Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Guest post: Sandra Gulland on crafting stories from history

Today historical novelist Sandra Gulland is stopping by Reading the Past as part of her blog tour to celebrate the paperback release of Mistress of the Sun. Her biographical novel of Louise de la Vallière will introduce readers to the fascinating world of 17th-century France, rendered with sumptuous grace and a touch of mysticism. She posts about a subject that should interest writers and readers alike: How do you decide how much of history to leave in your fiction? (I also have two copies of Mistress to give away, so please read to the end.) Welcome, Sandra!

What to leave in . . . and what to leave out:
crafting a story from history

Writing any novel involves a great deal of editing and revision: mostly of the "taking it out" variety. As the arc of the story emerges, the cut pile gets bigger and bigger. I think of the "fall line" in skiing: that direct line down the hill. I think of the "fall line" as the direct line to the story I'm telling, its arc. The hard part is finding it — and harder yet, simply allowing it to be.

The cut files for each of my novels are longer than the novel. There are many good scenes in those files — scenes carefully worked over and polished, scenes deeply researched and lovingly honed. It's painful to let them go, and yet, were they to stay in the novel, they would crowd the story, distort it, blur its lines. They're like a beautiful, romantic moss, killing the host tree. They have to go. (I believe it was Hemingway who said something to the effect that it was what was not said that gave a scene power.)

I know the exact moment I felt I had become a "true" writer. I had been writing for almost a decade. I was under contract to write the Josephine B. Trilogy. The Many Lives & Secret Sorrows of Josephine B., the first of the trilogy, had been accepted for publication and I was working on a final draft. Reading it through, yet again, I realized that one scene — my favorite — distracted from the narrative movement of the story, and so, boldly, I cut it. Stunned, I walked into the living room to announce to my husband: "I've just cut my best scene." I said this with a mixture of horror and pride. "Kill your darlings" is a familiar writer rule-of-thumb. In this moment, I understood.

With each draft, the story begins to emerge; an author must allow this to happen. The question of what to cut and what to leave in is always a tricky one — a decision that is more often intuitive than logical. But the guidelines get even murkier when the fiction is fact-based, historical. "But it happened," I will tell myself, justifying a scene that really should go. "And it’s such a great bit!" I must constantly remind myself that if a scene doesn't support the story in some significant way, it must go. Even a historian writing a non-fiction biography or historical text must pick and choose, and a novelist even more so.

The cut file for my latest novel, Mistress of the Sun, is 842 pages long. The manuscript itself was only 466 pages. The novel was eight years in the making, and in the last year, after it had been accepted for publication, I cut the last third of it. In the month before it went into production, I cut two chapters. This seems to be my pattern. When I sent the final revision of The Many Lives & Secret Sorrows of Josephine B. to my publisher, I printed it out in a larger typeface, hoping she wouldn't notice how much I had cut.

With historical fiction, the important thing is to simplify. There are always too many people for a reader to be expected to keep track of, especially in the realm of the past, where families were bigger, where a house was bustling with staff, where every man who so much as walked into a room had family and servants with him. It's okay to simplify, combine characters (so long as you let readers know in an author's note). There were a number of people who had a profound religious impact on Louise de la Vallière (Petite), the heroine of my last novel, but rather than confusing the reader with a number of characters who would come and go, appear and disappear throughout her life, and all of them giving the same message, I combined them into one memorable character.

As well, actions are rarely made directly and cleanly. Josephine and her first husband split and made-up a number of times before the final break. I didn't want to drag the reader through the tiresome details of their life, but, rather, cut to the chase. Petite, of Mistress of the Sun, ran away to a convent three times, not twice, as shown in the novel.

Devotion to the historical record does not mean that a novelist must document every move. A historical novel, especially a biographical historical novel, is a distillation of the historical record — and in so doing, a historical novelist gets at the heart of a story, its essential truth.


Sandra Gulland's website is, and she blogs about the writing life at Sandra Gulland Ink (see here for additional stops on her blog tour).

Mistress of the Sun, a Historical Novels Review Editors' Choice title, was published in paperback by Touchstone/Simon & Schuster in April 2009. I have two copies to give away to blog readers.

To enter the drawing, leave a comment on this post in response to the following question: What historical figure do you enjoy reading about the most in fiction? Entries will be accepted through the end of the day on Sunday, April 19th, with the results posted Monday morning. International entrants welcome.


