Member Spotlight: Meet Historical Fiction Writer Renee Gravelle

Posted by October 15th, 2013

Renee Gravelle Author PhotoOne of the very first books I read on Book Country was Renee Gravelle‘s WIP FIRES OF HALCYON. I am a sucker for well-researched, thoughtful historical fiction, and FIRES OF HALCYON is this and so much more. FIRES OF HALCYON is the story of four families living in the village of Fredonia, New York, in the mid-nineteenth century, right in the midst of intense social change–the temperance, women’s rights, abolitionist, and Spiritualist movements are in full swing all around these characters. Drawing on deep research into German immigration and American social reform of the 1800’s, Renee is in the process of drafting an historical novel that is warmhearted, intriguing, and just a little bit frightening. Read on to hear what Renee has to say about joining Book Country and working on FIRES OF HALCYON.

First off, what brought you to Book Country?

This summer, I met an author who’s writing about [the children’s author] Margaret Wise Brown. She told me about Book Country. I thought it was worth a try. Expecting an anonymous vastness in which being noticed would be difficult, I found a delightful cozy intimacy instead. The requirement that new members post a review before they can submit their own work for review guarantees their active and important participation from the start. And welcoming e-mails and invitations open up a banquet of connecting and discussion opportunities from which members can choose.

Historical Fiction didn’t become a literary category on Book Country until June of this year. You were one of the first members on Book Country to start workshopping a historical novel. Was it intimidating to be one of the first historical fiction writers to post their work?

When I was just starting FIRES OF HALCYON six years ago, I would’ve said yes. Now, though, having done enough research to enjoy heightened confidence, and with the editing, re-writing, and ever-improving new writing since, I feel exhilarated at having posted the draft. Modern life affords few opportunities to be a pioneer, so I’ve enjoyed the feeling of being a “charter” pioneer in the historical fiction section of the Genre Map. As the historical fiction zone does become more populated, Book Country will still be a deep and wide resource with writing aids for this genre as much as any. I’m hoping more authors writing fiction about American history show up.

FIRES OF HALCYON cover How did you first become interested in mid-nineteenth century Fredonia, New York, the setting of FIRES OF HALCYON?

A:  Writers have to draw inspiration and passion from every bit of luck or coincidence that comes their way. I was lucky to grow up in Rochester, New York, where Susan B. Anthony is a continuing presence, lucky to have parents whose idea of a family trip was Gettysburg, Williamsburg, Greenfield Village in Michigan. I was also lucky to have a mother who taught literature and threw parties where Shakespeare and Wordsworth, Emerson, Thoreau, George Eliot and Emily Dickinson came up. Coincidentally, I too studied the American Romantic writers, whose preoccupations with the fierce struggles regular people were undergoing for the vote, for freedom, for equal treatment, for abolition, brought that vibrant, purposeful time to life for me. I fell in love with the romantic idea of the natural world as filled with a vibrant life force; people then woke and worked and slept according to the seasons and cycles of day and night, whether they were villagers, farmers, or city dwellers, and I am always drawn to the authenticity of that time, as well as the combination of struggles that persisted through those exciting decades. But I didn’t know I was going to write this story until I went to my Unitarian Church as usual one Sunday seven years ago and listened to a sermon about the historic support for suffrage and women’s equality given by the Patrons of Husbandry, in whose Grange building our church meets. I was so excited by that surprising idea, I started building a story, and it has been fueled by a lifetime of passionate encounters with America’s history—especially those decades when every group of people was asserting its right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Tell us how you built your confidence as a writer, relaying events that happened during a time you never experienced.

Most of my confidence comes from [using] primary sources. Classified ads in the Fredonia Censor, which is digitized, reveal details about shops, prices, events, costs of real estate, medical tonics, clothing, farm equipment, and a wealth of everyday concerns, such as how to whiten teeth (a mixture of honey and charcoal). The news articles reveal a lot too, such as what happened on a Fourth of July and what village ordinances allowed and barred. Diaries are crucial, both for the locale of the story and for the time period—even if the locale is different I trust topics that keep coming up for weeks or months or years, such as a rabies outbreak, or the proximity of a celebrity like Jenny Lind, were being talked about. If another primary source especially, or a secondary source, echoes a topic or phrase or idea, then I feel safe using it. I won’t use a phrase like “single blessedness” unless I find it far and wide. That particular one was in the newspaper twice, in a teenage girl’s diary, in a book about women’s suffrage, and in a novel by Miriam Grace Monfredo. I felt safe having characters discuss it. I felt confident writing Jenny Lind-mania into my book because she comes up a lot. I also haunt reenactments and historic sites. At one Gettysburg reenactment, I took notes at lectures about clothing, weddings, and other everyday aspects of Civil War-era life. But I wasn’t really confident about using this information until I saw it echoed by other experts, or on The History Channel, or best of all, in contemporary newspapers. When in doubt, ask an expert on the history of whatever place you’re writing about. If possible, writers should get such a person to read their work, whether they’re in doubt or not.

What are you learning from your characters? How does the book reflect your own worldview?

My characters are teaching me that it is all too easy to lapse into typecasting them based on our tendency to stuff people from the past into molds. The schoolteacher mold, the housewife mold, the prudish Victorian woman mold, the hot-headed abolitionist mold, the illiterate-but-grateful escaped slave mold. They are teaching me to let them surprise this modern me with their complexity, and so I hope they will surprise anyone who reads FIRES. My worldview is that in the 19th century, as now, there were people who recognized and fought racism and oppression of women. There were and are people who are ahead of their times. And most importantly, while our human desires and impulses never change, our interactions as individuals and groups should avoid regressing into past oppressions. We could create a society that incorporates the best of the past and the progress that makes the present better for so many people. More equality is always a good thing.

Connect with Renee on Book Country and find her on Twitter at @Rengravelle.

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