Mining the Emotions of the Past

A couple of weeks ago I attended a reading and book signing by author Susanna Kearsley.  She was promoting her new historical novel, A Desperate Fortune, which I enjoyed immensely.  (Note: This is not a book review, only my thoughts on what makes Kearsley’s book work on all levels.)

I find it fascinating to discover how authors think about their characters and the events that shape their stories.  In Kearsley’s case, she’s driven by her interest in the Jacobite influence on the history of Scotland and England.  In this book, she weaves events shaping the lives of people hundreds of years in the past with contemporary characters’ search for a hidden truth.  As the characters in the contemporary plotline decrypt the entries in an old journal, their relationship reflects that of the couple they are researching.  The plotline of those historical characters gives roots to the contemporary characters’ lives.

Kearsley has a talent for folding history into fiction with such a delicate touch that the reader doesn’t realize she’s receiving a history lesson.  Instead, the actions and emotions of the characters lead to an understanding of what makes people in every era and of every status act in specific ways.

I’m always interested in the history behind the story, which often sends me to the internet to research the era, the places, and the historical figures that play a part in books I read.  So I was particularly interested in how Kearlsey researches her novels.  She described how she conducts her fact-finding in stages, searching out the background material she needs as she writes each section of her story.

But she doesn’t just stop at knowing how her characters would dress, or what they would eat.  She dives deep into the political, economic, and religious scenes of that time period.

Kearsley considers how one person would feel about life in that atmosphere.  How that man or woman might make life-altering decisions based on the climate of the political scene or the religious strictures of the day.

Using documented details about simple events that happened in each place she sets a scene, Kearsley tightens the connection between fiction and reality.  One of the most interesting parts of her library talk was about finding a mode of transport that left Paris at the exact time she needed.  If there was no coach leaving town at the time at the time of day her characters must escape she doesn’t just manufacture one for the sake of her plot.

These details and the realistic emotions and motivations of her characters combine to drive pivotal scenes, even if it means she must rethink how the action moves into that point and progresses past it.  Here’s an author unwilling to fudge even the smallest detail of history.  And that attitude shows in her work.

After her talk, I stayed to have her sign my copy of her book.  When she asked what my favorite part was, I couldn’t tell her only one thing.

What I did say was that I loved the book without the final chapter, but that the final chapter made it perfect.  And that after reading the author notes about her characters, I was so happy that, through her fiction, she had given a long, happy life to a baby girl who died long before Kearsley chose her name for one of the main characters.  It made the whole story even more satisfying.

After more thought, I believe I can express why Susanna Kearsley’s stories evoke an emotional response from her readers.  She understands that real people live and die, motivated by how the people and circumstances surrounding them engage their emotions and personal values.

Love and fear are opposites on the scale of emotions.   Yet both can move a woman to act outside her value system.  They can push a man to leave his home and follow an ideal, forgoing family and shelter in support of his goal.  They can motivate leaders to grasp for more and ever more power, riches, and land.

This is no less true today than in the past.  And Kearsley models that for us in the parallel plots that intertwine, diverge, and finally unfold in A Desperate Fortune.