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22 October 2007

Tracy Grant: Stepping into the Past

Welcome Tracy Grant, our new Hoyden! Tracy will be stepping in for Victorica Dahl, who is officially retiring but who promises to visit us often. Today is Tracy's first post, please stop by and say hello!
I can’t remember the first historical novel I read. I can’t remember not being fascinated by stories set in the past. Whether it was fantasy inspired by Welsh mythology in Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain series, children’s novels about the childhoods of Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots that we bought on a family trip to Britain when I was not quite seven, Joan Aiken’s alternate-history adventures (“The Wolves of Willoughby Chase”, “Black Hearts in Batterseas”, etc…), adventurous stories tinged with romance with fictional protagonists like Sallie Watson’s books (“Hornet’s Nest”, “Jade,” “Lark”, etc…) or Elizabeth Marie Pope’s (“The Sherwood Ring”, “Perilous Guard”), or actual classics written in the time period (I was six when my mom read “Pride and Prejudice” to me). I loved them all and didn’t differentiate—to me, they were “old fashioned books”. I went on to read Dumas, Heyer, Dickens, Sabatini, Orczy, Trollope, Robert Graves, Dorothy Dunnett, Sharon Kay Penman. I tended to prefer stories with fictional protagonists who interacted with real people and events (I’d figured out those books were more likely to have happy endings) and I liked the books to have romances though I wasn’t particular about how much focus the romance got.

When I discovered the historical romance section in bookstores as a teenager, I was thrilled because here were rows and rows of books with historical settings. I don’t think I quite understood that there was a romance genre at this point—after all, most of the books I read had love stories in them. I tended to look less for genre and more for favorite time periods—the Wars of the Roses, the Regency/Napleonic era. I think the first genre I comprehended was the traditional Regency romance. The rules of both the Regency ton and the Regency romance were fairly easy to grasp hold of. That was the genre I was first published in, when I was still in college, co-writing with my mom (as Anthea Malcolm).

Suddenly, magically, I was a published author and I had to pay attention to how books were marketed. Though it was still hard to figure out distinctions such as the difference between a traditional Regency and a Regency-set historical romance (especially as our Regencies were longer and the later ones included sex scenes). I still tended to choose the books I read more by the era in which they were set than by the genre. I loved the Regency era (the more I learn about it, the more it fascinates me) so I read Jo Beverley, Mary Jo Putney, Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe series, “Silver Fork” novels actually written in the Regency era. I was thrilled when I found John Dickson Carr had written a couple of mysteries set in the Regency.

The fact that the era fascinated me more than the type of novel was perhaps a sign that, much as I loved to read historical romances, I was not a genre romance writer at heart. My mom and I moved from writing Regency romances to historical romances with a Regency setting, and I went writing them on my own after she died. I love writing love stories (I can’t imagine writing a book without a love story in it) but I kept pulling focus from the story by spending too much time on the historical background, the setting, the political intrigue.

I now write historical fiction (historical suspense fiction to be specific) which seems to fit best with the way my mind works as a writer. I can recognize the difference from the books I used to write—sort of J. A couple of months ago, my good friend Monica McCarty interviewed me for the Fog City Divas blog and asked me about the differences between writing historical romance versus historical fiction.

I was brought up a bit short and had to think my answer through carefully (thank goodness it was an email interview and not live or I’d have sounded hopelessly inarticulate). In the end, I said I thought one of the biggest differences was that even though the books I write have love stories in them, I don’t worry about keeping the love story front and center or about sustaining the sexual or romantic tension or what point the relationship has progressed to at a given point in the story. And I make a conscious effort to paint on a wide and detailed historical canvas, showing different levels of society, weaving in political context and real historical events and characters. I might have used many of the same elements in an historical romance, but I would have sketched with a much lighter hand so as not to pull focus from the love story.

As a reader, I still read across genres and tend to choose books by era and also by subject matter. I love stories about spies, so I read John Le Carré, Len Deighton, Andrea Pickens’ “The Spy Wore Silk” (eagerly awaiting the next installment in the series), Laurie King’s Mary Russell book which are often steeped in international intrigue, Jo Beverley’s Company of Rogues (Nicholas Delaney remains one of my favorite romance heroes). I love stories about married couples whether it’s Mary Jo Putney’s “The Spiral Path”, ‘The Scarlet Pimpernel”, “Busman’s Honeymoon”, or Somerset Maugham’s “The Painted Veil” which I’m currently reading. (Not to mention plays which center on the same subject—“Whose Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”, “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof”, Tom Stoppard’s “The Real Thing”.)

