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The Inspiration For My Novel ‘Madame Tussaud’s Apprentice’, by Kathleen Benner Duble

My husband does a lot of interviewing. One of his favorite questions to ask is: “If you could have had two roommates, living or dead, who would they be and why?” My answer has always been Marie Antoinette and F. Scott Fitzgerald because they both were bigger than life. I always imagine we would have had quite the wild apartment.

My fascination with Marie Antoinette began years ago when I was sixteen. On a trip to Europe, my family and I visited Versailles, and the grandeur of the place overwhelmed me. The Hall of Mirrors, the Petite Hameau, the Grand Trianon – walking those corridors I could actually envision the young queen who danced nightly in bejeweled gowns only to lose her head to revolution. As a fan, I wanted to tell her story. As a writer, I knew I had to find a way to tell it that no one else had.

Enter Madame Tussaud. Most people don’t know her backstory, but it’s a fascinating one. Madame Tussuad’s mother was housekeeper to a man named Phillip Curtius, a wax worker. When Marie or Manon (as Madame Tussaud was then called) turned sixteen, Dr. Curtius began to teach her the process of this art. Eventually, Manon’s work came to the attention of the king and Manon was sent to Versailles to work with the king’s sister as an art tutor. She worked at Versailles on and off for over nine years until 1789 and the coming of the revolution. As with many others who worked for the king, Manon was arrested and found guilty of being a Royalist. In order to save her own neck, Manon was ordered to sculpt the heads of others beheaded at the guillotine. Those wax heads are still one of the main attractions at her museums worldwide.

When I read that story, I knew I had a great way of exploring the French Revolution. Here was a woman who had crossed paths with both sides of the issue. She’d worked at Versailles, but she’d also provided wax heads for the National Assembly. Using Madame Tussaud was going to be a perfect vehicle to explore the lifestyle of Marie Antoinette and the ensuing upheaval that consumed her.

Next I created a young apprentice as a way of making the story a book for young adults. I had seen a news piece once on a boy who had a photographic memory. I gave my young main character that same ability – a skill that would be invaluable to a wax maker with a museum known for its realistic displays. But I also made my main character a thief – a girl of the streets whose family perished due to the taxes imposed by the royal family. Her sympathies were strong for the poor of France.

Revolution is an interesting subject. While we celebrate the outcome of it, we often forget that freedom isn’t free, and that many people suffer and die in order to bring about that independence. Writing the story of Madame Tussaud with this apprentice gave me the chance to explore the two sides of revolution – the struggle for equality and the violence that often accompanies that fight.

In my book, my young protagonist is a freedom fighter, but she soon learns the hard facts about upheaval and new regimes. What starts out as her quest for freedom eventually dissolves into chaos. The ensuing conflict she feels over her beliefs and the process to achieve them was fascinating to explore.

So, though I was initially inspired by Marie Antoinette and had a grand time writing about the beauties of Versailles, by the end of the book I was equally moved by the men and women who took up that fight for equality.

I love writing a story that I think will affect me in one way only to be surprised to find I am changed and inspired in another. Madame Tussaud’s Apprentice was just such a book.


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Kathleen Benner Duble was a monthly contributor for Writing Historical Novels during 2013. Click on the link to see her previous articles.


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Historical Research And Accuracy In Historical Novels, by Tim Willocks

All that research. Years of it.

What’s the point? How much does it matter? Who cares? Who even notices?

Much more often than not, those who appear to notice or care (they looked it up on Wikipedia, but not in the Bibliotheque Nationale) are wrong.

Personally, as a reader or viewer, I really don’t mind pure fantasies of the past. If anything, the purer the better. I love The Iliad and Richard III. I was actually quite upset to discover that Blood Meridian was precisely based on real events: up until then I had I been in awe of McCarthy’s imagination. I think it’s great that Shakespeare made most of it up. The fact that in La Reine Margot both Isabelle Adjani (39) and Daniel Auteuil (44) played historical characters who were less than half their own ages did not undermine my enjoyment in the least; and since Dumas’s magnificent story is absolute tripe in terms of historical accuracy, there was no point in letting it do so.

The truth is that it is simply not possible to create an accurate portrait of the past. No one can faithfully reproduce the reality of the 1970s, let alone the 1570s. Speaking for myself, I couldn’t recreate last week. If one is rash enough convey the fact that there were no sewers in 1570s Paris, which meant that the streets were asphalted in excrement, readers and reviewers complain about the smell. Just about every great historical fiction ever created, from The Iliad to War and Peace, would fail as an essay from a History undergraduate. Charlton Heston’s Moses – or Michelangelo – is essentially just as good as anyone else’s, in historical terms. All that matters is that the fictional work in question achieve what we hope for from any good art. Since when was art in any form supposed to be ‘accurate’ in such a depressingly pedestrian sense?

