Sunday, March 14, 2010

Historical Fiction Book Review - LEWIS & CLARK (Part II)

On Friday, I posted a review of a terrific historical novel, To the Ends of the Earth: The Last Journey of Lewis & Clark (Blind Rabbit Press, 2006).

Today I am pleased to post an interview with the authors, Mary and Liz Claire. If you enjoy historical fiction, and even more especially: if you write historical fiction, you will want to read this interview by two accomplished authors in the genre!

You'll learn about period vocabulary, setting historical scenes, marketing your work, and much more!

Stay tuned for Part III - a chance to win a free copy of their latest book, The Fairest Portion of the Globe!!

Q: To the Ends of the Earth was your first book; what other kinds of writing had you done before this? What authors have influenced your writing?

Mary: I was a small business columnist for the Austin Business Journal in the early nineties and have always enjoyed writing fiction, non-fiction, and even occasional poetry. My article “A Dark and Bloody Ground: The Incident on the Nueces” was published in the May 1998 issue of Civil War Magazine. But novel writing is what I really enjoy. My biggest influence as a writer is John Jakes. No one would argue that his books are high art, but he knows how to tell a ripping good story. If you look at the structure of The Bastard or North and South, you see how Jakes drops you back in time, with a sense of immediacy and authenticity surrounding the historical conflicts that are taking place. His characters are both flawed and sympathetic. And his cliff-hangers are amazing—you just can’t put the book down!

Liz: I’ve always liked to write, and I’ve been a technical writer for over 20 years. And I’ve written a lot of non-fiction articles for newsletters and the like. A few years back, I got back into creative writing – which I loved in high school – via fan fiction. The response to my short stories was great and really satisfying, and I found new satisfaction in creating characters and stories that people liked and responded to. Besides Jakes, I would say I was most influenced by Howard Fast. Fast was a craftsman nonpareil. Take Citizen Tom Paine, in which he breathes life into the tortured patriot and writer, and wrings the drama and contradictions of Paine’s life for all they’re worth. You really feel for Thomas Paine even as you’re being inspired by his famous words. Fast was very political, but he never let his personal views interfere with the integrity of the stories he chose to tell. That raw honesty and genuine human emotion make his stories unforgettable.

Q: The vocabulary in To the Ends of the Earth is great! I always love to learn new words...especially "vintage" words. Where do you get them? I'm thinking especially of words you used like "shift" (instead of "dress" or "slip") or "dirk" (instead of "dagger," "knife," etc.). Is this important in your writing?

Mary: Yes, because the right words can transport you instantly back into the past. In researching our historical novels, we’ve read a lot of period documents, including the Lewis & Clark journals themselves. You become steeped in the cadence and vocabulary of 19th century speech, which in many ways was much more elaborate and florid than our own. An educated person in those days was likely to know Latin and Greek, and to be widely read in the classics. Lewis in particular liked to use “25-cent words.” One of my favorite words that appears in our new book, The Fairest Portion of the Globe, is “caitiff.” It means “cowardly.” It’s a word we don’t hear every day, but “Mad Anthony” Wayne peppered his letters with “caitiff” this and “caitiff” that, so finally I couldn’t imagine him speaking without using that word. All the same, we try hard not to let the dialogue become stilted. Lewis and Clark were gentlemen, but they were also tough army officers, and we try to make them sound like it—including occasional use of profanity. We just make sure the profanity is period-correct! We have a joke that if something sounds “too Tarantino,” we take it out of the book.

Liz: The only trouble is that you do find yourself talking 19th-century style. I recently got a funny look from a co-worker when I blurted out that “I cared not” how a certain task was completed, just that it be done. That was Meriwether Lewis talking. Which points up another difference in the language, and that is that people in Lewis & Clark’s time were generally much more blunt and plain-spoken than people are today. Though some, like Lewis and his mentor, Thomas Jefferson, may have used flowery language, they would have been appalled by the political correctness and obfuscation of today. When Jefferson told the Osage, “We are as numerous as the stars in the heavens, and we are all gunmen,” there’s certainly no mistaking his meaning.

Q: The settings are just wonderful I really feel like I'm in a tangle of limbs on those trails! How much traveling have you done - especially in the "backwoods" - and does this inform your writing?

Mary: There’s no doubt that seeing the actual spot you’re trying to describe helps enormously. We have traveled a large portion of the Lewis & Clark trail, from the White Cliffs of the Missouri to the Pacific Coast, and from Omaha to Fort Mandan. A few years ago, we drove the Natchez Trace Parkway along the route Lewis took in the last days of his life—after we had finished the first draft of To the Ends of the Earth. It was amazing, quite frankly, to see how closely the reality met our expectations, though we did find a few things to correct. At one point, based on a modern map, we had Lewis crossing the Tombigbee River. We found out when we got there that this wouldn’t have been possible until the Tenn-Tom waterway was completed in the 1980’s! So fortunately the error didn’t make it into the final version of the book.
Liz: One point I always like to make is that we’re not outdoorsy – we always stay in motels at the end of the day, where we can get a hot meal and a hot shower. These days, people seem to be disappointed if you didn’t do something “extreme” to get your story. But the Lewis & Clark trail is for everyone. It belongs to us all and most of it is accessible to us all. You don’t have to be a hardbody to enjoy it.

