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Historical fiction writers need passion, imagination

March 17, 2011

When Melissa Pritchard was 12, she found a book in her parents’ library that would ultimately change her life: a popular historical novel by Kathleen Winsor called “Forever Amber.”

“I loved it because it was set back in history. I loved that I was in a different world,” Pritchard told a class at the 2011 Desert Nights, Rising Stars writers conference at ASU.

Pritchard, a professor of English and women’s studies at ASU, spoke on “Historical Research as Fiction” for the conference, sponsored by the Virginia G. Piper Center for Creative Writing.

Pritchard, whose own historical novels and story collections include “Selene of the Spirits” and “Spirit Seizures,” said historical fiction is “a large field full of contradiction,” generally including stories about “anything in the past, with a loosely agreed upon time frame of 50 years or more, stories set back at least a generation or two.”

Good historical fiction differs from “costume dramas,” defined by Pritchard as “unfortunate historical novels where cardboard characters lumber through contrived plots, wearing the costumes of the day, the added weight of inert historical facts bringing them, one by one, inside their poor novel, to a screeching halt.”

Pritchard took the leap into historical fiction with her first short story, “Julka and Rena: A Simple Tale of Pre-Christian Poland," which she wrote in 1974 while she was living in New Mexico. The story was accepted for publication by the University of New Mexico’s literary magazine, “New America: A Review.”

“I wrote that story, among other things, to prove to myself that I could develop and finish a story," Pritchard said. "And as I recall, it was inspired by something I had read about Polish mythology. That was when I began to develop an interest in unusual stories that had been overlooked.”

She sent her next story to Joyce Carol Oates at Ontario Review, who returned it with a note saying it was a great story but it wasn’t finished.

Pritchard immediately sat down to work on the story, which turned out to be “Spirit Seizures,” about a young woman named Lurancy Vennum, who “hosts” the spirit of Mary Roff after Mary dies at a young age. In the urgency of her rewrite, she felt as if “the spirits of the two girls were literally standing behind me as I wrote.”

Oates liked the revised story and published it, Pritchard said. It has since been included in several anthologies of Gothic tales and ghost stories.

“Then I went on to write a story about a physically overweight woman in 19th century France. I imagined this character as a laundress who came to Paris as a model, rose to celebrity status among Impressionist painters, then faded back to the village from which she came.”

That story turned out to be “La Bête: A Figure Study,” and is included in Pritchard’s book of short stories, “Spirit Seizures” which won the Flannery O’Connor and Carl Sandburg Awards for Short Fiction.

Another of her historically based stories was about horticulturalist Luther Burbank and the women in his life. “Burbank was known for his ability to pollinate plants, but he had terrible experiences with women,” Pritchard said. That story, "The Erotic Life of Luther Burbank," is included in her collection, “The Instinct for Bliss,” which won a Pushcart Prize and the Janet Heidinger Kafka Prize.

By the time she had a few stories under her belt, Pritchard said, she was “hooked on the joys and challenges of research."

Her advice to writers who would like to pursue historical fiction is to "first think about a time and place you would like to go.”

And though it’s much more interesting to travel and do research, it’s not necessary, Pritchard said. “I feel that you can tap into these places and times. You’re like a sleuth doing research in libraries, being pulled in. The Anglo-American novelist Taylor Caldwell, for example, said she just went to places in her imagination.”

That so much of her writing is about other worlds and other times is perhaps due to Pritchard’s long interest in both metaphysics and history.

Part of her research is “intuitive” – being open to what her hunches tell her. “Once when I was in the Tempe Public Library I saw a little maroon book with gold letters that just cried out ‘read me,’” she said. “It turned out to be a book about the presumed relationship between Sir William Crookes, a well-known Victorian scientist, and Florence Cook, a young medium of temporary celebrity status. The book was suggesting that their professional relationship was more than that – a full-blown love affair. When I read that tiny book, I knew I had my story.”

The story took place in London and Wales in the late 19th century, so Pritchard began studying that time period, researching the people, customs and events. When she felt she had done enough research, she started writing – and the result was “Selene of the Spirits,” published in 1998, and a Barnes and Noble "Discover Great New Writers" selection.

The writer of historical fiction has to have passion about her subjects, allow herself to be obsessed by them, Pritchard said. “You have to love research and, if possible, travel. You’re a detective, entering a mystery we call ‘past.’ The surprise is what you learn along the way.

“Tapping into the past is quite mysterious and exciting. I love imagining what other people’s lives were like.”

One of the things you discover in research, Pritchard said, is that “you don’t know nearly as much as you thought you did.”

But new information can be invaluable in terms of plot and depth of character, she added. “And it’s helpful to remember you’re not a scholar or an historian. You’re an artist. To get at the story's emotional truths, you can imagine and invent things.”

Getting the details right is one of the most important aspects of writing historical fiction, Pritchard added. “Detail gives it life. For example – what was women’s clothing like in Victorian England? What were the different horse-drawn carriages like?”

Historical research is crucial, but once you have the information, “you bend and shape it. The story doesn’t require footnotes, though maps can be helpful.”

Do research, she said, “but don’t get too lost in it or shackled to facts."

Pritchard’s seventh and forthcoming book of fiction is a collection of eight stories. Most are historically based, including "Watanya Cicilia," a story about the friendship between sharp-shooter Annie Oakley and Lakota leader Sitting Bull, "The Odditorium," inspired by Robert Ripley of Ripley’s Believe It or Not, and "Ecorche, Flayed Man," based on 18th century wax anatomical models Pritchard visited in a museum in Florence, Italy. "The Odditorium" will be published by Bellevue Literary Press, New York City, in January 2012.