Interview with Cora Buhlert, Historical Short Story Writer
Today I'm talking to Cora Buhlert, author of numerous pieces of historical fiction. I'm thrilled to have her visit.
Cora, when did you start writing? What was it you first wrote?
I wrote my first stories as a child, mostly Enid Blyton pastiches and talking animal stories. As a teenager, I started my first novel, a science fiction tale about which I remember nothing except that it involved a flying red car kidnapping two girls with a tractor beam. I didn't get really serious about writing until I took a creative writing class at university and was hooked for life. That's also when I started writinghistorical fiction.
What period do you write about and why?
I write about multiple periods. I have a short story set in 16th century France, a two-part novelette set during the war between Spain and England during the Elizabethan era, another novelette set in Spain during the Peninsular war, a short story set in the Old West, the Silencer series about a pulp writer turned masked vigilante set in the 1930s and a spy novelette set in East Germany in the 1960s. Okay, so the last two would probably be classified as period rather than historical fiction.
As for why I chose those particular periods, sometimes the story I wanted to tell required a particular period. For example, Hostage to Passion came about, because I wanted to write about Elizabethan pirates. The Other Side of the Curtain, my 1960s spy story, came about because there was an opening in a magazine issue devoted to classic spy fiction, so the 1960s suggested themselves. In the case of Outlaw Love, the period was the result of a challenge, because I wanted to see if I could write a western.
In other cases, an interest in the period came first and then I found the stories to match. For example, I have long been fascinated by the 1930s, particularly by the fashion, design and popular culture of the time, and I had an interested in pulp fiction. So it was a no-brainer to combine the two and create the Silencer.
What is your theory or belief on how historically accurate you need to be? How does that affect your story? For alternative history writers: how did you decide to change history? How do you reconcile it with “real” history?
I always try to be as historically accurate as possible, because I believe that the period details should ring true, even if the story itself and the characters are completely fictional. Besides, historical inaccuracies annoy me, whenever I catch them. I'm the sort of person who screamed at the screen during some of the more dramatic moments of Titanic, because of the inaccuracies (though those are as much technical as historical). Research errors in my own work bug me a lot. For example, in the original magazine edition of The Other Side of the Curtain there was an error, a song playing in the background two years before it came out. It's just a minor error and most readers probably never noticed, but nonetheless it kept bugging me and I was very glad when I was finally able to correct it for the e-book edition.
Sometimes, you can draw on your own experiences. Most of the descriptions of 1960s East Germany in The Other Side of the Curtain are based on my own visits to East Germany as a kid. Indeed, my characters drive the same route that my parents always took to visit my great-aunt. Of course, my own trips to East Germany took place twenty years after the events in The Other Side of the Curtain, but then the country was very much frozen in time towards the end of the Communist regime.
I do take some creative licence, of course. I have invented people and places that never existed. The amount of research I do varies depending upon the story. For example, I didn't do more than check some names and dates for The Kiss of the Executioner's Blade, because the story was originally written for a magazine that prized titillation over historical accuracy. I think the most research I ever did was forColfrith, a Regency steampunk novel that never found a publisher and thus ended up in the proverbial drawer. However, the research fallout from Colfrith fuelled El Carnicero, the Peninsular war novelette, and also helped me a lot in the history part of my oral MA examination. And even Colfrith will eventually emerge from the drawer, now that I've gone indie.
But even if you make stuff up, actual history sometimes comes to your aid. For example, Flying Bombs, the second Silencer story, features a Zeppelin. Now the history of airships in general and Zeppelins in particular is very well documented. Besides the Zeppelin company had a continuous serial number system for its airships, so I couldn't just make one up. However, while researching the story, it turned out that there was a gap in the ongoing numbering between LZ-127 Graf Zeppelin and LZ-129 Hindenburg (the fates of both of which are well known) due to a proposed sister ship of the Graf Zeppelin that was abandoned during the planning stage. So the LZ-128 designation was free to use for my fictional Zeppelin.
Tell me about your main character, real or fictional and why?
This is a bit difficult to answer, because so far all of my published historical fiction are short stories and novelettes, so I have several main characters.
