Lessons in Creative Writing from Deborah Harkness – Part 1

This was our last day of class. Yes, we had wine.

This was our last day of class. Yes, we had wine. (Deb is on the right.)

I received permission from Hedgebrook, Deb and my classmates to post a series of blogs about what we learned from Deb during our Master Class called Past Tense: History as Resource and Inspiration. Since she covered a different topic every day, that’s how I’m going to present them to you. She purposefully taught us different aspects of creative writing in the order she feels they are most important.

A Few Notes on Writing Historical Fiction
Before Deb got into the specifics of her first topic, she gave us a nice lecture about how we are perfectly qualified, as storytellers, to write historical fiction even though we’re not historians. I touched on that a little in my first post about the Master Class, but I’ll add a few details here.

Non-historians tend to think of history as right and wrong; historians know no such thing exists. History is an interpreted discipline in which they make an argument based on what they can back up with evidence. Circumstantial evidence doesn’t count for them, but it is a boon for historical fiction writers. It is our job to “write between the gaps,” as one of my follow writers said.

Novelists need to take authority over our story and characters and give up on the idea that historians have “the truth.” If it is not historically impossible, then for us, it is historically possible. It is our job to make it believable.

She emphasized that history should be a tool and not an obstacle. Our first job is to tell a great story. For that reason, any historical fiction story should be able to be set in contemporary times and still make sense. That is how we know the story itself is solid. The history simply places in another time.

Lesson #1: Character
Deb is a character-driven writer, meaning that for her, stories begin with and are propelled by the characters and their journey. The plot arises from what they do, rather than being thrust on them. (I’m a character-driven writer as well.) Her main point is that if your readers don’t care about the characters, all you’ve done is write history. The characters are what people relate to as they read your story.

In order for your characters to have integrity, they must be real, three-dimensional people who are consistent and make decisions that ring true, even if you don’t always agree with them. She believes that oftentimes readers are willing to trust historical fiction authors with history because they trust the characters. They are willing to forgive and forget a lot, but usually not a character that doesn’t speak to them.

History can give us the basis for creating characters, whether we pull them straight from history or use it as the context of the lives of fictional characters. Either way, when used correctly, historical details reveal things about the characters.

One character development tool Deb introduced us to is the Proust questionnaire. I’ve seen lots of lists of questions to interview your characters with, but this one was new to me. (Interestingly, this is what part of the interviews on Inside the Actor’s Studio are based on.) The idea is that by answering these questions, you begin to learn what makes your characters tick and see patterns in their lives. Most of what you answer won’t end up in your book, but knowing this information will help you start immersing yourself in their world. The better you can do that, the more believable and real your characters will be.

Another tool one of my fellow writers mentioned was the question Anne Lamott poses in Bird by Bird, “What does your character have in his/her pockets and why?” The “why” is the true purpose of any of these interview techniques because it starts to get at motivation, which is key to both a believable character and story. As Deb said, “History can be a crutch for us. Sometimes problems are better solved by asking ‘why?'”

She ended our first lecture by reiterating her belief that (at least in character driven fiction) the character’s journey transcends all the other stuff: the setting, the plot, the historical context. She taught us about each of those, but set the tone by teaching us their place: they are all secondary to character.

Next week: Plot and history.

Random bit of trivia: Deb doesn’t outline. She says her stories evolve as she goes and does lots of editing.

What do you think about Deb’s thoughts on historical fiction, history and character? Do you agree or disagree? Why? Did anything you read here strike you as important or unusual? Please tell me your reactions in the comments.

11 thoughts on “Lessons in Creative Writing from Deborah Harkness – Part 1

  1. I was a historian/archaeologist before I became a writer, and as a reader I flung more than one historical novel aside because the writer didn’t stick to ‘the truth’. As a writer I’ve learned storytelling can take a few liberties, but I still won’t write anything a historian wouldn’t admit is at least plausible.

    Fortunately, I usually write in the Arthurian or Celtic past where there are often several interpretations of more or less everything, so I can still pick my choice of ‘the truth’ and feel comfortable with the results. More recent periods might make that approach more difficult.

  2. WOW! I love Deborah Harkness as a writer, her books really spoke to me. I don’t think I’ve ever connected with a character as much as I did with Diana in ADOW. Thank you for posting this, it is insanely useful information! I am looking forward to more of your posts! I am definitely going to try implementing some of these techniques for my book!

    • You’re welcome! I’m HUGE fan of Deb’s work, too. It was such an honor to get to meet her and learn from her. I’m so happy to have a way to share what I learned. I’m glad it’s helping you – that is the whole point!

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  8. Thank you for this series, Nicole. Very helpful as I set out to discover if writing is for me. I’d not heard of Deborah Harkness, but I feel compelled now to try one of her books.

    I love the idea of an author answering a questionnaire on behalf of their characters to help understand their drive and composition. I’m curious, though, how you approach the answers. Have you ever found value in answering some of the questions in multiple ways? For example, I would imagine that a character may answer one way on the surface, if they were interviewed in public for example, yet perhaps quite differently if they were aware of their true self and were being truthful, not to mention how this might change over time. I would guess that considering various depths of character may be even more valuable than knowing their core “truth”, but just how valuable is this really? One could get lost in this sort of detail!

    • Hi Willa,

      So glad you found it helpful! If you want to read Deb’s books start with A Discovery of Witches – it’s the beginning of the trilogy.

      As to your question about the character questionairre, I think answering it both ways (if your character has two ways of thinking) could be very valuable to you as a writer. It’s often when a character’s inner and outer goals/viewpoints/etc. clash that you find the source of conflict that is so crucial to any story. Of course, the level of complexity of the questionairre will vary by character and also by how much they are willing to talk! For example, if I had done one for my Guinevere series, Isolde would have talked my ear off, but I would have been lucky to get one word answers out of Arthur!

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