Wednesday, 19 September 2012

Views From The West Side - An Interview with Darlene Williams

 Darlene Williams is a historical fiction blogger and writer from Canada's West Coast.  Her passion for the genre is undeniable and recently she finished in 1st Place in an online vote by Underground Book Blogs in their 2012 "Battle of the Book Review Blogs".  She is a passionate advocate of independently published novels and is challenging readers perceptions by showcasing indie writers who are serious about their craft.  Welcome to my Court of Historical Fiction, Darlene!

Firstly, Stuart, I want to thank you for inviting me to be a guest on your blog.  I’m doubly excited to be here.  One, because this is my first interview ever!  Second, because I highly respect you and your opinions.  During the development of our virtual friendship I have come to rely on your advice when I am in need and realized we have much in common when it comes to assessment of historical fiction.  (Awww stop it, you are making me blush!) I so look forward to our cup of tea when I travel to England, my dream trip.

1.       How did you discover historical fiction and what makes it so fascinating for you?

My mother used to come home from the library loaded with books when I was a child.  She chose my books, which in the beginning were Nancy Drew mysteries and the like.
Then, one day, she brought home “Little Women”.  A departure from the usual, I wasn’t too sure about it.  That is, until I began reading.  The March girls became alive and I grew attached to them as if I knew them personally.  I loved reading about how they lived; the typical lifestyle details of a world so different from mine intrigued me.

When my beloved Beth passed away, I cried.  I didn’t cry just once, I reread the scene numerous times and fresh tears flowed anew each time.  It was the first time I read a novel in which one of the characters died.  It so touched my heart I spent the better part of Grade 4 insisting I be known as Beth, a derivative of my middle name.

After Little Women, I didn’t read a contemporary novel for many years.  In fact, as an adult, I have probably read less than a dozen contemporary novels.  Historical fiction is complete escapism into worlds I will never experience, except through the pages of a novel.  Whatever my troubles, I know I will be soothed by slipping into another era, where the angst of today does not exist.
What is especially intriguing is how authors treat an event in history.  For example, Anne Boleyn.  I have read many, many Tudor novels and each author has imbued Anne with unique qualities and character flaws.  Will we ever know the true nature of Anne?  Not likely, but it is interesting how each author has their own take on her.  Some have portrayed her as a selfish, grasping woman, while others have painted her as an innocent victim of Henry’s every-changing lusts.  I, too, have my opinion, which has not been written (or at least read by me).  However, we are inundated with Anne Boleyn novels so it will remain in my mind.

2.       Your blog is a favourite of mine and you provide a great platform for anyone who is interested in discovering historical fiction.  What made you decide to begin publishing reviews on the Web?

Thank so much for the compliment, Stuart.  I have been striving in the last months to make my reviews more than just my appraisal of a historical fiction novel.  A historical fiction novel often prompts me to research the subject matter, to further understand the events of the novel, educate myself about the political lay of the land and to judge whether the author was presenting a novel based on commonly accepted historical facts or deviating with an alternative version.  I have been including some of my research in my reviews so readers have a fuller understanding of the novel as well.

I was a legal assistant for 20 years and attending school at night to become a claims adjuster.  Unfortunately, health issues forced me to retire from both my job and educational endeavours.  I was only 40. It was a devastating blow.  I could either pull the covers over my head and give up or build myself a new life.  I chose the latter.  I took a creative writing course and earned a diploma.  For a number of years I wrote flash and short fiction.  I was fortunate enough to have some of my work published.  I also facilitated a writers’ group.

Eventually, I decided to open up shop as a professional freelance writer.  I built up a clientele, focussed on niches to become an “expert” and wrote mostly web content in the education, legal and medical fields.  I also ghost wrote two books about cats (which I am not fond of) and dogs (which I own and adore).  However, health issues once again shut that career door.  I had been writing in one fashion or another for a solid 7 years.  I have two great passions in my life:  writing and singing.  I cannot exist without either and have quality of life.  So, I began writing historical fiction reviews.  I felt qualified by my almost 40 years (dating myself!) reading historical fiction and my knowledge base of history, especially British.

I am not a fan of “bodice-rippers” or fluff.  I want my historical fiction to be intelligent, thought-provoking and an intricate relating of a historical event.  The author’s in-depth research must be evident.  When I’m excited about a historical fiction novel, I share with my mother, who also reads historical fiction.  So, why not share with everyone?  Thus began Darlene Williams HF Reviews.

3.       What boxes does a HF novel have to tick in order to be worthy of a review on your blog?

 What I expect from an excellent historical fiction novel is:
·         Intelligent, tight writing.
·         Excellent pacing from the beginning to the end, without sags in the middle (a common problem) or elsewhere.
·         Please illuminate me without educating me through long explanatory passages.  Teach me through the characters’ words and actions.
·         Fleshed-out characters who feel so real a person can fall in love with them, want to be friends, mourn them or despise them.   I need to feel they fully exist in their world.
·         Appropriate euphemisms of the day.
·         A plausible premise if you’re presenting an alternative to commonly accepted historical facts.
·         Life doesn’t always have a happy ending.  Historical fiction novels don’t always need a happy ending.  Tie up all the loose strands, but don’t feel they have to be bound up in a bow.  Sometimes, life ends in knots.  Stay true to your story, whether it culminates in a bow or knot.

