Late last month I spoke with Debra Brenegan about writing historical fiction. Here is some of what she had to say about the process of writing and submitting her novel about Fanny Fern, Shame the Devil:
Write Now! Coach: How did you escape the research-for-the-rest-of-my-life trap?
Debra Brenegan: I think that is a problem that many people have—especially if you are researching things that you love. And for me it was nice to have a a dissertation to write and a deadline for that. I think that sometimes you do so much research and get all of this information, much of which will never make it into the book. I’m not saying that is research you shouldn’t have done, because it still gives you a full idea of the person you are writing about. But I also think that you have to impose some kind of limitation on yourself because you will go forever researching. And the hardest thing, as any writer knows, is sitting down and getting this stuff on paper.
Write Now! Coach: You are talking about imposing limitations. The other thing I notice about historical fiction is that some authors include every detail that they found. I am curious how you avoided that trap?
Debra Brenegan: I had a lot of readers go through and read my manuscript and give me their opinions before I tried to get it published. And there were certainly sections that I went on and on with. I ended up cutting my book by 100 pages as I revised it. So there was a lot I took out.
Write Now! Coach: I am curious about the publication process. What was it like for you?
Debra Brenegan. This was surprisingly easy. I had finished my revisions and had polished the manuscript to the point where I felt really comfortable with it, and I had sent query letters to two agents and two publishers. And then I went to a writers conference, the AWP Conference, and I had in my hot little hand a stack of abstracts about my book. I walked around to all the tables with the different publishers. At each table I asked the person standing there, “Do you publish historical novels?” If they said no, I would walk right on. If they said yes, we’d chat a little, and I’d see if there was any interest. At that conference, I found maybe five different publishers who had at least the beginning interest in my novel. And one of them was SUNY Press. And I remember when I walked up to James Peltz, who was the acquisition editor. He said that they only published historical fiction that had something to do with New York. I told him that half of Fanny Fern’s life was in New York and half of the book takes place in New York—did that count? And he said, “Yes.” I gave him the abstract and then followed up with him after the conference. He asked for the whole book and then presented it to the publication committee. They came back at me with the question, “Why don’t you make this a nonfiction biography.” I told them that I wanted a wider audience, and I thought this creative work would be more fun and easier for people to get into, especially with short chapters. I think on average, most of my chapters are only six or seven pages long. And the editor said, “Good enough.” He went back to his board and convinced them, and six months later I had a contract!
The entire interview is online on my Always Write! podcast page. If you live in the Milwaukee area, Debra Brenegan will read from Shame the Devil tonight at Boswell Book Company at 7:00 PM. I hope to see you there!
If you’d like a chance to win a copy of Shame the Devil, add your comment below. I’d love to hear your tips on researching and writing historical fiction or your favorite historical fiction novel. I’ll hold the drawing at the end of the week.