  1. Having read and enjoyed Ms. Gulland's Josephine B trilogy, I was interested in this post about her writing. Hard to imagine having to "cut" so much of one's manuscript. My favorite historical character is William Marshall. My favorites are the books by Elizabeth Chadwick, but I'm always thrilled when he is even mentioned in another novel.

  2. Thank you for this terrific interview. All those pages cut, all those chapters deleted but look at the end result. Success!

    Ever since I was a kid, I've loved historical novels about Amelia Earhart -- such a romantic figure -- and then for her to disappear. She continues to haunt and is perfect for fiction.

  3. My favorite historical person - a poet, of course: Edna St. Vincent Millay. I have gobbled biographies!

    What a great interview this was - I love hearing about paring down prose to get to the real story. It reminds me of a stone sculptor who has to release the statue within the marble.

    (oh, let me win...)

    teabird 17 ^at^ yahoo dot com

  4. Speaking as both a reviewer who has to read a lot of scenes that should have been cut, and as a writer who really, really hates to cut scenes - this is great advice. Thanks for sharing it!

  5. I'm just reading Mistress of the Sun for review now (review will probably appear next week), so don't enter me in the draw!

    I probably cut more than I keep as well, though I don't always keep the cut material so I haven't got statistics. The Author's Note is usually the first thing I look for in a historical novel, and I was very pleased to see Sandra Gulland explaining who she had combined and left out.

  6. There are many people I enjoy reading about, but I think I am moving from my Henry VIII fixation towards Eleanor of Aquitaine. Probably because there are so many fascinating individuals surrounding her as well, and good writing helps her along. Pamela Kaufman's novel introduced her to me a year ago, and I really enjoyed that book very much; even though I realize it was fiction I read it obsessively. I just might read it again. And then Penman did so well with her as well.
    I am working on getting all of the Josephine books, one more to go.. by Sandra Gulland, maybe she'll be my next fave. I haven't started those yet though.
    Thanks for this author post, I enjoyed it. I hadn't thought about the cutting of favorite scenes, I can imagine how tough that process is.
    Please enter me in the drawing,
    Marieburton2004 at yahoo dot com

  7. Lovely post! It is always so fascinating to read about the writing process. Looking forward to reading Mistress of the Sun.
    My favorite historical character is Elizabeth I. I love her strength and intelligence. Although lately my favorite historical novels are not about the famous historical figures.

  8. Very illuminating article. So full of truth!

  9. Thanks to the wonderful Sharon Kay Penman, I love reading anything about Eleanor of Acquitane. I haven't read anything by Sandra Gulland yet, but she is going to be at the top of my TBR list now! Thanks!

  10. I'm a big fan of Ms. Gulland and I really appreciate this candid look into her writing process. What a relief it is to know that even she struggles with these dilemmas!
    Thank you for a terrific post :-)
    ~DeAnna Cameron

  11. Tara Werkheiser6:44 AM

    This post demonstrated that historical novelists are NOT unimaginative slaves to factual minutiae. Historical fiction is, when done right, as thoughtful and well-crafted as any literary genre!

    My favorite historical character is Anne Boleyn. I am fascinated by her intellect, style, courage, and drive. Every author portrays Anne so differently- was she a martyr to those threatened by her intelligence or religious views? Was she animated by a lust for power and/or revenge? Was Anne Boleyn trapped in a situation beyond her control, or did she manipulate circumstances to suit her ambitions? With each novel I read, I gain a little perspective, and form a few more questions!

    xellossgirl at hotmail dot com

  12. michelle9:06 PM

    Thannnk you for some fascinating insights into Ms. Gulland's writing. I have a couple of her books on my TBR pile and after this interview, will certainly be next to be read.
    I love reading about all sorts of historical characters,but my absolute favourite has to be Elizabeth I. Her life story is endlessly fascinating; it's amazing that she even survived, let alone came to the throne and became the great Queen she was. Anne Boleyn and Eleanor of Aquitaine are equal second...strong and wonderful women all!
    I would really love to win this book, so thanks for the chance!

  13. Don't enter me, just wanted to comment that it's amazing what gets cut from a book. All that time and effort for it never to see the light of day...