Drawing Parallels (Plus: Giveaway)

photo by Lynne Hand

Therese here. I’m thrilled to bring you today’s guest, my dear friend, author Michelle Diener. Last year, Michelle’s debut, a thrilling novel of historical suspense titled In a Treacherous Court, was published by Gallery Books imprint of Simon & Schuster. Earlier this year, her second novel, Keeper of the King’s Secrets, was published. In two days, on November 27th, her third novel–another gripping historical suspense–will be released: The Emperor’s Conspiracy. What’s the book about?

Set in early nineteenth-century England, this vivid and romantic historical novel goes from the most elegant ballrooms of London to the city’s most tawdry slums, as a spirited young woman helps unravel a plot by Napoleon to bleed England of all its gold.

Through good fortune, Charlotte Raven escaped the poverty of the London slums and is now an educated, wealthy Society lady. But she lives between two worlds, unable to completely turn her back on her old life—specifically Luke, her childhood protector and now a ruthless London crime lord.

When Lord Edward Durnham is asked to investigate the alarming movement of gold out of England, his search leads him to London, and his recent acquaintance with Charlotte affords him access to a dark world he barely knew existed. As they delve deeper into the underbelly of London, danger lurks at every turn, and Charlotte must navigate between her two worlds to save England.

And soon she faces a defining choice: to continue in the familiar limbo she’s lived in for years, or to take a painful and risky leap toward a happiness she never thought possible.

Michelle’s with us today to talk about the evolution of her story, and leaning into what she knew in order to make the story more authentic–and just plain more. She’s also offering to give away a copy of her novel to one commenter, to be chosen at random on Friday (US addresses only, please). Enjoy!

Drawing Parallels

My mother is an educational psychologist who worked as a teacher for many years before going back to university to get her PhD in educational psychology. Her PhD was on the educational needs of street children. We lived in Durban, on the east coast of South Africa, and at the time,  unfortunately due to HIV/AIDS, political turmoil and the social and economic problems created by apartheid and the colonial legacy, there were a lot of street children. My mother had originally become interested in the topic when she worked at the Durban street shelters during her internship, and saw the desperate need for a better educational system for street children, and also, saw how eager the children themselves were to improve their situation.

She went on to help establish a school for street children, and advise on the curriculum for other shelters’ programs, and developed a tutoring system using the B.Ed students she was teaching at university, assigning them to a specific child to help get them to an age appropriate level of education, after their years on the streets.

You may wonder what the connection is between the above information, and my latest release, THE EMPEROR’S CONSPIRACY, an historical novel set in London in  the 19th Century during the Napoleonic Wars.

It’s simple.

PhotobucketI started writing THE EMPEROR’S CONSPIRACY over five years ago, and it was going to be a light-hearted novel of manners, a Cinderella story that was witty and bright. The Cinderella in this case would be a girl who lived in the slums of London who is rescued by a wealthy woman, but who can never quite shake off her past.

But when I started researching the life my heroine would have led before her fairy godmother moment, I realized I was looking at the life of a street child in Durban, South Africa, or anywhere else in the world. A life I’d had a very good glimpse at through the work my mother did.

And as quickly as that, I realized I wasn’t going to write a light-hearted book of manners. I could have some light-hearted moments, but to do justice to the time, and be respectful of what the poor of London lived through, the book was going to be darker and much grittier.

I put the book aside and focused on other things as I got my head around the approach I needed to take, and read as much as I could about the life and conditions of London’s slums in the C19th before I sat down to write it. So much was reminiscent of the things my mother told me, or what I read in her research, or saw with my own eyes. Even the way the apartheid government dealt with the Durban street children was reminiscent of the treatment of street children at the hands of the British government at the turn of the 19th Century.

And so, even though I can’t time travel back to C19th London, I drew on the very real thoughts, aspirations and feelings of the children my mother spoke with and interviewed for her research and in her day-to-day work to inform some of the characters and the adult characters’ backgrounds. If there is one thing I’ve come to believe very strongly as I’ve researched various historical periods, it is that our response to problems is too often the same, no matter what time period we are talking about. ‘The more things change, the more they stay the same’ is something I see as a universal truth about how humans react to and deal with what life throws at them. The children of London in 1811 may have been on the streets for different reasons to the children of Durban in modern-day South Africa, but their coping mechanisms, their thoughts and feelings, would be the same.

