Friday, March 02, 2018

Writing Historical Fiction: Reflections on writing about a foreign history and culture, an essay by Chrystyna Lucyk-Berger

I'm pleased to welcome Chrystyna Lucyk-Berger to the blog today. In addition to her newly published historical novels, described below, she's the author of "Souvenirs from Kiev," a short story that won 2nd place in the Historical Novel Society's Short Story Award 2014, and which was published in Distant Echoes, a 2017 anthology with 19 stories receiving honors in recent HNS competitions.


Writing Historical Fiction:
Reflections on writing about a foreign history and culture
Chrystyna Lucyk-Berger

I am an American, living in Austria, a regular visitor to Italy, and my latest novels take place in the former Austrian Tyrol, which now belongs to Italy.

Confused? Stick with me. I’ve got a story to tell.

In 2005, I started writing a story that took place within the systematic oppression of the Austrian Tyroleans. Their province was severed in two and annexed by Italy in 1920. For reasons that require an entirely different telling, I got interested in this history. The more I researched, the deeper the story got under my skin and, the next thing I knew, I was working on the Reschen Valley series.

I had moved to Austria three years earlier while working on an entirely different historical novel based in Ukraine. Because I have Ukrainian roots and speak the language, writing that seemed easier than the undertaking I began in 2005. For that Ukrainian novel, I had the background and language necessary to confidently depict the culture. When I began tackling the Austrian-Italian conflict, I was running up against brick walls not only in the limited research available in English, but also in understanding the Tyrolean and Italian cultures and their intricacies. I had the daunting task of portraying a foreign world as accurately as possible, a world that was also foreign to me.

Not only were the differences in the Italian and Austrian cultures important, finding the parallels between my characters were key for development. I avoided taking sides in this conflict. So, more importantly than getting the specific details and differences down, I was also looking for common ground available to my characters. Further, when I studied their specific language barriers and cultural barriers, I found a lot of dry hay to play with, and I started lighting matches for the purposes of intensifying the tension as well as for creating complexities and layers, even humor.

I also had to make decisions about how I present this foreign world to an English-speaking audience. The techniques of introducing foreign words for the purpose of authenticity, for example, must be done with careful consideration. Secondly, I had to assure that certain aspects of the foreign world were not so foreign that they would disorient or distract. This selection process created a nagging worry about not being able to do justice to the Tyroleans or the Italians.

For starters, I would like nothing more than to have these novels translated into German and Italian. I believe both of these cultures are still trying to come to terms with their history. My fear is that, with a translation, the culture, the language and even the world I’ve created for this series will come out filtered. And with a heavy dilution, you have the risk that those who live within these cultures – these languages! – will not be able to recognise the world I have so painstakingly created for a foreign audience.

Which begs the question: What right do I have to write about this conflict in the first place? Will my novels fail in those countries?

Someone once wisely said that there is no such thing as bad publicity. This is what I imagine is going to happen when the book gets distributed in German- and Italian-speaking countries: Either the reader is going to say, “This is such hooey! An American wrote it,” or they are going to say, “This is so great! An American wrote it!” In the end, I remind myself that my job is to write a story about characters people will recognise and empathise with. Emotion is a novelist’s common denominator no matter where their story takes place. And because I most definitely have a story to tell, that must take priority in the craft.


Chrystyna Lucyk-Berger grew up in Minneapolis, Minnesota and now lives in the mountains of Austria with her hilarious dog, royally possessive cat, and phenomenal husband. Her series, Reschen Valley, is releasing throughout 2018 and 2019. No Man’s Land and The Breach, the first two in the series, are available now and on March 15th, respectively. You can join her newsletter for special deals, book launches, releases and promotions at:

Her novels are available in e-book and paperback formats (and Kindle Unlimited) on Amazon under:

No comments:

Post a Comment