Jess Wells

Author of Modern and Historical Fiction, Instructor in the Craft

Jess's books

War and Peace

5 of 5 stars

So glad I finally was able to read/​hear this book, all 43 discs unabridged, while commuting to work. He has a wonderful sense of irony, of humor, a jaded eye to the aristocracy. Marvelous ability to describe emotions in a single line. Lo...

Dear Life: Stories

5 of 5 stars

Tremendous work, though the prose is a little sparse for my taste. Nice to see a combination of both open-ended and concluded short stories. And I'm still thrilled that a short story writer has won the Nobel Prize.

The Luminaries

5 of 5 stars

Engaging, great use of language, and a fast-paced whodunit that I couldn't put down.


HistFic Questions On Character Development and Scene

July 4, 2018

Tags: Writer's Life, Women in History, A Slender Tether

Much of the discussion around historical fiction has centered on two questions: a) why write historical novels and b) what are the requirements for accuracy? It seems a bit narrow in focus, so I'd like to suggest discussing:

How Do You Write About Outmoded Beliefs?
* Eras in the past are marked by more than just a difference in fashion or modes of transportation; there have been profound differences in beliefs and mind-sets. How do you effectively write about people who believed that pixies and spirits sprang from the dirt or that the sun-god had a direct hand in shaping daily events, without making your characters seem foolish in the eyes of the reader? (In the movie Troy, for example, the Trojans seem silly to consult and trust in the sun-god so much.) It’s a bit like a murder mystery where the reader knows the culprit before the characters unmask him.

How Do You Capture Social Forces That No Longer Seem Relevant?
* Seems to me that some things that were of great concern in the past are not relevant or interesting any more: people’s focus on getting into heaven; the presence of the Devil in every-day life. Even social conditions that had a pervasive impact such as sexism, racism, anti-Semitism, even classism, can only be mentioned once: women weren’t allowed to do that…and the reader thinks ‘yes, yes, get on with it.’ What topics are now off-limits, or at least to be down-played? How do you handle this dismissal of such incredibly powerful social forces?
(I'm thinking partly of my project writing on Christine de Pizan; she is best known for being the first woman to make her living as a writer but saying ‘women didn’t write books back then’ isn’t really that interesting because they certainly do now. But she also wrote a manual on warfare, which elicits incredulity in a modern audience so it highlights the situation better than the book that is actually the one she’s known for (The City of Ladies, the first feminist treatise.) I’m highlighting the lesser accomplishment of the warfare manual, because it still has cultural relevance. So, in fact, you’re challenged to write about things that had previous cultural impact based on their current cultural relevance.

What About the Dichotomy of a Modern Structure and Historical Topics?
* Some suggest that the new historical novel combines modern structure and historical topics. Peter Suskind’s Perfume or Jeanette Winterson’s Passion are very modern novels with historical settings and situations. They don’t unfold with the pacing of a Bronte novel. What are some of the techniques for handling that dichotomy?

How Do You Write About Highly-Charged Topics?
* The terrific editor, Tom Jenks (previously an acquisition editor at Scribners, now founder of Narrative Magazine), advises that one should write hot topics with a cool hand. The work in many historical novels involve war, slavery and degradation, insanity, etc. How can you apply the cool hand technique without creating a flat narrative?

Should You Focus on Era or Area?
* In traditional fiction, area or region has a big impact: think of Southern writers for example. In historical fiction, it seems that era is more important than area, since the era has impact on the communication, inventions, and the social conditions. Writing about a 15th Century Frenchman, for example, who goes on the Spice Trail to China in the sequel, leverages your research more than writing of the same village 800 years earlier in a prequel. Does the era have more impact than area in historical fiction?

What is History and What is Historical Fiction?
* There was a lot of debate between what the historian does and what the novelist does but it seems to me that the historian works on the macro level and the novelist on the micro. The novelist is looking at the impact on the event, and vice versa, of emotion and psyche. The historian is looking at the impact of the event and vice versa, on culture (which of course is the psyche of the collective.) Also, one shows (novelist) and one tells (historian), though each does both to some extent.

Personally I like the social issues that are included, which gives a historical more tooth, if you will, than traditional fiction. And I like the texture of fiction more than essay. So you might say the form has more tooth than fiction and more texture than essay.

Where Is the Line re: Accuracy?
* I would like to develop a mathematical system re: transportation, time etc. I think you can compress or extend time: 25 years, 50 years, no big deal. It took so long for information to move, relative to how it moves today, that 50 years is akin to 6 months in twenty-first century time. The dividing line seems to be between facts that are trivial and those that are essential. Whether someone walked on a particular road on a particular date doesn’t change the essence: they walked on some road. Additional years on someone’s life, though, perhaps crosses the line into unacceptable alteration. Also, while we may be protected by the word “novel” on the cover, some work is turned into movies and the public gets a lot of their history from movies while believing it to be reality, so we need to be responsible to the reader and respectful of history

What Are the Legal Ramifications of Historical Inaccuracies?
* Where and when does libel come into play? Can errors and omissions insurance really protect you?

What issues do you think we should be discussing? (I'm making it possible to post comments again, after having been plagued with spam.)

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"What really ties the stories together is Wells' wry sensibilities and lyrical prose. She mixes tragedy and comedy to great effect; producing stories that feel true as if it were gossip heard first hand." - Review
Historical Fiction
The early adulthood of Christine de Pizan, called "artfully captured with economy and delicacy [that] comes across beautifully in this well-written and researched work." - The Historical Novels Review
"Historical events…are elegantly woven into the plot. The well-rounded characters, constant action, and captivating subject matter unite (in The Mandrake Broom) to enlighten as well as infuriate as the atrocities of the time period become real through Wells’ vivid writing…. Reminiscent of Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Mists of Avalon series, Jess Wells’ third novel belongs on everyone’s reading list”– The Historical Novels Review