Do you find you draw on parallels in your own work? Use the feelings and thoughts you encounter in a certain scenario in real life in a very different scenario in your work because they are at heart similar reactions?



  1. SJ Griffo says

    Indeed I do draw parallels in my work to historical events. I love history, and although I write dystopians, I believe that history repeats itself, so it is easy to see similarities down through the ages. THE EMPEROR’S CONSPIRACY sounds fascinating, and I would love to read it.

  2. says

    What a great post and I love both the premise of your novel and also the research you did (and how you did it)! Very cool. I know exactly what you mean about drawing parallels… this is especially true for me with emotional reactions. Even if I haven’t been in a situation exactly like one of my characters, I can draw on other experiences I’ve had when I’ve felt strongly about things — and that helps me write those feelings.

    • says

      Thank you, Julia. And yes, totally agree on emotional reactions. You can write a convincing reaction to something you’ve never experienced personally by drawing parallels.

  3. says

    I drew on a lot of emotions and bits and pieces of real conversation for my current WIP. Because the story centers around a personal experience, I also had to be aware of stepping out of it too.

    Drawing parallels is unavoidable, at least at some level. After all, for better or for worse, all the stories inside us originate from our exposures.

  4. Linda Pennell says

    Having worked with severely at-risk youth myself, I loved your post and your mother’s story. I absolutely draw on parallels from my own experiences and those of others, both living and historical. After all, the human experience and human nature haven’t changed since sticks scratched on clay tablets or papyrus – only the settings and details shift. Just read Genesis – greed, passion, criminality, love, hate, defying authority, pathos, compassion, jealousy – you name the condition and it’s there.

  5. Ray Pace says

    The Byzantine politics and police corruption of sixties Chicago where I came of age is certainly applicable to present day LA, where my current novel in progress is set. The big difference is the cyber factors that speed the story along. Cell phones have replaced dial phones and answering services. Computers have replaced dusty filing cabinets.

    • Joanna Branson says

      I totally agree with you on this one! Cyber has added a new layer of complicity, more than was possible in times past – new opportunities for further corruption and deception in environments where those elements were already present. Along with new tools to fight those same elements. Our century’s blessing AND curse!

    • says

      Ray, that’s the fun part of it, isn’t it? It’s like the writers who set King Lear or Midsummer Night’s Dream in modern times and really make it work with a fresh twist.

  6. says

    I, too, have been a passionate advocate for the poor and for ennobling poor families. I have not yet written about these people in my life, but I have two biographies waiting to be written when the subjects are released from jail.

    It is an act of compassion to tell the stories of the poor, even if your protagonists wear frills on their sleeves and track hundreds of pounds of gold. You didn’t need to make London’s poor visible in your narrative, but you did, and I thank you.

    • says

      Thanks, Ron. In the case of my story, I really did need to incorporate an unflinching look at the London rookeries, because it informed my heroine’s past, and because she didn’t want to shake that past off.

  7. says

    I do look forward very much to reading “The Emperor’s Conspiracy” I am thankful for your research as well as your mothers in bringing alive the plight of the street children. It is a great gift to be offered awareness of our wealth as middle class when we often don’t feel we have enough.

  8. Carmel says

    When I set out to write a historical novel, I questioned whether I would be able to put down the way the people at that time would have thought and acted. Then I realized — externals change, but basically people are the same. That freed me in my writing, and now I can’t imagine writing without the inner resource of my thoughts and feelings about a situation, along with those of people I know well. How else can we, as writers, make it real?

    • says

      Yes, aside from certain taboos and rules of the period which may inform character reaction – which we can also draw a parallel to with our own reactions to certain societal norms and rules – people will always be people.

