Today’s guest, Jennifer Cody Epstein, is the author of The Gods of Heavenly Punishment and the international bestseller The Painter from Shanghai. She has written for The Wall Street Journal, The Asian Wall Street Journal, Self, Mademoiselle and NBC, and has worked in Hong Kong, Japan and Bangkok, Thailand. She lives in Brooklyn, New York, with her husband, two daughters and an exceptionally needy Springer Spaniel.
Jennifer Epstein joins us to offer her tips and suggestions for writing historical fiction, something near and dear to her heart.
“I am writing about (and passionate about!) the craft of historical fiction because–quite honestly–I find the genre endlessly interesting, and writing about it helps me understand it better–and therefore write it better.”
Here’s what Amy Shearn, O Magazine, had to say about Jennifer’s new novel: “…The book reveals itself to be as miraculously constructed as Frank Lloyd Wright’s Imperial Hotel in Tokyo (which itself is a character). The Gods of Heavenly Punishment is a page-turner thanks to its high-stakes adventure, torrid love affairs and characters so real they seem to follow you around. And in the end, this gripping novel asks us not just to consider a lost chapter of a famous war but also to explore what it means to be lucky—and what it means to be loved.”
10 Rules for Rewriting History
A decade into writing historical fiction, I’ve learned some interesting things—not the least of which is that I happen to love writing historical fiction. As someone who’d always struggled in history class (all those names and dates to memorize) I’d never imagined that my first novel would be HF. I’d imagined instead a more conventional debut: contemporary. Semi-autobiographical. Coming-of-age-centered.
Fast-forward to 1999, when I was well into said S.A.C.O.A. debut and finding it flimsy and (frankly) not all that interesting. On a visit to the Guggenheim, I was drawn to a wistful self-portrait by an artist named Pan Yuliang. I loved the work. But it was the story of the artist—a Chinese former prostitute and concubine—that really blew me away. My husband suggested I make this my first novel. I told him he was crazy. A few weeks later, though, there I was, signing up for classes in Chinese history and oil painting and hesitantly attempting a prologue.
So what changed my mind? Well, history, for one thing. As study material it’s a drag, but as novel fodder it’s fascinating. It also gives my narratives a heft and a ballast that has been lacking in my more contemporary attempts. Maybe best of all, it’s an ideal (if dangerously seductive) antidote to writers’ block: when the words don’t come, you can always read or take some notes and still feel that you are moving forward. Though as I’ve learned, the line between “research” and “procrastination” can be dangerously blurry.
Still, I’ve now published two novels of historical fiction, and am just starting on my third. Here are some “rules of thumb” that have helped me in the process:
- History rides shotgun. Remember that what you’re writing is a novel—not a history book. This means history should be used only to heighten and deepen your narrative, and not the other way around. Be careful not to get hijacked by some fascinating event that doesn’t fit naturally into your storyline, because no matter how hard you try—or how many pages you write (in my case, sometimes, hundreds—with Painter I spent months on historical tangents that ultimately proved irrelevant) it simply won’t work in the end. If it doesn’t relate to your plot, it shouldn’t be in there.