Monday, 3 November 2014

Writing Historical Fiction: Guided Hallucination into the Past - with Roberta Rich. Workshop notes.

Roberta Rich is local, lives in Vancouver and divides her time between the Raincoast and a place in Mexico. She's a retired divorce lawyer, is incredibly well organized, articulate and gives good workshop.

These are notes from her workshop on Writing Historical Fiction at the 2014 Surrey International Writers Conference last month. 

Her two books are The Harem

(Doubleday 2013)

and her first published book,

the bestseller, The Midwife

of Venice

What’s wonderful about The Midwife of Venice is, it flies in the face of that MFA-in-Creative-Writing mantra you hear endlessly – “Write about what you know."

Well, being a divorce lawyer and all, Roberta started out by writing two detective novels featuring a lawyer, that “went nowhere.” 

She had never so much tipped a red-painted toenail in a Venice canal before she wrote The Midwife of Venice. That’s very encouraging somehow.  “I think the better advice is," she says, "write what you can imagine -- write about what turns your crank!” 
She told us that for her writing historical fiction is like “standing inside a beautiful painting (I often think a Canaletto) and then saying, Come inside and I’ll tell you about how they slept and lived and loved…

Don’t obsess about being obsessed by an historical era.
When she polled the room, everybody in attendance had an particular place and historical era they were (for lack of a better word) fixated on. "Obsessed is good,” Roberta said. “If we’re not obsessed when we start, it’s going to be very hard to get to the finish line. But let’s call it passion.”

Genitals “bewitched”              
“History sometimes throws you a bone,” she said. She recalled how in her wide-ranging reading around her historical subject and era, she’d read a story about how a king’s genitals had been bewitched by his wife so that -- though he could have had his pick of women and had a harem -- he stayed faithful to is wife through their 20 year marriage.  "This got my wheels turning. Reading about your era sometimes inspires your plot.”  
Lady in black
Roberta is wearing all-black top and pants, a string of off-white pearls too big to be real, and open-toed sandals with bare feet & red toenails at the end of October. Like the rest of us at the end of an unusually magnificent summer in Vancouver, she's not ready yet to give up on that season. Her white hair is shortish, straight, no-nonsense. Her glasses have black arms; her purse is brown leather. Small studs in her ears look like real diamonds. She is slim, mid-60s, wears gold rings on each hand, a glint of largish diamonds from the left, and mentions her husband several times.

Get a little help from your friends (or acquaintances)
“Cultivate people who are better educated than you are. Take them out to lunch, buy them bottle of wine.” 

Anecdote: She wanted to make her midwife the best in Venice, and wanted to show that it was because she’d invented a special tool -- say, a primitive forceps -- but she wasn't quite sure if that was something that would have been done at the time. So she took an historian friend out for lunch and told her about her research. The historian said that people in those days as a matter of course made their own tools and why would a midwife not have made some kind of tool like forceps for delivering babies?  Whew: green light. 

So how do you organize your research, we asked
“I read books from the library, I buy a lot, I use inter-library loans. I write notes and put everything in one big file. Then I use the search feature and type in, say,"galleys.” And I use lots of Post-It™ notes. I buy a lot of books, probably more books than I need because it’s easy to get sidetracked and not know when to stop.”

The Novel-writing Avoidance Program

“I have what my husband calls my Novel-writing Avoidance Program.” From researching soap-making, she actually morphed into making unguent creams in the basement. In fact she uses a jar of her homemade cream as a prize later for whoever comes up with the best bit in a free-write she gives us.

Backgrounds and settings
“Sometimes the setting is almost a character itself—Gone With the Wind or A Tale of Two Cities. “It’s a historical cauldron into which you place your characters.”

Dialogue - go for 'Bygonese'
“Avoid anachronisms. There’s a learning curve – as in Downton Abbey.”  Some of the unfortunate standouts in this respect was someone using the phrases “charm offensive” and  “feeding frenzy” in a book about the Medicis. 

“Your goal is not to reproduce how people spoke two hundred years ago.” As a divorce lawyer, she read through many transcripts: “That is not dialogue.” Strive, she said, “for what David Mitchell calls ‘Bygonese’.” So: 
  • Don’t use contractions. 
  • Use ‘shall’ not ‘will.’  
  • Instead of ‘if’' use 'had I [bought...]’  
  • Beware anachronisms – e.g., 'silhouette' comes from a French politician Étienne de Silhouette in the 1700s, so if your book is set in ancient Egypt........
  • If in doubt, go to and check it out.

Other hints
  • Read novels that are set in your time period. If you’re writing about England in Thomas Hardy times, read some of his novels.
  • “You can’t libel the dead. I can say that as a lawyer.” But use ethics in your conjectures about real historical people.
  • Auditory imagery is “vastly neglected, but it's one of the most powerful things we can impart to a reader.”
Further reading and watching:
Globe & Mail review of Midwife of Venice

At workshop’s end Roberta wishes us well. She hopes, she says, that she has inspired us to write our historical fictions à la the painter Delacroix who said:  “I rush to my studio as eagerly as other men rush to their mistresses.”

Small but interesting fact-ettes about RR:
Time in the morning by which she
is usually at her computer:

8 AM
Favourite drink:
Margarita, “ideally made with limes”
Minimum # of words she writes a day:
500 to 1,000
What she thinks you “have to keep playing on”:
“People’s tremendous curiosity”
No. 1 tip for writers:
“The ability to sit on your behind for a long time: patience, endurance Don’t wait for inspiration: just turn on the hard drive and tap away.”
Title of Roberta's detective novel that
Toronto agent Beverley Slopen shopped
around but got nowhere with:

Tequila Moon
For more insights, read her answers to
The Proust Questionnaire:

  • Read "20 writerly questions" of RR's here
"11. Who is the first person who gets to you read your manuscript?  I belong to a writers group which meets every three weeks. We have been writing pals for 15 years. They are my first and the best critics."

Grind Writers group members: If you’d like a PDF of her excellent 5-page handout email:

-- Margo Lamont

(c)2014 Margo Lamont

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