  9. Elizabeth says

    The Emperor’s Conspiracy sounds intriguing… The biggest parallel I find myself drawing in my own work is the transfer of the schematics of a real social interaction into a different, fictional scenario. I don’t have a great sense of how interactions develop organically, but I can pick apart the mechanics after the fact and see how they might be reassembled in a slightly different configuration with novel particulars.

  10. Joanna Branson says

    I have been reading historical fiction for a long time and have just discovered the historical suspense genre; I can’t wait to delve in and read your work in it’s entirety.

    I especially appreciate your willingness to set aside the original “Cinderella” impulse in order to respectfully and justly represent the real people who inhabit the story. As much as I enjoy the influence of both fairy tales and myths on literature, and as much as we can often learn from them, when looking at history there is is so much to learn from the reality, as well.

    I’m writing a historical YA novel about a young native American girl and have been questioned about how I can write her story convincingly since I’m NOT Native American and have not experienced the situations, culture, or lifestyle that she has. I HAVE been a 16-year-old girl “in love,” making choices with serious (and predictable) consequences, so I feel confident about capturing the emotional reality and responses of my protagonist. As you suggest, the more things change the more they stay the same. Humanity has not changed much over time, in spite of all of our “advancements.” People are still people.

    • says

      Joanna, I’m glad you have followed your inspiration and heart and continued with the story.

      I have a book coming out next year set in South Africa during the Anglo-Zulu War. One of the characters is a Zulu and while I grew up in KwaZulu Natal, I also had to get into the right head space that it was perfectly okay for me to have him as a point of view character.

  11. Jenny Tavernier says

    I am certainly going to check this out! Currently working on some research on ancestors – though NOT just the family type – but the groups that formulated and advised our history, part and parcel. Espeially in the oft not seen areas, that did play major roles.
    I have been quite aware of the same old same old, the more it changes, the more it stays the same. I will be delighted to get my teeth into something that, while looking at the cover, (beautiful illustration!) – puts one in mind of a romping read, and then to find that there are rather gristy and thorough underpinnings!
    I am looking forward to it.

  12. says

    I’m SO looking forward to reading THE EMPEROR’S CONSPIRACY! I loved Ms. Diener’s debut–so much intrigue mixed along with such accurate historical detail.

    In my own writing, I do draw parallels but not only to my own life, but to situations that fit my character’s lives based upon their professions or circumstances. It makes it easier for me to gauge their motivations and reactions if I can draw it from something that has already happened.

  13. says

    I like the idea of this novel and I like how she compares South AFrican treatment to that of London. Having not read the book yet but hope to and review- I would like to see for myself. We treat the street kids in our own neighborhoods a certain way. I would like to see how it compares. So looking forward to a good read.

  14. says

    I, too, love history and the challenge of respecting the people who lived in the past. I thought about the early Middle Ages when I was writing my futuristic sci-fi novel – drawn in by the analogy of the miles between stars to the miles between cities via a horse and cart, the vastness of the world at that time parallel with the dangers of life in the space age. There is so much we can learn from the narrative of history!

    • says

      Jillian, I absolutely think drawing parallels with the past in science fiction is worthwhile. In fact, both fantasy and sci-fi make a wonderful playground for drawing parallels to history and then tweaking it.

  15. says

    Michelle, as a HUGE fan of the Napoleonic Period, I cannot wait to read your book. It sounds utterly fascinating.

    I’m finding some bizarre parallels with the novel I’m writing now – only they are parallels between two different worlds – Nazi Germany and the American Home Front during WW2. I never planned it this way, but through my research and writing the novel itself, these parallels are starting to emerge. It’s great fun to delve into it all.

  16. A M Sligar says

    I write epic fantasy and draws on European Mideaval history but leaven it with aspects of other cultures mixed with mythology to build a unique world. Although it is differend from our world, to make it worke I need to ground it in reality and my research in history provides the necessary believability. Whatever my characters are going through, soimeone, at some time, already experienced it for good or ill that I can use.

  17. says

    Congrats to Pamala Knight, who was randomly chosen to receive a copy of The Emperor’s Conspiracy! (Michelle will be in touch with you directly, Pamala, for shipping instructions.)