The Mystical World of Historical Fiction by novelist Stephanie Cowell

The Mystical World of Historical Fiction by novelist Stephanie Cowell

Stephanie Cowell is a very old friend. For those of you who’ve been in my classes before, she’s the “Stephanie” I mention enviously (in the most generous of ways) when she got her first book contract so many years ago. She’s a novelist of inestimable talent and beauty who inspired me when I was struggling with my very first words of fiction. I’m thrilled that Stephanie’s agreed to share her thoughts on the mysterious and mystical world of the historical novelist. I also hope you’ll join us, along with Michelle Cameron and Susanne Dunlap, for our June 10 event, Literary Time Travel: Adventures in Writing Historical Fiction. And I’m utterly honored that Stephanie has agreed to share her wisdom with The Writers Circle as one of our newest private editors. Learn more about working with her at our One-on-One Sessions page. But first, Stephanie Cowell

“…the distinction between past, present, and future is only an illusion, however persistent.”
– Albert Einstein, 1955

When I was a child, I wrote in secret hours, making sure no one could see the words which formed my world. Mostly, my setting was elsewhere. I never felt I entirely belonged in my own life, but that I was constantly being called back to another one.

Often when meeting other historical fiction writers, I have been struck by the mystical quality of their experience in writing of the past; they speak of it reticently yet it is often this deep and most personal experience which first compels them to undertake a novel.

It begins with a feeling, a dream… you read something, you encounter an old street in Italy or a graveyard or a song and you are there suddenly. You have a strong feeling you have to go someplace and meet someone, but that place is hundreds of years before you were born. You listen and begin to hear people speaking. After a while you wake in the middle of the night, turn on a lamp, and begin to write what you hear. Page after page gets filled as you write about people who seem to call you. They wake you up and say, “Write me…” Before you know it, you are writing a historical novel.

St Pauls detail PC_SMIn my writing world, snow is falling on London houses near the old cathedral of St. Paul’s 1662 and on the stalls of the booksellers which cluster in the churchyard. In my real life, it is spring 2012. I am writing on a computer and drinking brewed coffee. I am writing a historical novel and living two lives. I date my letters in the wrong season. I travel through centuries in a moment.

Novelist C.W. Gortner grew up in Spain and his third novel about a Spanish queen, The Queen’s Vow, debuts this June. He writes, “I do feel as if I have a connection with the past; certain places, sights, even smells, can evoke strong emotions in me. I’m very attracted to the Renaissance; I’m drawn to the 16th century in specific and my interest spans several countries. I’ve had a few eerie moments during research trips where I’ve visited a certain place and I’ve known something instinctual about it, as if I’d been there before.”

One of my most haunting experiences occurred in Canterbury, England where I went to research my first novel. Christopher Marlowe, a character in the novel who had been born there, had been murdered young in 1593. I was finishing my dinner in a restaurant when I had the odd sensation that he was standing behind me. The hairs on the back of my neck rose but when I turned, he was not there. The streets were rather empty when I left; the great Cathedral rising above me into the sky. As I walked under the medieval gateway to my room, I felt him a few steps behind me. I again turned and saw no one. Was it an over-excited imagination at being there? I don’t know. I jumped into bed and hid there, rather shaken.

But writing a historical novel only begins with a passionate interest in another place and time. Between that and the finished work are often hundreds of research books and, if the writer is fortunate, journeys to where the character lived. Susan Vreeland wrote, “There’s nothing like walking where your character walked to discover uneven pavements, mosquitoes, river stench, the smell of plaster frescoes and old wood in a convent. For Artemisia, I climbed the 400 steps of Giotto’s bell tower in Florence not only to see what my characters would have seen (which I had imagined incorrectly), but to be able to describe the steps.”

A sense of place also drew Cathy Buchanan, author of The Day the Falls Stood Still. She wrote, “I have stood at the brink of the falls, filling with wonder, filling with awe, and I think I strove in writing my novel to pass along a bit of that feeling to my readers.”

Sometimes you know a great deal about a character; sometimes you know little or less no matter how many history books you read. “When research doesn’t provide answers, imagination gets to step in,” says Michelle Cameron, author of The Fruit of Her Hands. “We knew Meir must have had a wife, for example – but because the medieval record didn’t tell us anything about her, I got to invent her completely, from her desire to be a scholar right down to her name.” Sheramy Bundrick created her main female character from a one sentence reference for Sunflowers: a novel of Van Gogh.

A Vermeer painting, again of an anonymous girl, “spoke” to Tracy Chevalier. She wrote, “I was lying in bed one morning, worrying about what I was going to write next. A poster of the Vermeer painting Girl with a Pearl Earring hung in my bedroom, as it had done since I was 19 and first discovered the painting. I lay there idly contemplating the girl’s face, and thought suddenly, ‘I wonder what Vermeer did to her to make her look like that. Now there’s a story worth writing.’ Within three days I had the whole story worked out.”