So far, all of my protagonists have been fictional. Most of them are in the tradition of Sir Walter Scott's "middle hero" – characters who are caught up in historical events without being major movers and shakers. There is a reason that this type of protagonist is so enduringly popular in historical fiction two hundred after Scott and that is because the so-called "middle hero" is the ideal protagonist for historicalfiction.
If your protagonist is a major player in historical events, you either risk historicalanachronisms or slip into alternate history territory. There are some writers who can pull it off, e.g. George Fraser or Tim Powers. But it is very difficult to do well and requires a whole lot of research. On the other hand, protagonists who never interact with history at all can easily become boring. You sometimes find such protagonists in the historical romance genre, because the focus is on the relationship of the individual couple rather than on the larger historical background. But even manyhistorical romances feature characters interacting with the actual historical events of the period. And besides, if you're going to write historical fiction, there should be some actual history involved. It shouldn't just be a story about people in pretty costumes.
As for using real historical figures as secondary or even main characters, I find that incredibly difficult. A few real life historical figures appear as background characters in Colfrith. I read everything I could find about those people in order to portray them as accurately as possible and I was still terrified that I had accidentally slandered some British politicians who have been dead for almost 200 years now. Indeed, misrepresentations of real life historical figures also bother me as a reader. After all, those are real people who really lived and might still have living descendants. You can't just turn them into vampires or demon worshippers or write that they raped and murdered little children anymore than you would with a living person. If you're going to write real historical figures, the key is to be respectful and stay as true to thehistorical record as possible.
However, I sometimes borrow life details of historical figures for my fictional characters. Lola Laverne, the protagonist of Outlaw Love, is loosely based on Lola Montez, the infamous Irish actress and dancer who took Europe by storm in the 1840s and eventually fled to the United States following an amorous entanglement with the King of Bavaria. Teresa, the heroine of El Carnicero, is loosely based on several female freedom fighters during the Peninsular war.
What is the most surprising thing in the period you write about? Do you run into common misperceptions? How do you deal with them in your fiction?
Again, this is rather difficult to answer, because I write about multiple periods.
One thing that always amazes me is if I read a historical novel set during a period I have written about as well and immediately recognize where the author did his research. For example, the garrotting scene in El Carnicero is based on a 19thcentury eyewitness account by English writer Richard Ford. A bit later, I read Goyaa.k.a. This is the Hour, a 1951 novel by German-American historical novelist Lion Feuchtwanger and came across an execution scene that seemed strikingly familiar. It turned out that Feuchtwanger had based his garrotting scene on the same eyewitness account that I had used. This bit of information mightily impressed one of my professors at university who was a historical fiction specialist.
As for common misperceptions, so far I haven't run into any. However, I did have to deal with the issue of hindsight and of things that are viewed very differently today than they would have been during the time the story is set. For example, Flying Bombs, the Zeppelin story is set in February 1935, at a time when every German Zeppelin was emblazoned with a swastika. I couldn't just ignore the swastika – it is a matter of historical record after all. Nor could I let it go unremarked, even though at that point in history, barely two years into the Third Reich, very few people could accurately gauge the danger posed by Hitler and the Nazis. In the end I decided that my protagonist Richard Blakemore was the sort of person who would have had contact to German émigrés and added a few lines about him feeling uneasy at the sight of the swastika.
Who would you most like to meet from one of your novels? Tell us about them.
Again, that's a difficult question. I guess I'd say Richard Blakemore a.k.a. the Silencer. He has lots of exciting adventures in his secret identity as the Silencer. And while he does kill people on occasion, he only hunts criminals and is therefore safe to have around. Finally, he's a writer as well, so we could talk shop. And if Richard would like to bring along his fiancé Constance Allen, that's fine by me, since she's a very remarkable woman.
What is your next project?
I hope to get the third Silencer story, The Spiked Death, online before Christmas. And of course I have to finish Prisoner of the Inquisition, the sequel to Hostage to Passion, because I promised it to my readers.
In the longer run, I also want to publish The Dark Lily, which is the prequel to The Other Side of the Curtain and tells the story of how Zane Smith and Shoushan Kariyan first met. Finally, there is also Colfrith, my Regency steampunk novel, which will hopefully see the light of day sometime in 2012.
And here is a link to her Cora's US Amazon Page showing all her fiction and those of you in the UK will find her here. Please do check it out.