Mark Arnold on the Historical Novel

Author Mark R. Arnold

Today we hear from author Mark Arnold on the Historical Novel and his process in writing his novel, Monster: The Story of Young Mary Shelley under the name M.R. Arnold. Fascinating subject and equally fascinating thoughts!

My favorite genre has to be the historical novel. To glimpse another time and place defines my infatuation with the genre’.  I’ve learned these cover a wide range. There are the novels that are about how a fictitious character experiences a historic time, and those that feature real people. I think the novels about a moment when the future is changed and the course of the world shifts are best of all.

I guess I have always been fascinated with historical fiction. The first book I remember reading was The Egyptian by Mika Waltari when I was somewhere around 11 years old.  As I sat in my grandfather’s chair surrounded by the scent of his pipe, I lost myself in the valley of the Nile thousands of years before the birth of Christ. Protagonist Sinue’s, a healer to Akhenaton, fights to understand and protect his Pharaoh as he struggles to promote the idea that there is only one god. That book eventually drew me to writing. I want to know what drives these people to take the actions they choose.

Outlines for the book are my preferred way to write. Before the dialog goes in place I have to know what I expect to accomplish with each scene and each chapter, not to mention what message I want my book to convey.  There are several purposes in most works. A good story well told is usually enough for most people, but in my most recent book I wanted to correct falsehoods that have crept in to a legend surrounding Mary Shelley and the night she was inspired to write Frankenstein. Research revealed a number of times when material about my main character had been either augmented authors or historians or omitted. You might think much of the action to be dictated by historical fact, but the things these people said was seldom in the historical record. So, careful outlining kept me on track.

That does not mean that a carefully crafted and thoroughly understood character based upon historical fact won’t surprise the hell out of me. Although I closely follow the information found through strict historical research, sometimes my characters do take over the action in a scene, mostly in the things they say or the way they say them. The more I delve into understanding these people of the past, the more I learn their flaws along with their strengths. What they did in the past when situations arise can astound me the same way that a person I think I know will do something out of character. I’m fascinated to discover the psychology of how my characters act and react. That is a big chunk of why I love writing in this genre’.

For me, understanding why people do what they did draws me to write as much as the skill of telling a good story. Patrick O’Brian’s Master and Commander series is one of my favorites. I am in awe of the way he keeps my attention through three readings of the 20+ novels in the series. Although these books feature fictitious characters there is a solid base of historic fact. What happens to these people, the battles and betrayals, the fire and fury of wooden warships far from home is historically accurate. He used the framework of the Napoleonic wars as the setting for his characters, a British warship captain and a naval surgeon/spy, but it is the psychology of these two men, Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin as they develop and mature a friendship over the course of more than a decade of warfare that creates the suspension of disbelief in me. It is the way they handle their respective rolls with complimentary psyches that fascinates me and shapes my writing.

But if this is not going to get far too long for continued interest, I better start answering some of the questions you asked because they are what prompted this screed.

Q: Do your characters ever take over the story and take it in new directions? 

A: I’ve found two ways of crafting characters. A writer may either make up a fictional character or attempt to recreate a person.  In Monster: the Story of Young Mary Shelley I chose to portray the actual people as close to the way they were. In my work about how she wrote Frankenstein I could have crafted a story around the generally accepted facts about her. Several novels and movies have done just that. But careful attention to facts revealed much more. For one example of the authenticity of research, I’ll let you know she didn’t write Frankenstein. She wrote The Modern Prometheus and although public changed the title, understanding who Prometheus was changes our appreciation for what Mary Shelley wanted to accomplish. Instead of a horror story, she thought she was writing a philosophical revelation i.e. what would happen if we could create human life?

Strict historical research must be thorough and exhaustive in order for a novel to have authenticity. That does not mean there weren’t surprises. Recorded history is often made up of the reminiscences of people. I found people in the past lie for as many reasons as they do today and they can also make mistakes as do sources. Often I would find a source who would try to convince me of a certain view. One case in point: several sources, perhaps influenced by a desire to spare readers what they considered to be sordid details, whitewashed the events regarding the Shelleys and Lord Byron. In diametric opposition were letters from people who saw, with their own eyes, the events that transpired around my main characters and wanted to smear their reputations (not that that took much.) I had to reconcile these with the actual words of the people who were key to my story.