So why, I ask myself, have I spent years of grinding toil on research that is, in essence, irrelevant? More to the point, as I contemplate doing it again, can I avoid it? Can I throw wide my window and scream: “I’m not going to take it anymore!”

Re-enter, once again, the truly great Charlton Heston.

Would many historical novelists of a certain age be writing historical novels if not for him? For what it’s worth, I don’t care that he waved a Kentucky rifle at NRA meetings; it’s a small price to pay for Chrysagon and Major Dundee.

I once met Gore Vidal, whose ‘Lincoln’ provoked a fantastically funny (and lengthy) exchange of letters in the NYRB, in which he blithely humiliated a squadron of bleating historians (well worth Googling). Imagine Gore’s horror when, some years after the novel was published, convincing evidence emerged to the effect that Lincoln was bisexual, and wasn’t too careful about concealing the fact. Anyway, Gore told us a story – I suspect one of his party pieces – about working on the script of Ben Hur. One day at Cinecitta he saw an art director who was dressing the set for a feasting scene by putting a bowl of tomatoes on the table. “So I asked if Mrs. Hur was planning to make Ben a bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwich.” His point being, of course, that tomatoes came from the New World and didn’t exist in Palestine in 30AD. (Apologies, but ‘CE’ holds no grandeur for me).

This story has haunted me ever since. Did they eat potatoes in Malta in 1565? It’s cutting it fine, I know, but not impossible – and would Gore Vidal review my book and humiliate me as he did the professors from Yale?

Thus at a certain moment I found myself wondering if there was a chiming clock in Paris in 1572, because it would be very useful, plot-wise, for my hero to hear it. After some hours of research I discovered that not only did the clock of the Conciergerie chime, it was in the perfect location to be heard at the moment I needed it. I wrote the scenes. The chimes worked marvellously. A month later I discovered that the chimes were not installed in said clock until 1573, under Henri III. Do I take the chimes out of the novel and re-write three chapters? Is there a single living soul among the few who will ever read the book that will know this exceedingly obscure fact? If they do, will they forgive me?

Gore’s tomato story returned to haunt me, along with the ghost of Charlton Heston and his BLT. I took the chimes out. I struggled to find a way for the hero to see the clock instead of hear it. A convenient gap – a wharf? – between the buildings crowding the right bank of the Seine? Knock the buildings down? (Who would know that they were ever there, except the odd art historian who might remember the paintings thereof?) Have him climb on the roof?

I rewrote it. But should I have? You multiply that kind of problem by at least a hundred time per novel and it becomes a recipe for insanity. Or at least for the urge to write a novel about last week.

Any advice would be welcome.

The illusion of historical ‘realism’, and the whole question of ‘history’ itself as a vast and shifting work of fiction/propaganda, are topics that will have to await future posts.


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Writing My Historical Novel ‘The Kirilov Star’, by Mary Nichols

They say you should write about what you know, especially when you are feeling your way as a writer, but that can be dreadfully restricting and, if you did that, you would never write books with historical backgrounds. Think what opportunities you would be missing!  The story is the thing. As long as your research is thorough, there’s no reason why you can’t attempt something a little more adventurous.

I’ve been fascinated by Russian history ever since I read Tolstoy’s War and Peace and Anna Karenina, and Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov and Crime and Punishment as a schoolgirl – in English, I hasten to add. Then later when Dr Zhivago was made into a film it renewed my interest, especially in the Revolution and the terrible fate of the Tsar and his family, and the rumours that the Grand Duchess Anastasia had survived. A film was made about it and for a long time it was believed, but this has since been disproved with DNA tests. It was a time of such upheaval that people simply disappeared. The idea for a book simmered in my mind for a long time and, though I planned it out, I hesitated to begin writing for fear of biting off more than I could chew.

When I told my family about it, I began receiving books about Russia for birthday and Christmas presents. That set me collecting books to help with my research, until I had dozens of them. The more I read, the more I became immersed in the history and eventually I couldn’t put it off any longer and The Kirilov Star was born

My aristocratic family, distant relatives of the Tsar, are separated when trying to leave Russia during the civil war in 1920. The only survivor is four-year-old Lydia Kirillova, too young and too traumatised to tell anyone what happened and where she comes from.  She knows her name but the only other clue to her identity is a fabulous jewel sewn into her petticoat. She is taken to a British diplomat who has been instructed to oversee the evacuation of the refugees and then leave himself. He is left wondering what to do with her.

