Debut Author Samantha Hastings on Setting in Historical Fiction

Inspiration is a funny thing. It can come to us like a lightning bolt, through the lyrics of a song, or in the fog of a dream. Ask any writer where their stories come from and you’ll get a myriad of answers, and in that vein I created the WHAT (What the Hell Are you Thinking?) interview. Always including in the WHAT is one random question to really dig down into the interviewees mind, and probably supply some illumination into my own as well. 

Today’s guest for the WHAT is Samantha Hastings, who has degrees from Brigham Young University, the University of Reading (Berkshire, England), and the University of North Texas. The Last Word is her debut novel.

Ideas for our books can come from just about anywhere, and sometimes even we can’t pinpoint exactly how or why. Did you have a specific origin point for your book?

I was living in Reading, England and attending graduate school there. I began reading Elizabeth Gaskell’s Wives and Daughters—a very thick Victorian novel. I was almost to the end of the book and I started to get concerned; instead of wrapping up plotlines, it continued to spin new ones. Then I turned the last page and there was a note from her editor saying that the author had died. The editor assured the reader that the two main characters did eventually get together, but I didn’t get to read it happening. I was so disappointed. I had no idea that the book was unfinished when I started reading it. And I wondered how Elizabeth Gaskell’s original fans felt never being able to read the last words of her book. Especially, after reading it serially for two whole years! 

In The Last Word, my main character, Lucinda Leavitt, has a similar experience when her favorite author, Mrs. Smith, dies before finishing the serialized version of her book. Mrs. Smith’s editor does not tell the reader how the love triangle worked out. Lucinda sets out to find out who Mrs. Smith really was and how she would have finished her story.     

Once the original concept existed, how did you build a plot around it?

The plot was the hard part! It took me fifteen years before I had a story to tell with my original idea. Mrs. Smith, the dead authoress, at the beginning of the story is an anonymous person. Lucinda Leavitt doesn’t even know her first name or anything about who she was, where she lived, her family, etc. Lucinda only has one clue to find her and that’s the last address where the publisher sent her royalties.

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Have you ever had the plot firmly in place, only to find it changing as the story moved from your mind to paper?

Definitely. The more research that I do about a historical era, the more the time period itself becomes a character. The clothes, food, transportation, historical events, all seem to find a way into the story, which alters the plotline. The plot for me is always a puzzle and piecing it together is what makes writing so much fun—and really hard. 

Do story ideas come to you often, or is fresh material hard to come by?

I have more ideas than I do manuscripts. I find inspiration for “fresh material” by reading nonfiction books about people or time periods. I typically like to hone in on unique people and lesser known historical events.  

How do you choose which story to write next, if you’ve got more than one percolating?

 This happens to me all of the time. Sometimes it feels like having to pick a favorite among your children. It’s difficult. How I ultimately decide on one, is the idea that is keeping me up at night thinking about it. That idea always becomes my next project.  

 I have 5 cats (seriously, check my Instagram feed) and I usually have at least one or two snuggling with me when I write. Do you have a writing buddy, or do you find it distracting?

 I’m allergic to pet dander—I can’t breathe and I get all covered in spots. So, my writing buddies are Skinny Pop popcorn and Diet Dr. Pepper.

Historical Novelist Kip Wilson On History As Inspiration

Inspiration is a funny thing. It can come to us like a lightning bolt, through the lyrics of a song, or in the fog of a dream. Ask any writer where their stories come from and you’ll get a myriad of answers, and in that vein I created the WHAT (What the Hell Are you Thinking?) interview. Always including in the WHAT is one random question to really dig down into the interviewees mind, and probably supply some illumination into my own as well.

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Today's guest for the WHAT is Kip Wilson author of White Rose, is a historical about anti-Nazi political activist Sophie Scholl. Kip holds a Ph.D. in German Literature, is the poetry editor at YARN (Young Adult Review Network).

Ideas for our books can come from just about anywhere, and sometimes even we can’t pinpoint exactly how or why. Did you have a specific origin point for your book?

I actually had two specific origin points for this book. The first came when I first heard about the White Rose resistance group in high school German class. I was inspired by the group’s bravery and determined to learn more about its members. I wasn’t a writer yet at the time, but I remained interested in Sophie Scholl and the group for years, ordering new books about them as they were published and even taking a trip to Munich and Ulm, Germany to find out more. I first tried to write the book as nonfiction, but it just wasn’t working, and I set the project aside. Only years later did I hit the second origin point. During a chat with two verse novelists, I figured out that writing the story in verse might be the very thing it needed. I got to work on it the very next day.

Once the original concept existed, how did you build a plot around it?

I kept as close as possible to the known historical facts about the group, so the plot was already there, with plenty of conflict, twists, and stakes built in. The challenge was more about deciding which facts, which details to include and how exactly to present the story.