Do you remember the fist historical-set book you read? Do you seek out books based on a favorite time period or subject matter or genre? Do you find genre distinctions as difficult to tease out as I do?

24 Comments:

Blogger Kathrynn Dennis said...

Hmmmm, my first historical book Wow, that has to be Romeo and Juliet! Been hooked ever since!

Thanks for posting Tracy, and welcome!

10:05 AM  
Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

Welcome Tracy! My first historical book was Little House in the Big Woods when I was six in first grade. We had the Scholastic Book Club in my school and I remember picking the book out of the catalog. I loved reading about Laura and Mary, and Ma and Pa. I devoured all the books through the years and when I found out that the characters in the books were real people, I went on to read whatever I could about Laura Ingalls Wilder and her family. Which is why I hated the TV series. That was the start for me in my love of historical romances and fiction.

11:56 AM  
Blogger Gabriele C. said...

My first was the Illiad at the tender age of 8, and then I grabbed all the epic stuff, Beowulf, Song of the Niblungs, Song of Roland.... Back then, I could do without the love, I was in for the battles, lol. I still like me some good fights in a book. Though what did stick with me from that early point is close friendships between men - it's one of the recurring motives in my NiPs.

Next was a mix of YA historical fiction (Sutcliff, Bartos-Höppner and others) and the classic historical fiction of Dumas, Sir Walter Scott, Wilhelm Hauff, Forester's Hornblower novels and some more exotic books I found on my grandparent's shelves. And War and Peace. Love that book. I used it for a Book Report project in the German version of junior high.

I've also always loved non fiction books and visiting historical sites and museums.

I read all over the place, but the times I liked best are the Middle Ages and Rome. Strange enough, War and Peace and Hornblower never made me want to write about that time. But I still love to write battles. :)

12:45 PM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Welcome, Tracy! We're so glad to have you!

I can't remember the first "historical" fiction I read, but I know I've loved it since childhood. I, too, read all the "Little House..." books, as well as the "All-of-a-Kind Family" and "Borrowers" series. Of course, all those wonderful 19th-century novels -- "Little Women," and "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer" (ditto Huck Finn) are historical as well.

Now that I write historical fiction, I have to confess it's my favorite genre as a reader, too. I admire Philippa Gregory's work, adore Sarah Dunant's books -- I'm not necessarily drawn only to a specific era (though I'm rather partial to the 18th c.), but more to an author's "voice" and use of language.

3:22 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Sorry to be chiming in late--I was at a long lunch brainstorming with some fellow writers, one of my favorite ways to spend an afternoon! I'm so honored and excited to be part of this site after admiring the posts and the work of the other writers involved for some time. Thanks for the nice welcome!

Kathrynn, I first saw Romeo & Juliet at the age of seven and was totally enthralled (it was part of a summer Shakespeare festival that included "As You Like It" and "Twelfth Night"; my parents hesitated to take me to "Romeo & Juliet" because it's sad, but I really wanted to see it and was totally enthralled.

Elizabeth, I did the same thing, reading about the historical background of characters I discovered in novels. I'd always ask my parents things like "did this really happen?" and the were great about saying "let's look it up". In those days it was the encyclopedia or a trip to the library. Now we could get on google :-).

Gabriele, I'm very impressed that you read the Illiad at eight! Tholugh I often think classics are way more accessible to kids than we tend to credit--Kathrynn and I both loved Shakespeare plays as children. for instance and I have had good luck introducing kids to Shakespeare. I often think that's a great age to engage kids with classics because they tend to very open and to be good at following language from context clues.

Amanda, good point about voice and language. I think I read for that much more now than I used to. I also love that about Gregory and Dunant and Dorothy Dunnett and Ian McEwan's "Atonement". And I love watching how authors bring an historical era to life (all of the above being great examples). I can learn a lot from that, even if it's different from the era I'm writing about myself.

5:21 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Welcome Tracy! Great to have you here.

In a sense I suppose that Little Women was my first historical novel -- though of course Alcott didn't write it as such. Still, it seemed so to me, and I loved the 19th century language and even the morality -- the March girls' lives were so much more important and serious than mine!

Annemarie Selinko's Desiree was another important one for me, at 11 or 12. Extremely popular back in the day if rather gauzily and selectively told, it's the story of a French silk-merchant's daughter who was Napoleon's rejected first love and then went on to become queen of Sweden. It made such a big impression on me (and I hadn't read very many romances) that many years later, when I came to write The Bookseller's Daughter, I was crushed and astonished to find out that (LOL and hold the presses) France and the French revolution weren't exactly an easy sell with publishers.

