Writing Historical Fiction – an interview with David Neilson, author of the Sophie Rathenau mysteries

 

Serene Cover

 

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about historical fiction. My childhood reading included the inspired works of Henry Treece, Leon Garfield, Geoffrey Trease and Rosemary Sutcliff, and my teens were filled with the swashbuckling tales of Georgette Heyer and Baroness Orczy. I’ve found adult HF a different matter; the weighty volumes that linger on pillage and destruction are not for me at all, and I shy away from those that dwell bleakly on the injustices of our ancestors. (Maybe this makes me a lightweight. But one of the joys of reading is the escape from the grievances and chores of my everyday world.) The historical fiction I’ve enjoyed lately has been mixed genre: blended with mystery, suspense, romance or fantasy. A wonderful find was the Sophie Rathenau series, where thriller meets Rococo meets romance meets quite a bit of swashbuckling, and not all of it by the men.

So I’m delighted to be able to welcome onto my blog David Neilson, author of the Sophie Rathenau series, which currently stands as The Prussian Dispatch, Lay Brothers and newly-released Serene.

Here is the blurb for The Prussian Dispatch.

With nothing in her purse, Sophie Rathenau can’t refuse work, even from a down-at-heel pimp. But tracing the woman who’s gone off with his document is a chancy business. A gang of Prussian maniacs are hunting for it too, as well as thugs from the shadowy Versailles Club, and a Polish countess desperate to preserve her country.


Caught up in an international conspiracy, Sophie’s only weapons are her sardonic tongue and an old cavalry pistol. But it’ll take more than those to find the dispatch, keep a vengeful Chancellor at bay, and deal with a past that threatens to engulf her.

 

As well as being the creator of one of my favourite fictional characters, David is very supportive of other writers. We met on the writers’ forum Scribophile (also highly recommended) and I’ve really appreciated his feedback on my own writing, particularly on structure and on elegantly balanced sentences.

David, can you tell us a little about yourself first?

I’m retired from teaching in a Glasgow college, live nowadays on the Rhine, and haven’t so much come late to writing as to actually getting books finished. I found this pretty tough years ago, with work and life such a terrible distraction, and I couldn’t stick with anything. It wasn’t until a distinctive setting occurred to me, the Vienna of the later eighteenth century –with Sophie announcing herself as the main character a moment later – that I could get things moving.

Typical Central European cuisine, apricot dumpling
One of David’s distractions? Typical Central European cuisine, apricot dumpling

Sophie is such a wonderful, rounded character – brave, sharp-tongued, warm-hearted with a vulnerable underbelly. Have you drawn on anyone, alive, dead, real or fictional, to develop her?

Sophie isn’t consciously based on anyone, though every so often I’ll catch in her an intonation, a reaction, that seems familiar from somewhere. I know that her sheer relentlessness owes something to the woman I’ve been married to for over thirty years. Sophie is an active component in my psyche, in that I sense her presence whether I’m writing about her or not, and, once the historical differences are taken away, our perceptions of the world, even our tone of voice, are the same. Mind you, I don’t imagine that her virtues are mine. Her resolution, her constancy, all of her suppressed romanticism, are surely telling me that I’d be a better person if I shared that side of her nature instead of her faults, such as her quickness to judge and her impetuousness.

She’s very active for a woman of the 18c. How would you defend arguments that she’s an anachronism?

Certainly, there’s anachronism in the series, mostly linguistic, usually there to support the criminal milieu surrounding Sophie. The age of Mozart didn’t really rejoice in such developed and connected rogues, but Sophie wanted to be part of a noir series without giving up her Rococo world, so there you are: who was I to argue? In terms of what’s permitted to women in her time, I’m not sure that the books are as tendentious as they may seem. Sophie, as a widow, is entitled to handle her own affairs. Two centuries earlier, Katharina von Bora fought and won a struggle to control the business founded by her deceased husband, Martin Luther. Another strikingly relevant career is that of Aphra Behn, the Restoration playwright who spied in Antwerp for the court of Charles II. The traveller and adventuress Lady Hester Stanhope, who was born around the time of the Sophie series, did more or less as she pleased.

