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Hitting the right note in historical setting – An interview with author Sonia Gensler

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If you have ever wanted to be standing in the room when Elizabeth Bennett verbally spars with Mr. Darcy, or you wished Captain Nemo had offered you a ride on the Nautilus, you’ll understand the power of a story set in a different time than our own. And perhaps, if you’re a writer, you’ve dreamed of plotting your own story in a time long past. Then again, getting a historical setting just right can be intimidating.

Well, WWAT had the exciting opportunity to talk to Sonia Gensler, young adult novelist and author of The Revenant (Oklahoma Book Award, Parent’s Choice Silver Award, Sequoyah Intermediate Master list), The Dark Between (Oklahoma Book Award finalist), and the forthcoming Ghostlight, (available August 4, 2015), all from Random House/Alfred A. Knopf. Because her first two novels take place in historic settings, we figured she’d be the perfect subject for questions about how a writer can initiate a journey through time to establish a story in a setting that has come and gone.

How much influence does historic setting have on your first two published novels, The Revenant and The Dark Between?

Setting was a major inspiration for my first two novels. In my initial thinking about The Revenant, I knew I wanted to write a story set at a 19th century Southern girls’ boarding school, because female education outside of the home was still a fairly recent phenomenon and school settings are inherently rife with drama. When my Tahlequah friends pointed out Seminary Hall at Northeastern State University, I was intrigued. When they told me it used to be Cherokee girls’ boarding school, I knew I had my setting! It was during my research about the school that I learned about the building’s history of hauntings, and the plot really began to come together.

With The Dark Between, I was inspired by the 19th century paranormal researchers who formed the Society for Psychical Research (which is still going strong today). When I learned that many of the founders had met each other at Trinity College in Cambridge, I knew I had to exploit that setting! And then it got even more interesting when I discovered that one of these founding members, Henry Sidgwick, was a co-founder of Newnham College, one of the first female colleges in Cambridge. He inspired the character of Oliver Thompson in my book, and the setting, Summerfield College, was based on Newnham.

In general, I start with place, and then I research about the sort of people who inhabited that place, and I brainstorm about conflicts these people might have faced, and the story takes off from there.

For these novels, how much of your research takes place on line, in libraries, or in personal interviews with knowledgeable experts?

I’d say I do most of my research online–there are so many reliable databases out there for textual and photographic data. I also utilize the university library for the more academic books related to my topic. If I can’t find a book in the library, I buy it from B&N or Amazon. (Book shopping for research makes me giddy!) I don’t undertake very many interviews, but I do visit the settings of all my novels.

What is the most challenging and/or the most exciting thing to you about setting a novel in a historical location?

I suppose the most challenging thing is avoiding glaring anachronisms. Related to that is my goal of not derailing the story through too much description of the setting/technology/fashion of the time period. I’m very sensitive now to novels that include passages that are really just “showing off” some cool thing the writer has learned about a time or place. If that data doesn’t directly relate to plot or character, it probably doesn’t need to be there!

The most exciting part of researching a historical setting is visiting it in person. It’s my very favorite part of the whole process.

Are there any favorite descriptive passages in either of your novels that were greatly influenced by your research (such as describing a garden or room)?

Let’s see . . . here’s a paragraph from The Dark Between in which Asher Beale has just toured Trinity College. After admiring the stunning architecture, he moves on the college grounds. This passage is dear to me because it captures that feeling you sometimes get in Oxford or Cambridge when you’ve lost yourself in the college grounds and are able to forget the urban surroundings.

He crossed the river, leaving the ornate buildings behind. Beyond the bridge an avenue of linden trees curved over him like the vaulted ceiling of a cathedral. The branches trembled in the breeze, offering fleeting wafts of a heady fragrance. Asher didn’t consider himself religious, but in that moment something tugged at his heart–a spiritual ache, if one could call it that.

On either side of the avenue lay a meadow. He veered off the path, avoiding the bees that buzzed through the low-hanging branches, and stepped into the grass. No one tried to stop him. After several paces he paused, looked around, and sank down. If he lay on his back, no one would see him. He placed his hands behind his head and stared at the clouds. Birds trilled in the trees, but otherwise it was peaceful. One might forget that this wide green space stood at the center of a busy town. (pg. 55)

Thank you, Sonia! For all you historical novelists and novelists-in-training, that’s a great place to start. Find out more about our featured interviewee at www.soniagensler.com.

And write on!

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