Then there were the omissions in the historic record. The things left out made me have to piece together what I could prove about a person and deduce from that what I thought were that person’s values or morals to figure out how the facts conformed to their actions. I took what facts that I could prove and projected the attitudes that probably were inherent in that person and let that guide my portrayals.  Finally, I created dialog. Reading novels about the period helped me with creating believable dialog, including slang and accents, but the actual words spoken by a person are seldom recorded.

Fun, I can’t begin to tell you.

Historical works can benefit from the internet when it comes to writing scenes. You’d be surprised how much information in the form of description and pictorial material there is for historic places and times. I’ve entered, Men’s clothing, civilian, 1800 to 1820 and gotten many drawings of fashionable people. Same for places. There are modern photos of buildings and houses, many of them restored, that I used when describing the locations of my scenes, but there are also drawings and paintings of places that no longer exist. I also had to fill in the lighting for example: day or night, firelight or candlelight, and the smells. Especially the smells. The streets of London in the early 1800s sloped inward to gutters that ran down the center of the roadway. In some of the neighborhoods, that was the sewer system.

Q. Do you use beta readers? How many? 

A: Once the novel was shaped up enough to let others read, I hired editors as Beta readers. They came in for the 3rd, the 6th and the 7th drafts. In the case of Monster, I went through two editors, each of whom suggested a new draft with a different idea. It was worth it. The editor/reader of the 3rd person draft suggested using a first person, present point of view. She was so right. Monster changed from a dispassionate look at Mary Shelley to a version of the truth told as a personal account. Similar changes came in for the other drafts. That was expensive, but I feel I got a good bargain.  When I got to a late draft, 8 or 9 or so, I selected another writer for my final Beta reader. She was just a friend but one who was an avid reader and a sometime writer. She represented my target audience, so I listened carefully to what she said as I felt this was going to be the last chance I had to make changes. She had few suggestions. But the most useful thing she told me was what she liked. I went through the next draft to strengthen those things. My last Beta reader was a professional author who told me where I could expect trouble. I think he kept me out of a lot of grief from trolls.

My subject for Monster, Mary Shelley, has such broad appeal that traditional publishing chose me. When I presented my pitch letter to a publisher, she simply said, “Send me the manuscript.” She explained that because my subject was of interest worldwide I’d have a better chance reaching my intended group of people, those with an interest in the topics I wanted to depict from writing, to women’s issues, and science fiction fans, that traditional publishing could offer the widest reach.

My work is now in Barnes and Noble bookstores throughout the United States.  So far I have had almost as much feedback from people in Indiana and Michigan as I’ve had from California. Recently another author wanted to know why I wasn’t obsessing over my sales numbers, which are pretty good, thank you, and my marketing. I told him I was having the time of my life just writing and lecturing. Thanks for the questions. I enjoyed this.

Thank you, Mark, for a truly inspiring interview!

About Susan Tuttle

Susan Tuttle is a professional freelance editor, writing instructor and multi-award winning author of 21 books—6 nonfiction on writing (Write It Right), 6 suspense novels and 7 collections of award-winning short stories. She also has stories in both volumes of "Deadlines", the new anthology from the Central Coast Chapter of Sisters in Crime (SinC), Tales from a Rocky Coast, and the SLO NightWriter anthology. Under the pen name Susan Grace O'Neill, she is the author of the Journey With Jesus series: Lord, Let Me Grow (Parables) vol. 1, and Lord, Let Me Walk (Lent). She is currently working on volume #2 of her Skylark P.I. series (a PI with paranormal abilities), as well as 2 YA fantasy series. And she teaches fiction writing in both the morning and afternoon every Wednesday. Email her if you're interested in joining her class. And follow her on Twitter and FaceBook.