He could send her to a Russian orphanage, but they were notoriously dreadful places and for someone who appears to be of aristocratic stock, it would be worse. He and his wife are childless, something they both regret, could Lydia fill that gap? He could give her a good life, but would his wife accept her? Would Lydia later blame him for taking her from her homeland?

He decides to risk it and Lydia grows up in the privileged background of a stately home and seems content. But Kolya, another Russian émigré, sows the seeds of her discontent and persuades her to marry him and go back to Russia with him to look for her real parents. It is the biggest mistake of her life. Russia under Stalin is a dangerous place for an ex-aristocrat to be. Her husband leaves her for another woman, taking their son, Yuri, with him and she is trying to track him down when the second world war breaks out and her situation becomes desperate. She has left a good home and loving family to chase a dream which turns into a nightmare. She is forced to abandon her search and return to England and only much later when Stalin is dead and it becomes easier to travel is she able to resume her search for her son, helped by the man who has always been in the background of her life and has loved her for years. But when Yuri is finally found, the years apart and the different cultures are not so easy to bridge.

Having written it, I wanted someone who was familiar with the country and the times to look at it before I submitted it to my publisher. I was lucky. Two of the books I had used for my research were Moscow 1941 and Across the Moscow River, both by Sir Rodric Braithwaite who was British Ambassador to Moscow from 1988 to 1992 and I wrote to him asking if he would take a look at the manuscript. It was a long shot but to my delight he agreed to do so and, besides making some very pertinent comments for which I was very grateful, told me my research had been very thorough and he had no quarrel with it. It just goes to show you should never be afraid to be adventurous. Most people I have approached with queries have been happy to oblige. Taking a chance paid off.


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Writing Historical Novels

So You Want To Be A Writer… by Judith Cutler

By now you will have read thousands of words by world experts in the art of historical novel writing – amongst whom I do not number myself, as I’ve tried to make clear.

On the other hand, I have been a published writer for nearly fifty years, if not a full-time professional (I had to wait till I was fifty to achieve that), and have taught creative writing to people who have in their turn gone on and become published authors themselves.  Any teacher rejoices when a student succeeds, but – were I not a tad past such things – believe me, I’d do handsprings when someone I know does that.

To be a writer you have to work so very hard.  In fact, I used to preface my courses with pretty gloomy words: to get published you must want to write more than anything else in the world because it involves so many sacrifices.

At this point two or three would get up and walk out, and not just because they’d thought creative writing meant the sort of calligraphy you see in Christmas cards.

Those who stayed did what must have seemed at the time to be pretty weird exercises.  We’d play games like Consequences, making up nonsense stories.  We’d lie on the floor, relaxing like expectant mothers. (One of the best moments of my teaching career was when Inspectors came into my classroom just as the students lay down.  I invited them to join in.  One was too dignified, but the others accepted the invitation and … well, who knows: perhaps they wrote the most imaginative reports of their lives.)  They did visualisation exercises.  (At one point I taught classes on a cruise ship going through the Red Sea.  Despite the heat after a particular exercise during which we imagined ourselves in the Arctic, half the class was shivering.)  They’d improvise dialogue.  They’d write in genres they’d never wanted to try. They had a lot of writing homework!

Some of the students went further. They did what I’d done when I was becoming a writer.  They set aside writing time over and above that needed for work I’d set.  They turned down invitations to things they’d normally have loved to do because they wanted to dedicate their evenings to writing. They hardly watched TV. They probably neglected their housework and assumed their partners could iron and cook.  They went in for competitions which meant they got used to working to deadlines and to word guidelines.  Sometimes they won; if they didn’t they worked out where they’d gone wrong and tried again.  Some got published in fringe magazines that paid zilch; others found outlets in commercial publications and surged into class flourishing a cheque that meant so very much more than simply money – it was an accolade.  They started to put together a writer’s CV, so that when they approached agents or publishers they could prove that they were capable of sustained effort.

Some gathered together in small groups to criticise each other’s work.  It wasn’t the quality of the biscuits that concerned them, but the quality of the writing. There was sometimes secret jealousy if one of the group got published, but also a great deal of genuine joy.  There was also the collective shoulder to cry on when the post bought a rejection slip.

