I had the pleasure of moderating the Enemies, Allies and Antiquities: From Versailles to Acadia panel with historical fiction authors Roberta Rich, Sally Christie and Genevieve Graham at Toronto Public Library’s Appel Salon. Genevieve was kind enough to provide responses to several questions I asked, and has given me permission to share them!
Genevieve graduated from the University of Toronto in 1986 with a Bachelor of Music in Performance (she played the oboe) and began writing in 2007. She is passionate about breathing life back into history through tales of romance and adventure, and loves the particular challenge of capturing Canadian history. Her previous novel, Tides of Honour, was a Globe and Mail bestseller for eight weeks. When she isn’t writing, she can be found relaxing with her husband and two grown daughters, teaching piano to children in the community, or tending her garden along with a friendly flock of heritage chickens. She lives in a tiny town near Halifax, Nova Scotia.
Why do you believe your historical novels are so popular with modern readers? How do you make your historical subject accessible to readers?
One of my favourite things is receiving feedback and unexpected messages from my readers. When Tides of Honour came out, one of my first notes was from an 18-year-old woman in Toronto. She loved the book, not only because of the characters and their stories, but because she learned something fascinating about Canadian history. She said she had no idea Canadian history could be exciting, and her new mission was to discover more Canadian historical fiction novels. Another note I received was from a gentleman in his eighties. He said he had sneaked the book from his wife’s night table and loved it. He said three generations of his family have served in the military, and while he enjoyed the military aspects of what I wrote, what he appreciated the most was the human reaction to events. I didn’t just state that it was PTSD, I pulled the reader into the suffering without explaining what it was, helping to add to the character’s/reader’s necessary confusion.
The most important things about writing is to engage readers. To do that, the author must be fully engaged as well. Historical facts are, to me, on equal par with the characters themselves. If I do not feel passionately about my characters, the story will fall flat, and no one wants to read a book like that.
I think the reason I write historical fiction is the reason people find my books to be accessible. I am not a historian. Until my children were nearing double digits I had no interest in history at all. That’s when I picked up Outlander by Diana Gabaldon and fell in love with the historical fiction genre.
When I write about a historical event or era, I am – for the most part – learning about it for the first time. Out of necessity I insert myself into the time period or circumstance, and my characters experience everything at the same time as I do. To me, they are actual people, not just fictional figures passing through time. Events do not shape a person, so they must be relatable before an event happens.
It’s also important to stick to the characters’ realistic reactions, even if it means you miss out on some specifics. For example, nowhere in Promises to Keep do I specify the number of years the Acadians lived in l’Acadie, nor do I mention the exact number of people put on the ships, because my characters would never think that way. At the same time, when I wrote about them sailing in the Pembroke I was completely aware the ship carried 232 prisoners and eight sailors. In Tides of Honour I never discuss the extent or velocity of the Halifax Explosion. I didn’t specify that almost 2,000 people were killed, 9,000 were injured (including hundreds of people blinded by shattered glass), and 26,000 were left without adequate housing despite the howling blizzard which came immediately afterwards, because that information would not have been known by the people caught up in it. Adding details like that takes the reader out of the story and they will lose interest. I’m trying to write a book that readers will find hard to put down.
What challenges have you faced in trying to keep the stories as historically accurate as possible?
The reason I was never interested in history until my adult life was because I saw the facts I learned in school as merely names and dates to memorize for tests. I basically slept through class. Teachers are so important for students, and out of all mine three changed my perspective on learning. The first two were my music teachers, and I subsequently went to U of T for a Bachelor of Music in Performance. The third was my Grade 11 history teacher, Frank Bialystok. Mr. Bialystok taught us about the Holocaust, but it was more than that. He was passionate and had obviously fully immersed himself in the subject, and he helped us do the same.
Because I am not a trained historian or researcher, I can’t sit down with heavy, dry history books. My eyes cross and I’ll close the book unless I can find the exact detail or fact I’m looking for. Fortunately, the Internet has opened so many channels for research. Historians abound online, and their blogs and articles are full of passion and often include details which have gone largely unnoticed over time. I take the information I learn from many different, accessible sources and cross that with actual history books to get it right. I also love to contact historical reenactment groups – there are plenty online who will gladly help. They do what they do – like Scottish highlanders dressing in eight layers of wool despite + 30C degree temperatures – because history is what they love, and it is extremely important to them that it be recreated properly. For instance, back in 2012 when I wrote Under the Same Sky and Sound of the Heart, I wrote about the Cherokees. While researching, I exchanged frequent emails with a man named Ironhead who was five times great grandson of a Cherokee chief. His emails were extremely informative, and if I made any errors he did not hesitate to take me to task on them. You can read about him in that book’s Acknowledgements.