Sophie sounds in good company then! You dropped some tantalizing hints in your interview with Sue Seabury, saying that Sophie will in time adopt a child and take a regular lover. I’m holding on to this as a promise because Sophie’s had a pretty rough ride so far. Are you prepared to drop any more breadcrumbs?

The main thing is that Sophie is headed from the utter isolation of the first few pages of The Prussian Dispatch to powerful social involvement, even entanglement. The final line of the seventh book, if I ever get there, ought to show how far she’s come and how hard it’ll be for her to assess everything that’s happened in her life. In Serene she meets a character who seems quite incidental but who’ll change her life profoundly, a character who was present in chapter 3 of The Prussian Dispatch, except that no-one else knew she was there – herself included.

That is so cryptic. I’ve re-read Chapter 3 and I’m still mystified. No ‘if I ever get there,’ please!

Your covers are gorgeous. Who did them, and how, or is it a trade secret?

Thank you! I often wonder how they come across, and whether they might not be a little too sombre. The titling, which I like for its clarity, is a present from a designer who bailed out early, whereafter I started to run them up myself. All of the objects are from my toybox, carefully arranged and lit, shot on an iPad, and worked up on Photoshop. At the moment I’m looking for a good visual reference for the eighteenth-century baby shoes that should appear on the next cover – and not finding the task easy.

There’s another breadcrumb! Now, some historical questions. You say you feel very much at home in the era of Maria Theresia and Mozart. What attracts you to it? Mozart is well-loved, but the name Hapsburg means little to most of your English-speaking audience. Added to that, Maria Theresia doesn’t come over to me as very sympathetic in The Prussian Dispatch where she instigates a harsh ‘clean-up’ for Vienna that oppresses prostitutes. Is a dead Empire relevant to today’s audience?

Central European atmsphere, Linz an der Donau
Central European atmosphere, Linz an der Donau 

I wouldn’t have liked to live then (thinking mostly of dentistry and medical progress) but I do feel an affinity with Central Europe: its food, its music, its traditional architecture, its whole atmosphere. The first time I heard Act II of Figaro I had a deep sense that this actually wasn’t for the first time, though of course it must have been. The world in which works like that arose, the Habsburg empire, is as worthy a subject for historical fiction as the English Civil War or the Georgian era, even if these periods are much more congenial to British readers. Sophie is active at a time when the balance of power is changing rapidly in Germany (to speak of Germany as a geographical area, that is, rather than as a state). It’s then that Prussian militarism and discipline as a way of life are being established, and that, needless to say, has been an important component in our global conflicts. Habsburg rule profoundly influenced European culture and history. Anyone who exults in Beethoven’s Fifth might consider that its final hymn to freedom reflects impatience with the grim Habsburg determination to keep everything battened down after the French Revolution. Maria Theresia represents a much more human side than that, however. The tale of the six-year-old Mozart climbing on a ruler’s knee is often recalled, the knee in question being that of Maria Theresia. She’s by no means forgotten in Central Europe, where her portrait can turn up in unexpected corners. I was in Bratislava last year for the first time in decades and came across a life-sized figure of the Empress, sitting in a café window.

frederick II
Frederick II, Maria Theresia’s enemy, portrayed by Hugo Ungewitter, public domain

That must have been a surreal event! Joking aside, I admit to a typical British ignorance about the history of Europe.

Although your books are set firmly in a specific period, you have deliberate historical errors in the Sophie books, and point them out in the glossary. Am I right in thinking it’s a long-running joke with the readers?

I hope so! The books are stuffed with jokes and allusions. Any opera-goer, for instance, will recognise “the general’s wife and the pretty boy she hung around with” glimpsed in a café in The Prussian Dispatch. Nor is it a coincidence that a child transfixed by the sight of Sophie holding bad guys at pistol-point goes on to write the libretto of Fidelio. There’s a sense that various hands have interposed themselves in her memoirs, and the glossary assists readers in finding where this may have taken place. I have my limits, though. A café across the river from me offers its German customers “Early Grey” tea, and while I’d love to bring that in, the warping of history implied is simply too great.