Mary: When we can’t go in person, we rely a lot on research magic. We research exhaustively to try to make the settings as authentic as possible. This applies whether we’ve been there or not. We can visit St. Louis today, but we can’t visit in 1809, when To the Ends of the Earth is set, so we had to learn all about St. Louis in 1809—how the streets were laid out, what the levee would have been like, what the people wore, what they ate, how they spoke, how they smelled. In our new book, The Fairest Portion of the Globe, Lewis and Clark meet for the first time at a frontier army fort in Cincinnati in the 1790’s. We’ve never been to Cincinnati at all, let alone in the 1790’s. So we had to use research and imagination to fill in the details.

Liz: A wise man once said that “The past is another country.” Fortunately, you can visit it through your imagination and the written word. You read as many travelogues, journals, and earlier accounts as you can and take a stab at it. There were earlier historians who trekked out to these places in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, while there was still a little bit left to see, who left some wonderful accounts. In one account, the historian takes the time to rhapsodize about the automobile and how it has revolutionized his research. That’s great stuff.

Q: St. Louis is the setting for a good part of Ends/Earth and your forthcoming novel about R.E. Lee...what attracts you to that city? Do you think people underestimate the importance of St Louis as THE great gateway to the West?

Mary: St. Louis was one of the great fascinating places in early America. It was a crossroads in so many ways. It was founded in the 1760’s by French traders, but it was part of the Spanish empire for decades, until it was secretly ceded back to Napoleon. Napoleon then turned around and sold it to the United States as part of the Louisiana Purchase. In St. Louis, you would have encountered fur traders, frontiersmen, mountain men, riverboat men, Indians, and people from all backgrounds and walks of life, speaking French, Spanish, German, English and who knows what else. It was a rough-and-tumble river town, the jumping off point for adventurers heading west. During the time Robert E. Lee was there, the late 1830’s, it was also a pressure point between abolitionist and pro-slavery factions that escalated into great violence. Later, the Dred Scott decision was handed down in St. Louis. It has an enormously important history.

Liz: I think St. Louis gets underestimated a lot, partly because it was eclipsed by Chicago as the region’s major city, partly because of the incredible leap of faith they took in the 20th century to demolish most of the historic downtown to build the Gateway Arch and its surrounding park. In my opinion, the work that St. Louis did and continues to do kept the city from suffering the tragedy that has enveloped Detroit. But the consequence is that it is very difficult to get a feel for the historic nature of St. Louis just from paying a casual visit. At one point in 1838, three great Americans – William Clark, Robert E. Lee, and pioneering doctor William Beaumont – were all living under the same roof in St. Louis! Clark was elderly by that time, Lee was there to take on his first major project as an Army engineer, and Beaumont was conducting some extremely colorful human experiments. What a novelist’s dream. You can’t make this stuff up.

Q: You have a wonderful blog just LOADED with Lewis &Clark nonfiction! How does this compliment your fiction writing?

Liz: Fiction is a real challenge to market. The Internet has not leveled the playing field, but it does give small press authors the chance to get their name and work known in a way that they couldn’t have 20 years ago. The thing is, even with the Internet, the only way people are going to find your work is if your website ranks high enough in the search engines that people can find it. There is no effective way for people to search for fiction, but there are extremely efficient ways that people search for information. So we decided to create a Lewis and Clark non-fiction blog where we could indulge our passion for Lewis and Clark and early America, and start getting our names out there at the same time. We absolutely love working on the blog, and I do think it’s helping with recognition for the books too. It’s a long process though. You’re not always reaching the people you intend to reach. One of our most popular posts on the blog is about punishment in the old Army, because of people searching for “whipping.” I hope they’re not too disappointed.

Mary: The blog is one more way to get the word out about our novels. Not everybody is crazy about historical fiction, so showing we know what we’re talking about gives us a certain amount of “street cred” with historians. Frankly, I don’t think we could be historical novelists without loving history. Most of what I read for pleasure is non-fiction. We are fascinated by all aspects of the Lewis & Clark expedition, so creating the Frances Hunter’s American Heroes blog was a natural outlet for us to share our obsession with other people.

Thanks Mary and Liz!

Stay Tuned for Part III this week: A chance to win a copy of their new book, The Fairest Portion of the Globe!!

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