Her kind of historical fiction
By Carol / November 4, 2014 /
“I’m blown away.” That’s what I thought as I read The Girl on the Mountain, a novel set in the West Virginia mountains at the end of the 19th century.
The characters are vivid and likeable (except for the ones we shouldn’t like). The language precise and fresh. The plot engaging. Beyond that, author Carol Erwin knocked me out with the way she wove in historical details to make me feel as though I knew the people, place and time. There are no famous people in this story, no memorable historical events. Nonetheless, it’s terrific historical fiction.
I invited Carol to share how she came to write this story and how she looks at historical fiction. Her thoughts fit right into the “How much of historical fiction is history?” question I blogged about recently.
My kind of historical fiction – Carol Erwin
I like historical fiction that enlarges my sense of life in other eras. Though I’ve always liked history, in fiction I care less about the unfolding of actual events and more about what they meant to people of that time.
In other words, I’m interested in characters. They don’t have to be historical figures, but they do have to seem real. I’ve always been impressed by the capacities of ordinary people, especially women, and was privileged to know several who lived in my small corner of West Virginia in the late 1800s. These women aren’t the subjects of my historical series, but their qualities definitely inspired me.
The Mountain Women series begins with The Girl on the Mountain, a novel about ordinary people in a time of no particular significance. I began imagining a story about two adventurous girls, one privileged and one homeless. Where and when did they live? I wanted a familiar setting, but one a bit wilder than the farm community where I live. I did not have to go far, for I live near a region of virgin forest that was cut down in the late 1800s. When I revisited a non-fiction account of logging and lumbering in West Virginia (with its hundreds of old photos) I found the setting for my story. Eventually my two girls became May Rose, the young wife of a logger, and Wanda, her stepdaughter.
Even in soft-core historical fiction (my term), some elements must be true. I believe the truest features in The Girl on the Mountain are the mountains and streams, the sawmill, logging operations, and the artifacts of daily life circa 1900.
Research helped me authenticate and populate the story with details, but I had personal experiences that made me comfortable with them. I know the look and sound of sawmills. I’ve ridden an old logging train, climbed steep hillsides to pick blackberries, dug potatoes, stepped through creeks, raised and chased pigs, participated in old-time hog butchering, and used pen and ink to keep account books.
I felt comfortable describing life in 1900 because it’s not too distant. As a child I sometimes visited outhouses where the pit was covered with lime and the seat worn smooth. I named many characters after grandparents, grand aunts and uncles, so I didn’t have to research to know if the names were valid for the period.
When forty years ago I moved to my present location, I felt like I’d stepped back in time. The whole valley was made up of farms that had descended through several generations, and many of my elderly neighbors still used implements and carried on practices from the 1800s. Because of them, I know about neighbors helping neighbors and details like the operation of wood cook stoves and the scrape of a shovel into a coal bucket.
I tried to substantiate every historical detail. In The Girl on the Mountain I included references to well-read books of the period, used calendars of 1899 and 1900, and researched to make sure certain items were in use then, like canned milk. I had such a good time researching that I found much more detail than I could use.
One funny story: a friend who read the first few pages told me I should have a hen instead of a rooster simmering in the pot, because people had many hens but one rooster. I didn’t refute her, but I’m the one who has raised chickens, and I know that from little chicks you get as many roosters as hens. Guess which ones go into the pot?
Finally, the historical detail I chose had to be important to May Rose, the main character. I tried to keep her in mind with every description – what she saw, understood or thought about and what those things meant to her.
How much history you put into your kind of historical fiction will depend on your purposes, plus how much history you know and care to research. If you want to dramatize well-known events and give historical persons a new breath of life, you will rely on your expertise as a historian or researcher. If you want to write realistic period fiction, you may need only to learn enough to feel like you’re living at your chosen time.
Thanks, Carol Bodensteiner, for asking the question: “How much of historical fiction is history?”
Thank you, Carol Erwin, for sharing your perspectives on historical fiction with my readers. I highly recommend Carol’s novels. Click to read my review of The Girl on the Mountain. Follow the links below to her books and to learn more about her.
Carol Ervin has been a teacher, business owner, and writer and designer of marketing materials. She lives with her husband on a hillside farm in West Virginia with a steep lane and a spectacular view of wooded mountains. She loves West Virginia’s rugged streams and foliage and the history and culture of the region’s hardy settlers. Her historical novels include The Girl on the Mountain, Cold Comfort, and Midwinter Sun. She recently published a science-fiction/dystopian, Dell Zero.
Dell Zero (science fiction)
It’s fascinating to read how Carol weaves truth and fiction with her great writing style. Nice interview.
As a writer, I appreciate how she does all this so seamlessly. As you do, David, in your Liam Mannion series. As I reader, I enjoy getting lost in a really good story and soaking in the historical details without realizing they’re there.