That’s a shame! What’s your philosophy on historical dialogue, and has it evolved over the years since you first started writing? It’s impossible to make it completely authentic if the original was in another language, of course.

I love authentic eighteenth-century dialogue, as long as it’s in eighteenth-century texts, be they from Goldsmith, Kleist, or Goldoni. Any characters using that style in mine tend to the shifty: that tone of voice generally arouses Sophie’s suspicions. Eighteenth-century pastiche forms but part of an overall texture which is aiming for a certain breadth and richness of its own, and at all events keeping away from a style of dialogue owing more to BBC costume dramas than the recorded discourse of the time. The approach of Richard Strauss in Der Rosenkavalier, set in Sophie’s time and acknowledging the heritage, but using tonalities quite impossible for that era, has made much greater impact on me than any historical novel. Not that it would make any difference what I think; Sophie just talks the way she wants anyhow.

It works for me.

Thank you so much for visiting my blog, David.

Thank you, rather, for the opportunity!

I do hope I’ve inspired my readers to investigate further. As some extra incentives, click here for the trailer for Serene, Sophie’s latest adventure, and here for a free Sophie story.

 

You can find David on

http://sophierathenau.weebly.com

and Sophie on Amazon.

The paperbacks are very reasonably priced, while each e-book costs less than a medium latte, or they are free to read on Kindle Unlimited.

 

 

 

I don’t like words

 

 

save our libraries 3
Save Our Libraries Essex – SOLE – a fishy business?

 

Thus says Bevis – or it could be Butt-head. You will have to imagine the snigger as he says it – whichever one of them it was.

 

I do like words. I love words. They are tools and sometimes weapons, used to do good and harm.

Beneath the rule of men entirely great

The pen is mightier than the sword.

To me, the goals of literacy and the learning of English should be to understand how to use language and how to recognise and be wary of its abuse. I’m not talking F-words. I’m talking about how clever people – politicians or journalists, for instance – use words to manipulate or deceive. To me, Boris Johnson’s Brexit bus is a prime example. Never mind if he lied about the money that goes to the EU. The carefully worded slogan hints at funding the NHS rather than the EU, without promising that he would actually implement the redirection of funds. I believe many people read it as, “If we leave the EU the NHS will get more money.”

I taught Functional Skills for many years, and I love how it teaches the identification of bias and inference, fact versus opinion rather than the identification of techniques Dickens uses to present the character of Pip in Great Expectations. Yes, I’d love new generations to grow up appreciating quality literature; but the reality seems to be that they are growing up loathing Pip, while still being vulnerable to manipulation by twisters of words.

Words are also the gateway to knowledge, which in turn leads to better health, better job prospects, better relationships. In A Christmas Carol the Ghost of Christmas Present lifts his cloak to show Scrooge two children – Want and Ignorance. Of the two, says the Ghost, Ignorance is the more to be feared.

 

save our libraries 4
Martin Newell, performance poet

Martin Newell, performance poet, quoted this passage today at a rally in Chelmsford to protest at the proposed cuts to the library service in Essex. A third of the county’s libraries are threatened with closure. Newell himself grew up as a forces child, his family constantly moving. Taking books with them was not an option, so one of the first things they did in a new area was to enroll in a local library. Libraries were vital for him for learning to read. Backing him up, a local headteacher spoke about the importance of libraries as spaces for young people to study and revise for their exams. He talked, too, of a study that shows we retain more and lose ourselves more in a text if it is a physical copy.

 

sdr
“We’re gonna fail exams!”

I do hope that doesn’t mean you, dear reader, will skim this text then forget about it. Because library services across the UK and indeed across Europe are threatened with closure as councils seek to save money. If library closures go ahead, we lose so much. We lose books for our little children to learn to read with. We lose safe places for our older children to linger in, developing a love of reading. We lose knowledge for our teenagers to grow with. We lose a resource for those who can’t afford new books. We lose access to materials that will inform and enlighten.

We lose a resource that helps us open our minds to the world: to say no to manipulation; no to half-truths; no to prejudice.