6:06 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Thanks, Pam! As a child, I don't think I really differentiated between historical novels and books written in an historical era (though on some level I understood the difference). My mom loved "Little Women". I liked it, but not quite as much as she had, I think. The French Revolution being a hard sell baffles me. By far the most posts I've had on my own website are when I've blogged about "The Scarlet Pimpernel", and the era seems to fascinate people.

6:21 PM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

Hey Tracy!!! So good to have you over here. So good in fact, I'm going to start dragging my laptop into work so I can get back on the blog on my lunch hour.

I'm going to go out on a limb and guess that the first historical novel I read was something by Rosemary Sutcliff. I think my godmother handed me one of her YA Roman books when I was six or seven . . . the first book I remember rereading (and crying over) was her novel Mark of the Horse Lord. I need to read that again.

10:31 PM  
Blogger Monica McCarty said...

I can't remember my first historical fiction novel, but I loved the Little House books. I think I was introduced to history through movies first--my mom was (and still is) a HUGE old movie buff. I remember loving Wuthering Heights as a child. Still do. :) I go through these pretty intense periods. As a child I loved mythology, in high school I was really into the Civil War (probably because of GWTW), later I read practically every Jean Plaidy novel and was really into the Plantagenets and the War of the Roses. Around the same time I discovered Sharon Kay Penman, Antonia Fraser, and Dorothy Dunnett. Next came the Scottish--I'm still into that. :)

10:58 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Kalen, I don't think I've ever read Rosemary Sutcliff, though it seems I've heard about her for years. Do bring your laptop to work--it's much more fun to be able to chime into conversations in the middle of the day (I've been known to take mine with me and find a wifi spot when I'm running around all day :-).

Monica, I may have seen historical movies before I started reading historical fiction. My parents loved old movies too (a lot of those were movies they'd grown up with). I definitely saw P&P, Wuthering Heights, and The Scarlet Pimpernel as movies before I read the books. And we also watched a lot historical television--we watched "Elizabeth R" and "The Six Wives of Henry VIII" when I was six--I think that started my fascination with England, espeically as we went there a few months later and I got to actually see the Tower of London, Hampton Court, etc...

11:20 PM  
Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

Monica, I also became fascinated with the Plantagenets in high school after seeing The Lion in Winter on cable about ten times (I had a crush on Timothy Dalton). That led me to Jean Plaidy's books and Thomas B. Costain, and then to Rosemary Sutcliff and Sharon Kay Penman who is still one of my favorite writers of that period. I tend to glom onto a period of history and read everything written about it. Pam, I also read Desiree when I was in high school and loved it. I'm also mystified about the French Revolution being a hard sell particularly with Lauren Willig's series which is very Scarlet Pimpernelesque

5:15 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

I started with Shakespeare at an early age, too. Same with The Iliad, the Odyssey, and the Greek myths because I had a grandmother who was very much into ancient Greek culture and civilization.

And I devoured the Lloyd Alexander books when I was a girl, too.

Pam, I heard the same thing from my agent when I considered writing a book set during the French revolution. And "The Scarlet Pimpernel" has long been one of my favorite books. I sneaked in an inside joke re: Pimpernel in my novel BY A LADY, giving my hero an ex-wife (guillotined) who was 85% Marguerite.

I had a professional nonprofit classical theatre company and I adapted "The Scarlet Pimpernel" for the stage several years ago, and also adapted "Ivanhoe" and "The Prisoner of Zenda" -- all perennial favorites of mine.

5:48 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Elizabeth, I loved "A :Lion In Winter" growing up too (it's still one of my favorite movies). Though my love of the Plantagnets came more from "The Daughter of Time" which led me to Thomas B. Costain, Paul Murray Kendall, and eventually Sharon Kay Penman (I was so excited when "The Sunne in Splendour" was published--I read it back stage on some very cold nights apprennticing at the Berkeley Shakespeare Festival in college--one of the plays we were doing was "Richard III").

Amanda, I've been wanting to seek out "By a Lady" and your comments make me even more eager to do so. I so wish I could see your stage adaptations of "The Scarlet Pimpernel", "Prisoner of Zenda", and "Ivandhoe"--all favorites of mine as well. I read Ivanhoe when I was pretty young, after reading a chldren's book, Edwrd Eager's "Knights Castle", which is a takeoff on it (the children basically go into the world of the books). I loved it, but I always wanted Ivanhoe to end up with Rebecca.