I am a self-admitted tough reviewer.  I have high expectations but, when a novel merits praise, I will wax poetic.  Although I rarely award 5 stars (I think I’ve only awarded 3 this year), which means a novel is outstanding or exceptional beyond compare, I frequently award 4 stars, which, in my books, is an excellent novel well worth the read.

4.       You are also an author; can you tell me about your current work in progress?

I have several projects on the go right now.  My feature novel is Princess Charlotte Augusta, the granddaughter of “mad” King George III and daughter of King George IV (also known as the Prince Regent or Prinny).  I chose Charlotte as she has been largely ignored by historical authors and, although, her life was short, it was so full of promise.

Before, Charlotte is written, I have plans for either 1 or 2 short novellas about her parents.  I have not yet decided whether to incorporate the two or give each their own viewpoint.  It might be interesting to have both viewpoints in one novella, seeing as they never saw eye-to-eye on anything during their marriage.  Once I have completed more research, I will decide.

My final project is actually non-fiction.  I have started a guidebook for the novice freelance copywriter.  It’s a steep learning curve and there are many pitfalls.  I hope to help reduce the immense amount of time spent in locating credible income sources and avoid falling prey to disreputable employers.  The research was conducted via personal experience!

5.       What advice would you give to someone who wishes to write a HF novel?

You’ve probably heard it before, but I’m going to say it again.  Read, read, read.  Extensive reading in the genre is necessary to understand what it takes to write a good historical fiction novel.  Consume everything your favourite authors write.  That said, you must find your own voice.  There is only one Margaret George, Sharon Kay Penman, Edward Rutherford.  The objective is not to intimate.  Aspire to write at the same level.  Set the bar high and endeavour to clear it.  This might not happen on the first attempt.  Keep at it until you achieve your goal.

A writer is much the same as an athlete in training; you don’t run a marathon on the first day.  You train for a solid year before you attempt your marathon.  Get your feet wet.  Write a few novellas.  Learn from them before you write a full-length novel.  Novellas are great training tools with the bonus of hopefully gaining readership prior to release of your novel.

Research your era in-depth.  Immerse yourself in that time.  A novel that barely skims the surface of the historical era rapidly pales.  Historical accuracy is paramount.  Please don’t write a pre-Christianity novel and include Christian euphemisms.

Do not quote verbatim from sources and add footnotes.  Heavy emphasis is on the word “fiction” in these cases.  You can explain in your author’s notes what is factual or not.  Author’s notes are eagerly anticipated by many readers.

Write your novel from a unique slant or angle.  If it’s been done before, readers might not give it a chance.  Controversy can be good, as long as you can solidly back it up

For goodness sake, pay for a professional edit.  The “I can’t afford it” excuse doesn’t wash.  If you spent year(s) on your novel, skimp on whatever you need to pay for the edit to complete your investment in your story.  One novel with substandard writing loses you readership forever.

6.       Fun Question – which three historical figures would you invite to a dinner party?
Eleanor of Aquitaine, Elizabeth I and Samuel Pepys.    I admire strong women in eras when women were considered the lesser and treated accordingly.  It would be fascinating to listen to Eleanor, who, while she did rule during Henry’s absences, ultimately desired the throne for her son, Richard, to achieve glory through her children, converse with Elizabeth who went to great lengths and against considerable odds to rule England in her own right.  It would be outright delightful to listen to them recount their escapades.  I imagine gaiety as wines glasses are refilled.  Samuel Pepys is the counterfoil.  His horrified expressions as he contemplated these women who did not “remain in their place” would be comic. He who dallied with women, but was consumed with jealous when he thought his wife might be tarrying with another man.  He who firmly believed his wife should not rise above herself.  Eleanor and Elizabeth would make short work of him.

7.       Fun Question – which event in history would you like to have been a fly on the wall at?

This is a thread I have been involved in lately on Goodreads – what mystery would you like solved?  My discussion has been whether Catherine of Aragon and Arthur consummated their marriage.  That single night had an incredible effect on England.    However, I wouldn’t exactly want to be a fly on the wall – I believe that’s called voyeurism.

I’d much rather not be a fly but smack in the middle of the Fields of Gold, dressed in the most bejewelled, gorgeous gown.  Although there are many descriptions of the sumptuousness of that event, I believe it would have to be seen to be fully appreciated.

I can certainly agree with many of Darlene's views on how reviewers have a responsibility to the genre as a whole to promote quality and identify books that deserve exposure.  Take a look at Darlene's blog, I am sure you will want to be a regular follower once you see how much work she puts into giving readers of historical fiction unbiased, articulate and honest reviews of books she feels are deserving of promotion.

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