I do work best alone with only the sounds of nature outside my window, so I get my best work done at #5amwritersclub..png

Have you ever had the plot firmly in place, only to find it changing as the story moved from your mind to paper?

In the case of White Rose, the plot was predetermined by the history, but the way I presented the timeline of events changed during revision. I originally told the story in reverse order, but through revision I settled on a version with two timelines, one close to the original ending and one starting years before that.

Do story ideas come to you often, or is fresh material hard to come by?

Ideas come all the time, but unfortunately an idea isn’t enough to decide for me to decide if the story has mettle. I have to spend some time with the idea, do some research, get to know the characters, and above all, dive in to that time and setting to see if it’s something I simply must explore.

How do you choose which story to write next, if you’ve got more than one percolating?

It is hard to choose! Because I write historical fiction, a lot of the work (and the fun!) is in the research, so I’m often doing background research on one project while drafting another or doing some fact-checking on one while revising another. But if I’m passionate about the time period and setting, I’ll definitely at least place it on my back burner for someday.

I have many cats (seriously, check my Instagram feed) and I usually have at least one or two snuggling with me when I write. Do you have a writing buddy, or do you find it distracting?

I have ten-year-old twins, and they both love to read and write, so sometimes we do those things together. We all share one computer, so I sometimes end up in my notebook instead of at the keyboard when they’re around. Still, I do work best alone with only the sounds of nature outside my window, so I get my best work done at #5amwritersclub.

Courtney Brandt On Always Being Alert for Inspiration

Inspiration is a funny thing. It can come to us like a lightning bolt, through the lyrics of a song, or in the fog of a dream. Ask any writer where their stories come from and you’ll get a myriad of answers, and in that vein I created the WHAT (What the Hell Are you Thinking?) interview. Always including in the WHAT is one random question to really dig down into the interviewees mind, and probably supply some illumination into my own as well.

Today's guest for the WHAT is Courtney Brandt author of seven YA novels, including The Queen of England: Coronation. She also writes adult works under the pen name Ann Benjamin.

Ideas for our books can come from just about anywhere, and sometimes even we can’t pinpoint exactly how or why. Did you have a specific origin point for your book?

Promise not to laugh? I was out for my birthday in 2014 and had, to put it delicately, a few too many glasses of champagne. At some point the next morning, I was having a lie in, and as my brain was wandering, it focused on the topic of British royalty (as one does) and I somehow wondered what the United Kingdom might be without Queen Victoria. I was lucky enough to hold onto that thread, and sometime later began the first draft of what would become The Queen of England: Coronation. Ideas drop in like this from time to time, it’s just important to listen and be alert.

Once the original concept existed, how did you build a plot around it?

The book was always going to be driven by my protagonist, Queen Juliette. Here is this poor girl, made Queen of England, with her country under attack and she really has no idea what she’s supposed to do. Juliette needed to find out who was behind the death of Victoria, and plan for her coronation. Those were the concrete plot points I had in place. From there, I was able to build in supporting characters and other plot points.

Have you ever had the plot firmly in place, only to find it changing as the story moved from your mind to paper?

In this instance, I thought the coronation was going to serve as the final action in the book, only to be surprised when it ended up in the second act. How Juliette works through her ‘chaos coronation’ is the foundation for her real role as Queen. As much as I wanted to use the coronation as the grand finale, it wasn’t going to happen. In the second and third books of the trilogy, there’s been a bit of moving around, but for the most part, I’ve followed the original plot.

Do story ideas come to you often, or is fresh material hard to come by?

I’m fortunate in that ideas come to me all the time. I have three novels waiting to be written at the moment, and am still quite active in certain fandoms (I got my start by writing fanfiction).

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How do you choose which story to write next, if you’ve got more than one percolating?

Excellent question. For example, I usually write a novel a year, and I really thought 2018’s was going to be one I’ve had in my mind for two or three years (sorry, A.U.!). Then, out of nowhere, late last year a new, more timely idea, popped in my head and it’s going to be this year’s book. I’m looking forward to both projects, but there is something about my new novel that seems more relevant. An exception to this is when I’m working on a series…and tend to work those out before moving onto another project. However, I wrote my first series out of order, which I realize that makes almost no sense.

I have 8 cats (seriously, check my Instagram feed) and I usually have at least one or two snuggling with me when I write. Do you have a writing buddy, or do you find it distracting?

I have an old lady cat who has a basket on my desk. I’ve written in all kinds of environments, but for now, I love my desk top and a twenty-two year old Japanese bobtail. I also have a dear author friend who lives in Texas, quite a few hours behind me in Dubai. We don’t check in every day, but we touch base when big projects are nearing completion.