8:39 AM  
Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

Tracy, I loved Edward Eager's books too, especially 'A Knight's Castle.' I've always believed that Ivanhoe and Rebecca were meant to be together. And Sharon Kay Penman's Sunne in Splendor is amazing but so are her trilogy about Llewellyn, the last Prince of Wales. I think my love of classical theater stems from my love of history, particularly all those Restoration romps. Most of my career as an actress was performing Shaw, Shakespeare, Schnitzler and Chekhov.

9:23 AM  
Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

That should read "so is her trilogy." Fingers were flying too fast on ye olde keyboard.

9:25 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

I always thought Ivanhoe and Rebecca should end up together, too, and I think readers are supposed to feel that way; they should be appalled that the religious intolerance (from all sides -- Isaac of York doesn't want his daughter to end with the blond Scottish "shegitz" any more than the gentiles want our title hero to marry a Jewess) prevents two people who have developed a very deep understanding of each other, from sharing their lives, to have to painfully part ways instead. Don't you just love stories that make you think -- and even make you angry!?

Of course, when I took "Ivanhoe" from the page to the stage, I made sure to keep the plot exactly as Scott wrote it. But I wanted to be sure that there wasn't a dry eye in the house when Rebecca had to say goodbye to Ivanhoe, knowing that he's going to spend the rest of his life with Rowena -- while Rebecca and her father head to Spain, where they are more tolerant of the Jews. Scott's 19th c. readers, as well as our contemporaries, know full well that in a couple hundred years' time, the Jews will be decimated by the Inquisition in Spain, and I think we're supposed to get the sad irony.

11:36 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

I agree that Scott means to readers to see the intolerance and sadness of the Ivanhoe/Rebecca situation--interesting that he had that take in the early 19th century, when an interfaith marriage would still have been extremely difficult. I was watching the Anthony Andrews film version of "Ivanhoe" with a friend a few years ago, and her five-year-old son came into the room during the tournament scene. He was very intrigued (he loves knights) and then asked if Ivanhoe was going to end up with "the girl in red" (Rebecca). We said no, he married "the girl in blue" (Rowena). My friend's son who loved just about anything with knights (he and his brother loved "Henry IV Part I" when I took them), never showed much interest in "Ivanhoe" because in his words "he married the wrong girl" :-). One of the nice things in "Knights Castle" is that in the magical world the kids go into, Ivanhoe ends up with Rebecca.

12:21 PM  
Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

I love the Anthony Andrews version. I tried to watch the BBC version a few years ago, but all the Normans looked alike with dark hair and beards, and all the Saxons looked alike as well. It took me a good hour before I figured out which bushy blond was Ivanhoe.

12:37 PM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Tracy, did you know that Scott's Rebecca was based on an actual Jewish woman from Philadelphia, Rebecca Gratz. She was a friend of Washington Irving's, who introduced them. I've often thought that the real Rebecca's story would be interesting. She's featured in a double DVD documentary on Jews in America from the 17th through the 19th centuries.

12:37 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

I liked the Anthony Andrews version too, Elizabeth (though not quite as much as the Anthony Andrews "Scarlet Pimpernel"). I actually liked the BBC one too (the one with Ciaran Hinds as Brian de Bois Guilbert that aired here on A&E?). It had a had a nice, gritty feel, though I do remember it having quite a dark feel to it.

Amanda, I didn't know about Rebecca Gratz. How fascinating! Have you thought of doing a novel based on her life?

12:10 AM  
Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

It would make a great book. Apparently Rebecca fell in love with a Christian just like the fictional Rebecca but turned him down because she couldn't bring herself to make an inter-faith marriage even though one of her brother's did. She never married but helped to raise her sister's children, and devoted herself to charity in Philadelphia.

6:51 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Thanks for the info about Rebecca Gratz, Elizabeth. Did Scott meet her in America through Washington Irving or did she travel to England?

9:43 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Scott met Rebecca Gratz in PA when he visited the States.

I've always had an interest in her, and in the fictional Rebecca -- the role I played when my theatre company produced the stage adaptation. On my to-be-written historical fiction short list is the story of Ivanhoe from Rebecca's POV

10:15 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Thanks for the info, Amanda! "Ivanhoe" from Rebecca's pov sounds wonderful! And actually quite marketable...

11:01 AM  

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