Judith Lindbergh, author of The Thrall’s Tale, wrote, “For me, it’s more than simply breathing life into the dry facts of history books. It’s trying to slip back into another time. I love going to museums or, better still, visiting historic sites. When I stand in a place where my characters would have been, I start to see the world as they might have seen it. From dusty stone ruins, the spirits of those who once enlivened them begin to emerge. I try to listen for those spirits, to let them enter my body and my mind.”

We also use what we know in this life. Susanne Dunlap (The Musician’s Daughter) was a concert pianist before she became a writer; I called on my years as a Mozart singer when I wrote Marrying Mozart. One writer whose novels are of historical England drives by a ruined medieval castle there to reach the supermarket for her weekly groceries. Mary Sharratt rode her beloved horse all over the Pendle Forest area in Lancashire which made her novel Daughters of the Witching Hill seem to grow out of the woods and earth where those women once lived long ago.

To sustain the journey of writing a historical novel requires passionate interest, research, many rewrites, great skill, and the patience of a saint. Lives often do not come with plots; we have to create a plot to take the reader down the path of the story. We have to say, “Come with us. We will show you something wonderful.”

Is the past calling us? Are we calling the past? Or when we write and read historical fiction, is it somewhere in between? As Shakespeare says, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dwelt of in your philosophy.”


Historical novelist Stephanie Cowell grew up in New York City adoring the past, reading Shakespeare and historical fiction, and longing for Europe and England. She published her first short stories in her teens. She was a classical singer for many years and produced a singing ensemble, a concert series and a small opera company before returning full-time to writing. Stephanie is the author of Nicholas Cooke, The Physician of London, The Players: a novel of the young Shakespeare, Marrying Mozart and Claude & Camille: a novel of Monet. She is the recipient of an American Book Award. Her work has been translated into nine languages. She still lives in New York City with her husband and has two grown sons. Her website is

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7 thoughts on “The Mystical World of Historical Fiction by novelist Stephanie Cowell”

    • Thank you all for such wonderful comments. The shared experience of this psychic transport into history just confirms what I’ve always felt – that we truly are experiencing several worlds at once. The key is to quiet ourselves and listen closely enough to be able to bring that “other” into conscious existence.

  • Fascinating article and I can empathise.
    Ever since 2004 I have been using the psychic to get back to the life and times via a very gifted friend. We have hundreds of hours of digital recordings and pages of transcripts now. One of the really interesting things is that I have learned more about my period via this method of study than from all the text books I’ve read. A friend who is a professor of medieval history said to me the other day ‘You are no longer a tourist in that period, you have become a native speaker.’ And that difference for me has been the alternative, psychic research – which often makes far more sense than some of the secondary source material I’ve read!

  • I thought it was just me! Sometimes as I am writing here in this quiet house I am aware of all the former occupants moving around it, living their own lives, intent on their own business, separated from me and my world by a thin curtain of time.

  • Nice post, Stephanie.

    I’ve certainly been drawn to certain periods in history. When I was a young girl I loved the stories of the West –perhaps because great-grandparents had homestead out there while I was growing up in a Eastern big city– Little House on the Prairie and stories of Native Americans thrilled me. But I loved the colonial America period too. Perhaps it was all fine-tuned when my family stopped and explored every historical marker and building in the Northeast. Deep roots in New England fanned my curiosity.

    As an adult, I’m drawn to the mid-19th century in the NW as well as stories from the Great Depression and early 20th century. I enjoy researching and writing about these periods, especially how women played in these times. I certainly FEEL something when I walk in places where my stories take root. I’m currently working on a novel about mountaineering and motherhood in 1907. Reading the journals of these women and seeing photos of their climbs is so inspiring.

  • Fantastic story, that is exactly how I feel…one day soon I do hope to write that historical novel… great insight and information… I guess there are so many like us who really also want to share the knowledge for others… Thank you to all the superb writers we are all able to read..We are so very fortunate.

  • My reading of “Marrying Mozart” provided me with some of the richest moments in my long life with Mozart – having played his Piano Sonatas for nearly 70 years now, this book placed them in a new dimension which I can best simply tag as “reality” – I was suddenly inside his world, as I ascended the stairs to the Weber musical evenings, and could hear the breathing of his Mama who had grown so weary along the long way of their life. The Weber girls were vivid for the first time, and their Mama was flesh with all her passions upon her daughters’ fates. It was a tremendous experience, and continues and will continue to inform every note of Mozart I ever play.
    Thank you Stephanie Cowell. “Marry Mozart” is much more than a book. It is a living communicating entity with a heart and a spirit.
    Wayne MCevilly

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