I don’t do much teaching now – I’m still producing two books a year and need my time and energy to keep myself fit enough to do that. (See my website for information about my working week.) If I were to give an aspiring writer any advice it would be to do what my students did and actually what I did myself: work harder than you believe possible.  Remember one more thing when rejections seem to overwhelm you:  writing is a craft you have to learn. You wouldn’t expect an apprentice bricklayer to build a mansion at the end of his first week, would you?

Good luck!


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Writing Historical Novels

Researching To Write A Historical Novel, by William Dietrich

Start with history, add your five senses, and conclude with heart and mind.

That’s my formula for researching to write a historical novel; a genre that requires a combination of accuracy and inventiveness. In the case of my Ethan Gage novels, I have a fictional American interacting amusingly with famous real people but I have to make it convincing.

The Ethan Gage novels move sequentially in real time, meaning that unlike a James Bond or Sherlock Holmes tale, we know what year it is. Ethan’s adventures are tied to the events of the day.

My first step, then, is to read general histories of the period and create a timeline for, say, 1803. What was happening, and where?

A decision is then made to send my hero on an adventure in a particular place. That means more reading of what was going on during that particular episode, plus biographies of people Ethan might meet there.

Some of this history, while impressively researched, is dull as told. I read boring books so you won’t have to. I take notes off the books of lively incidents, curious personalities, witty quotes, and colorful locales so only the ripest fruit can go into my novels.

From this I work up an outline. Since Ethan must plausibly affect history while remaining an outsider, and because I need a dramatic conclusion, I must map out the story to make he sure he can get from Point A to Point B by the recorded date in history.

I can invent, but only in the context of a real world with real events.

The research will continue as long as I am writing the novel. Answering new questions as the story progresses can be as simple as looking things up on Wikipedia to tracking down reprints of memoirs written centuries ago.

I try to travel to the places I write about. Museums, castles, forts and churches can be tremendously useful, as are photographs taken of the locale.

I’m also trying to find out how things look, sound, smell, taste and feel. Historical re-enactors can show me what a musket sounds like, kicks like, and how much gun smoke it generates. I can watch smiths, craftsmen, eat period foods, and study clothes. I’m reminded how big a horse is, and how smoky a hearth smells. Novel writing requires visualization, so I’m building a movie in my head.

Historical novels don’t require a ‘message’ but the biggest problem in writing a book is deciding what it’s about.

That’s where the heart and mind comes in. Part of researching is plumbing oneself. What would a key character desire? What would they feel in a historical situation? What would their actions mean about how we live our lives?

That’s what gives a novel depth. By thinking about a book so long, you begin to discern its meaning. You create a world that seems almost tangible.

Then, by the end, you’ve read enough to map out where the hero goes next.


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Writing Historical Novels

On The Craft Of Writing A Novel, by Adrian Goldsworthy

Writing is a craft.  Inspiration and the ability to dream up a story are both essential, but the creation of a good historical novel – or any piece of writing – requires you to use words well.  The only way to hone this skill is to write frequently.  In many ways it does not matter too much what you write about.  Simply try to learn by a willingness to experiment and rewrite any piece of work, honing it gradually to make it better.  I have learned something about the craft of writing from my non fiction histories, and have aimed to make each one an improvement on the last in terms of style and structure.  When I came to try writing fiction, this did give me an established routine, as well as an idea of how to proof read, check and self-edit so that you can send a better prepared manuscript to the publisher.  In turn, writing novels has improved the pace and storytelling style of my non fiction.  Many journalists write novels and often do well because they already have this background of using words and writing to deadlines.

Yet writing a novel is a different thing to either media work or non fiction history, and such experience is a help, but also can be a hindrance.  My first efforts at an historical novel had far too many long passages that boiled down to little more than description of a scene – fine for straight history, but killing off the pace and weakening the story.  Some description is good, but a novel should read like a novel and not a history book.  So sometimes you have to change your approach quite drastically.  In a novel the characters need to do and say a lot more.  You also need to be far clearer about the good old ‘point of view’ – essentially from whose perspective we are ‘seeing’ a scene.

Try to help the reader as much as possible.  At a basic level this is a question of thinking about how easy the book will be to read.  So think about things like the lengths of sentences and paragraphs, and of chapters.  If someone is reading as they commute to work they are more likely to start a new chapter that is ten pages long than one that is thirty or so.  On the whole, keeping things fairly short helps the pace of the story, allowing readers to read more quickly, and so making it more likely that they will become involved with the story and want to read on.  On the other hand it is better not to make it look too regular with everything of the same sort of length.  The look of each page is also important.  Paragraph after paragraph of description can blur into one.  A mixture of short and long sentences and paragraphs, and particularly the insertion of dialogue in and around the description and action will read better.

