Susanna Fraser On The Romance Factor of Historical Novels + Outlining a Book’s Plot

SusannaFraser2013Name: Susanna Fraser

Hometown: Wilsonville, AL

Based In: Seattle, WA

Education: B.S. in Economics, University of Pennsylvania

Briefly: (List your books, awards, and other literary accomplishments, etc)

I write historical and time travel romance. I also plan to write historical fantasy. My published works include three full-length novels and two novellas:

The Sergeant’s Lady (2010)
A Marriage of Inconvenience (2011)
An Infamous Marriage (2012)
A Dream Defiant (2013, novella)
Christmas Past (2013, novella)

Favorite Read: I have many, but lately it’s Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga

Pet Peeves: Bad drivers

If You Weren’t a Writer You’d Be…If I hadn’t decided to pursue writing seriously, I probably would’ve gone back to school for a History PhD and become a professor.

Author Crush: Lois McMaster Bujold

Fiction or General Publishing How-To Book I’d Recommend: The Writer’s Journey, by Christopher Vogler. I love the Hero’s Journey as a guideline for plot structure and characterization.

Up Next: I’ve got a bit of a gap before my next new release, which will be a 2014 historical romance Christmas novella with Carina Press. It’s about a pair of star-crossed lovers reunited just days before the heroine is supposed to marry someone else. After that, hopefully in the first half of 2015, I’ll have a full-length sequel to A Dream Defiant.
thesergeantslady

Who would you credit with introducing you to the world of books?

My mother. She loved to read and took me with her to the library every other week so we could get more books. She also gets credit for my love of history and historical fiction.

How did you get interested in writing?

I was given an open-ended assignment in 4th grade. Most of my classmates did art or craft projects, but I asked if I could write a book instead. My teacher said sure, so I produced a story about children drawn into a magical land to help a family of talking horses get their kingdom back. Let’s just say you could tell I’d been reading the Narnia books, but my parents and teachers were impressed. It planted in my mind the idea that I could be a writer someday.

Do you think that…had you not gone to England, and lived there for a year after college…do you think you’d be writing in another genre? Because something tells me that’s how the historical fiction bug bit.

Actually, my love for history and historical fiction dates back to my childhood, and my interest in the Regency and Napoleonic Wars comes from Jane Austen, reading Regency romances starting in high school, and discovering the Sharpe’s Rifles series in 2001. I started with the movies starring Sean Bean, but I’ve read the books too.

But I do think my year in England helps me write English settings. I can visualize that rolling green countryside and the warm golden stone houses of the southwestern part of the country, where I was based, so very clearly. I hope some of that knowledge and love comes out in my writing.

It would seem that an author writing historical romance has to work hard in nailing the historical details and deliver big time where the romance factor is concerned.

Delivering on the romance is non-negotiable, since that’s the explicit promise the genre gives its readers. As for the history, some authors pay more attention to the details than others–and some readers care more than others. I’m definitely in the camp that works to get as many details right as I can, and I try to make my characters products of their place and time rather than 2014 men and women dressed in 1814 clothes. As a reader, my favorite historical fiction, whether it’s romance, mystery, adventure, literary fiction, or whatever, functions as a sort of time machine for the imagination. So when I write, I try to give readers that same experience, to convey my passion for history as well as my hero and heroine’s passion for each other.

Do you outline all of your books’ plots?

Not in great detail. I typically start a book knowing the initial conflict, the ending, and a few key scenes in between. Then I plunge in and tell myself the story as I write it. I actually outline more as I’m editing. That’s when I review The Hero’s Journey to see how my story fits the pattern and how I can enhance that in my second and third drafts.

Your latest novella takes place in the 1810s. It’s not an obscure era, but it was a long time ago! How do usually go about doing research for your books?

I’ve been writing this era since I started writing with intent to publish back in 2001, and throughout that time I’ve been building up a personal research library on everything from childbirth among the aristocracy in the 18th and 19th centuries to the regiments of the British army during the Napoleonic Wars, which campaigns each was involved in, and what battle honors they earned. Mostly I rely on that knowledge base, but every story brings up new questions, anything from British interactions with Native Americans in the 19th century to what new books my characters would’ve been reading and talking about in 1810.

When you have an idea, at which point do you know when it’s worth pursuing as a book?

I tend to have any number of story scraps, or maybe ingredients would be a better word, floating around my imagination. I might know I want to use a particular setting or historical incident, but have no idea who my hero or heroine would be or where the plot would go. Or, I’ll have a character take up residence in my brain, but I won’t be sure exactly where they belong in history or what will happen to them there. Or, I’ll think of some plot trope I want to put my own spin on.

At some point several of those ingredients will come together with a click, and I’ll think, “Of course! The runaway heiress is accused of a crime she didn’t commit after the Battle of Salamanca!” and I’ll know I have the beginnings of a book.

I noticed that a number of your books are available in digital format only.

So far all of my books have been ebooks. While I hope to be published in print as well eventually, I’ve found that digital-only publishers and imprints are more willing to take on historical romances with unusual settings or characters. I enjoy having the freedom to follow my historical passions while still having the editorial, logistical, and marketing support of a publisher. Someday I may self-publish. Thus far, I haven’t been willing to take that step.

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When you do research for a book like The Sergeant’s Lady that takes place during the Napoleonic Wars…how do you determine what sources are credible?

It truly is hard to judge–so I try not to rely too much on any single source. And ultimately you have to accept that even credible sources won’t always agree. The Duke of Wellington said something to the effect that writing the history of a battle was like trying to determine what happened at a ball. Ask twenty witnesses what happened and what it meant, and you’ll get twenty different stories. When I use real historical events in my work, I’m giving you my opinion and interpretation. I hope it’s a well-researched and defensible interpretation, but I can’t help coloring it with my worldview.

Have you ever had to take some time frame license with any of your books when a historical events’ timing just didn’t suit your storyline?

So far the greatest license I’ve taken with the time frame was to kill Sir Thomas Picton about five minutes before his actual death in the Battle of Waterloo for my 2012 novel, An Infamous Marriage!

That said, I have a “book under the bed” I’m planning to pull out and rewrite soon that’s an alternative history. So its whole point is to turn the timeline upside down and explore some might-have-beens!

What are some mistakes that you made in your career as a historical novelist that you’d like for others to learn from?

If your publisher asks you to make major changes in your story’s timeline or setting, be sure to think through all the implications for your characters and their arcs before you say, “Sure, of course I can do that!” I won’t say which of my books that happened with, since I’m happy with the end product, but to make it work I had to change my hero’s core conflict, and therefore his personality, pretty much on the fly.

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Do you think it matters where a historical romance novelist chooses to write?

It definitely matters in terms of marketability. Readers love to revisit familiar settings, after all–and I’m speaking as a reader with an endless appetite for the Napoleonic Era myself. But I also love to see authors branch out into new eras and settings–I love Jeannie Lin’s books set in Tang Dynasty China, for example. Thanks to the centennial of World War I and the popularity of Downton Abbey, we’re increasingly seeing romances set in the early 20th century, too.

Aside from marketability, I as a writer have to believe that the happy ending I’m creating for my hero and heroine makes sense in the setting. Someday I want to write a book set during the Greco-Persian Wars with an Athenian hero. But that book probably won’t be a romance, given the extremely circumscribed role of women in ancient Athenian culture. And on a more personal note, despite my deep Alabama roots I refuse to write a book that in any way romanticizes or glorifies the pre-Civil War South. That’s been done far too much already.

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