Attending Susanna Calkins’ Writing Historical Fiction Workshop

by Rachael Igo, ’16 (Creative Writing; Mendota Heights, Minn.)

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On Monday, March 23rd I had the pleasure of attending Dr. Susanna Calkins’ presentation Writing Historical Fiction: Balancing Authenticity and Accuracy. This event was co-sponsored by the Honors Program and the History Department. It was inspired as a way for students in Dr. Corley’s honors seminar Witchcraft, Gender and Society in Preindustrial Europe, to gain insights while they complete their historical fiction short story assignment. Other students and MSU faculty benefited from the presentation as well.

As a creative writing major, I was exceptionally excited to attend this event. One of my dreams is to write literature for adolescents and young adults. Historical fiction is among my favorite genres. Reading about Calkins prior to the event, I recognized her to be someone quite like myself: a woman with professional goals and a dream to have “side” writing projects published as books. The types of novels she writes, Lucy Campion murder mysteries placed in seventeenth century England, also appeal to my interests. As a child I loved reading Nancy Drew, and watching murder mystery shows is one of my guilty pleasures.

Meeting Susanna Calkins over pizza with other honors students before the presentation was a blessing. It was great to hear her publication story and how she succeeded as a writer. It was also inspiring to hear that she started out small just like I am. Her first book in her Lucy Campion mysteries was a side project she gradually worked on over a span of ten years. She currently has two books published in her series— A Murder at Rosamund’s Gate and From the Charred Remains— as well as a third, The Masque of a Murderer, being released this April.

During her presentation, Calkins talked about the strategies she uses when writing historical fiction. She answered the following questions: “How can we contextualize our historical stories without just dumping information on our readers? How can we make our dialogue seem authentic without sounding stilted or archaic? How much historical research is sufficient?” According to Calkins, the accuracy and authenticity of the historical time period present in writing is crucial. Readers need to be able to picture themselves within the times. Her Ph.D. in History proves extremely helpful to her in this circumstance. She also likes to look at paintings and pictures from the time period.

With regards to historical accuracy and the amount of necessary research, Calkins emphasized the need to avoid sounding like a history text book. Instead, she recommended treating the historical time period as a character. For example, she likes to use maps and online digital reconstructions of the historical era in which she is writing. This practice helps her visualize where her characters are in order to correctly portray them in the specific landscape. She also raised the issue of getting every little historical detail correct, and when to judge how much research is too much. Calkins emphasized that the main goal of writing historical fiction is to tell a good story. In order to accomplish this, the historical aspects and research cannot drag the story down. However, she noted that authors must get the guns and clothes right, or critics will come knocking down their doors.

After the insightful workshop, I had the opportunity to purchase Susanna Calkins’ first two books and have her sign them. As I am sure most college students will agree, it was a phenomenal experience to meet and make a connection with someone who is successful at my dream job.

For more information about Susanna Calkins and her work, visit http://www.susannacalkins.com/

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