All of these things you learn by experimentation and experience.  Planning your story is fine and often well worth while, but it is a rare author who will plan absolutely everything before they sit down and start to write.  As the months and years pile up and you are still planning and researching it will become harder and harder to sit down and begin writing.  It is far better to start writing something, even if it is very rough.  It is easy to change it and may even find that you reject the whole thing and start again, but having to think about the story and characters in a concrete way will have helped you to think it all through far more than simply planning and musing over it.

You can also learn from other people’s experience by taking a look at whatever you are reading and looking at how they lay things out and tell the story.  Even more importantly, at some stage get a few people to read your work.  They need to be honest, and you need to be prepared to accept criticism of your cherished work, however much this may – and almost certainly will – sting.  People who come fresh to a story will react to it in a very different way to its creator.  Remember that you have spent a very long time living with this story and it will all seem clear to you.  It is extremely valuable to get a response from someone who does not know who the characters are or what they are doing.  After all, you will always know what you MEANT to say, and that can make it very hard to check your own work and see whether or not this is clear to the reader.  (As an aside, reading the text out loud can be a more effective way of checking your own work than reading it silently because it forces you to pay more attention to each word).

Practise, think about words and layout, and be prepared to be utterly ruthless in changing your work, rejecting passages if they do not need to be there.  This can be hard, as it is easy to become fond of particular scenes or bits of dialogue.  Constructive criticism is of great value, and a good editor who understands what you are trying to do is priceless.  All of us have to learn, and it is wise to take advantage of advice from others.  That does not mean that you have to accept absolutely every suggested change, only that you should only reject them if you are absolutely convinced that it is vital to leave things as they are.  In the end, it is important to write your book in your way.


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Why Read Historical Novels? by Paul Dowswell

When I go into schools to talk about my books I’m sometimes asked “Why should we read historical fiction? What’s the point of it?”

I say:

a) Read it because it’s a cracking good story and entertaining – exactly the same reason you’d read any other novel.

b) Read it if you’re interested in history and want to get more of a feel for your subject or a specific era. The best historical fiction helps you understand the human significance of great events.

So today’s blog is about books which serve both those purposes brilliantly.

I’ve just written a novel about life in Stalin’s Russia, due out next year (Red Shadow). I make a special point of not reading fiction when I research and write my own books. It’s intimidating if the writer is especially good at their job, and you also end up feeling you might accidentally borrow ideas. But when I finished my book I dived straight into William Ryan’s The Bloody Meadow.

Ryan writes about a Moscow police detective, Korolev, rubbing up against the Russian underworld at the height of Stalin’s purges. This is a world of smoke and mirrors where friends and foes can be every bit as ruthless and evil as each other. Ryan conjures up this era with sensitivity and subtlety and leaves you in no doubt that Stalin’s Bolsheviks created one of the most oppressive societies on Earth. Here, a slip of the tongue could lead to 10 years in a hellish prison camp, or execution as an enemy of the people. Even when talking to those close to them Korolev and his colleagues have to be careful not to say anything that could lead them to be denounced as a class enemy:

Here’s a conversation about the attractions of Odessa with his assistant Slivka. She tells him:

‘From the air you can see what a well-planned city Odessa is.’

‘Our Soviet planners are the envy of the world,’ Korolev said automatically.

‘They are, although in this case the planning was done long before the Revolution.’

‘Of course,’ she added, her words coming out faster than previously, ‘Soviet power has transformed the city for the better, in every way.’

Travis Holland’s novel The Archivist’s Story is another magnificent read, set during the same era. The book puts you right at the heart of the nightmare absurd world of the NKVD and lets you feel the cold pit-of-stomach fear of a police clerical worker and former academic about to fall victim to Beria’s secret police thugs.

Historical Fiction can also introduce you to a world you didn’t even know you might be interested in. I read James Clavell’s Shogun in my teens, after finding it lying around in a student house. It’s easy to dismiss this kind of fiction as airport-bookshop-potboiler, but it introduced me to the beauty and cruelty of 16th Century Japan, and anyone who can keep their reader turning those pages in a book as thick as this has my whole-hearted respect and appreciation.

Robert Harris is another favourite historical fiction writer. He brings the Roman world alive in his gripping thriller Pompeii, which also allows the reader to learn about the importance of patronage in that society, and weaves in the most fascinating glimpses of their sophisticated technology.

Teen historical fiction does this just as well. If you want to know about what it was like to be a teenage girl in Viking Scandinavia, Kevin Crossley-Holland’s Bracelet of Bones will show you.


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