What do you see as the difference – if any – between a male and female authors writing historical fiction? What is the impact of a writer’s gender on historical writing?
I ran a freelance editing business for three years, and during that time I edited over 70 books – of all different genres – so I do feel relatively qualified to answer this. It seems stereotypical, but I found in general that female writers delve more deeply into emotions and focus on them more – gratuitously on occasion – than male writers. Men tend to use a larger lens, and while emotions are included, emphasis is usually on the bigger picture or historical facts. I would say I follow that stereotype exactly.
Do you think your world view as expressed in your work is influenced by your being a woman writer?
No, I don’t think my gender influences my world view. I’m a realist, and I do not believe in whitewashing or denying the often ugly truths which happened throughout history. Some of my earlier covers may look more “romance” than “historical”, and since I don’t shy away from realism my readers are occasionally surprised by my brutal honesty.
Some authors work their personal interests into a story (e.g., a love of cooking or gardening). Do you work this into your novels? Could you provide us with examples?
I’ve been trying to fit at least one chicken into every book. I am greatly influenced by the wisdom of our nine chickens. One of them even has her own facebook page – look up “Greta the Chicken”. Other than that, no. My characters come to me already formed. If I try to influence them with my own interests, I usually end up with writer’s block. Audrey in Tides of Honour is an artist – and I can’t paint my way out of a cardboard box. Amélie in Promises To Keep is completely at home living outdoors, and I can’t even weather a weekend of camping.
Editors influence titles – if so, what would you have liked to have called some of your books?
My editors at Simon & Schuster Canada have been awesome with my titles. Usually the titles are very clear to me while I’m writing the actual book, and my editors had no problems with either Tides of Honour or Promises To Keep. We are currently working on a title for the companion book to Tides of Honour, and since some of the book revolves around WWII U-Boats, I like the idea of Beneath the Surface, but we’ll see!
I did have a problem with the title of the third of my first three books. It is an 18th century trilogy set in Scotland and the colonies, and two out of three were fine. Under the Same Sky and Sound of the Heart both worked very well, but for the third I wanted Out of the Shadows since I had a timid character who had to defeat her inner demons to discover herself. My editor at Berkley thought that sounded too scary, like a horror title. She decided on Somewhere To Dream instead.
Covers are another issue, and many readers have no idea that most authors have very little say on their own cover design. My first three books were marketed heavily as “historical romance” and the covers depict that. Unfortunately, I don’t write typical “romance”, though my historicals are tied together by love, so the covers didn’t really represent the stories. On the other hand, Simon & Schuster Canada has not only designed gorgeous covers, they’re creating a whole recognizable brand for my books which I love.
What do you enjoy reading? What do you do to “escape” from your writing/work?
I love to read, and I love historical fiction, but I actually have trouble writing if the time periods are similar to what I’m working on. So I avoid anything set in that era until I move to a different time period for a new book of my own. I had the same problem when I used to edit: by focusing on my clients I couldn’t write in my own voice. Fortunately, the wonderful team at Simon & Schuster Canada has made it possible for me to write full time, and my new, exciting mission is to create more Canadian historical fiction. This country has amazing stories just waiting to be told, and my biggest challenge is trying not to write everything at once! I currently have four books on the go!
I love smart books, but the characters have to be sympathetic and never patronizing to the reader. I enjoy quirky characters and underdogs who become believable heroes. Most of all I love big, epic historical adventures like the “Outlander” series, the “Bronze Horseman” trilogy, and the “Into the Wilderness” series.
When I’m not writing … wait. That’s not very often, because I love writing so much. But when I do I like to spend quiet time with my family. I enjoy gardening with my green thumb husband, and lately we’ve spent a fair amount of time sitting in the sun with our nine chickens. Very relaxing. A couple of summers ago my husband built me a gazebo in our backyard which I call my “outdoor office” and I can write for hours in there, serenaded by birds, squirrels, and chickens. It’s like chocolate for my soul. We’re also tv and movie buffs and have been known to binge on occasion. Our first daughter is just finishing her first year at Dalhousie University, and her very busy sister will be joining her this coming September, so we’re getting used to being empty nesters. And when their absences make me long for the noises of their childhood, I will get back to my computer and wait for my characters to speak up. Then I’ll type as fast as they can talk, breathing life back into their histories.