Rosalyn Eves grew up in the Rocky Mountains, dividing her time between reading books and bossing her siblings into performing her dramatic scripts. As an adult, the telling and reading of stories is still one of her favorite things to do. When she’s not reading or writing, she enjoys spending time with her chemistry professor husband and three children, watching British period pieces, or hiking through the splendid landscape of southern Utah, where she lives. She dislikes housework on principle.
She has a PhD in English from Penn State, which means she also endeavors to inspire college students with a love for the English language. Sometimes it even works.
What typically comes first for you: a character? An era? A story idea? How do you proceed from there?
It depends a little bit on the story—I’ve had some of each. For my historical fantasy trilogy, I started with an idea: what would an anti-Chosen One look like? What would it be like to be the only one without magic in a society that valued it? I knew I wanted to write about Hungary, where I had lived for nearly a year and a half, and I chose the Austria-Hungary war in 1848 as one of the most tumultuous times in the nineteenth-century. As a bonus, Franz Joseph, who would go on to rule as emperor for decades, was still a teenage boy at the time.
For my forthcoming book, Beyond the Mapped Stars, I was inspired by an NPR interview with David Baron, who wrote The American Eclipse about the 1878 solar eclipse that went through the American West. Starting with the time and place, I worked backward to find the character and storyline. For one of my works-in-progress, I started with a trio—two sisters and a cousin—and their story flowed from there. The great thing about writing is that it’s not a one-size-fits all, even for a single writer.
How do you conduct your research?
I went to graduate school before I started writing seriously, so historical research is where that academic training tends to come through. I typically start general, with history books published for a wide audience (like The American Eclipse). Once I have a general sense of the time period, I’ll drill into specific details. I’ll sometimes use university library databases to find academic articles on aspects of the topic, like the role dancing played in the 1848 Hungarian Revolution (really). I look at the sources my sources use, to see if there’s something obvious I’m missing.
To add specific details to the stories, I often turn to primary sources. Some of the most useful sources for my historical fantasy trilogy were travel narratives written by British travelers to Hungary in the mid nineteenth-century. They were full of specific details for readers back home (where they had gone dancing, what kind of food had been served, what it was like to cross the border between Austria and Hungary) and they helped me get a sense for what a girl raised in London might notice on her first visit to Hungary. I also read contemporary novels by Jokai Mór (the Hungarian equivalent of Charles Dickens) who included so many rich details about daily life that I wouldn’t have easily found elsewhere. For my forthcoming book, I went into archives of Colorado newspapers to find details about the eclipse, and I used Interlibrary Loan to request a copy of Cleveland Abbe’s 1880 government report of the eclipse, which included multiple accounts of the experience.
Researching any book is always a new adventure—it’s one of my favorite parts of writing.
You do have a specific system for collecting data?
I tend to keep all of my research for a given book in a single word document. I include the source and details I find helpful, as well as links. I use the Heading function to group research by general topic, so I can use the navigation feature to easily find what I need when I’m writing (pictured below). I’ll highlight or star things I don’t want to forget. It’s not a perfect system, but it’s worked for several books now.
At what point do you feel comfortable beginning to draft? How does your research continue once you begin writing?
For me, research is a cyclical thing, and something that’s never truly done. I will usually research until I have a feel for the era—until I can start imagining my characters moving through the world. That can take anywhere from a few weeks to a few months. Once I can start envisioning scenes, that’s usually my cue to start writing.
Of course, no matter how much I plot out my stories, there are always details that crop up that I don’t know yet. When that happens, if it’s a detail that I can look up later, like a description of someone’s clothing, I make a note to myself to flesh it out and keep going. But if that knowledge gap is big enough that I can’t finish the scene without it, I have to stop writing and do some research. For example, with my forthcoming historical, I started to write a dance scene, and realized that while I knew a lot about dancing in Victorian and Regency England and Europe, I didn’t know how much of that translated to dancing in the American West. So I stopped writing for a few days until I had enough research to write the scene. This start-and-stop research and writing continues all through the writing process—even as I do edits, I might stumble across something new that needs more research, or something I read might inspire me to make an addition to the story.
I don’t think research is ever really done—even about time periods I know a lot about, I don’t know everything—but I have to balance the time tradeoff between research and writing. One of the dangers of research is that it’s too easy to procrastinate writing in favor of endless research. At some point, I have to stop researching and write.
What’s your favorite thing about writing historical fiction?
I love learning new things about the past—it’s impossible to write historical fiction and not learn something new. And I love exploring historical worlds with my characters, thinking about the ways that past times are both like and unlike our present moment. I’m particularly interested in the nineteenth-century: the paradox of high-society manners mixed with periods of intense social turmoil.
What are some challenges of writing historical fiction?
The most obvious challenge of writing historical fiction is the research—what do you do when you can’t find the information you need? How much are you allowed to fudge? This was less of an issue when writing historical fantasy, as the addition of magic gave me some leeway to make things up (though I did try as much as possible to reflect actual history). There have been scenes and details I ultimately had to cut because I couldn’t find the information I needed, after hours of research.
Another challenge is balancing historical detail and accuracy with the story. With my historical fantasy novel, I initially stuck to the historical timeline, spanning my character’s arrival in the London Season in spring of 1847 to the Hungarian revolution in March of 1848. But readers kept saying the story dragged—it took too long to reach the March revolution. So I moved the timeline forward a few months (easier to do in alternate history than actual history). Sometimes—most times—I can’t include all the details I find fascinating, because they don’t serve the story. Ultimately, when writing historical fiction, I think it’s important to remember the fiction aspect—telling a good story is the most important part. (Though I also think it’s a good idea to note any major departures from actual history in an author’s note, so readers know it was intentional and not just careless research).
The biggest challenge for me is creating characters who are enmeshed in their time period and are sympathetic to today’s readers. I dislike reading historical novels whose characters act like modern people dropped into the past, with thoroughly modern attitudes and beliefs. At the same time, given widespread attitudes of racism, sexism, homophobia and more that have characterized most historical time periods, I think most of us would find strictly authentic portrayals of the past to be off-putting. Finding that balance of believable historical characters who are still relatable can be tricky.
What’s one of the most interesting things you’ve learned while researching?
There were two things I found while researching Beyond the Mapped Stars that were both entertaining and horrifying. The first was a pioneer account of dying a new dress to a beautiful emerald green. The writer’s mother accomplished this by first dying the clothing in indigo—and then soaking it overnight in urine. Effective, but not what I would have thought of! The second involved a nineteenth-century dancing tradition in Utah communities. To raise money, people often held dances. One ingenious (and disturbing) method for raising money was to hold a “weigh dance,” where the couples arrived at the dance, the woman was weighed, and her partner had to pay an entrance fee equivalent to her weight. I don’t imagine most modern women would want to participate in a dance like that.
Sarah M says
Wow…so interesting! A pee-dress! LOL
I’m going to see if our library has this trilogy…they look really good!
Natalie Aguirre says
Great interview. So interesting to see how Rosalyn researches for a historical fiction story. I loved the first book and need to finish the series.