It’s such a treat to interview Faith Elizabeth Hough today as part of the Seven Questions series. She writes literary historical fiction for children and young adults.
Faith, a Connecticut resident, is the author of THE WITHERING VINE, which earned an honorable mention in the 2011 Tassy Walden Awards. She won a Tassy Walden Award for New Voices in Children’s Literature in 2009 and was a finalist in 2007 and 2008.
Our paths crossed due to a series of connections. I stumbled across Paula Kay McLaughlin’s blog Write Now via Michael Gettel-Gilmartin, who I know through a mutual friend here in Oregon, and Paula knows Faith.
The connections don’t stop there. Faith and I are both moms, knitters and bloggers, and we are working on historical novels set in France. I’m so thankful that we’ve connected and that I can share some of her observations, insights and methods with everyone today.
1. Tell us about THE WITHERING VINE.
THE WITHERING VINE is a literary novel for young adults, set against the rich backdrop of the Cote d’Or in Medieval France. In May 2011, it was named a Young Adult Honorable Mention in the Tassy Walden Award for New Voices in Children’s Literature.
Here’s the “pitch”: Genevieve yearns for a home; she’s made her lodging in bloody butcher shops and dusty streets of Medieval France, but never known a place where she belongs. At sixteen, she is under the care of Antoine and Colette, the owners of a vineyard in the south of France. Though she seeks to make a place for herself amidst their rows of vines and within their hearts, the vines are failing and their hearts are cold. It takes the companionship of vines, the friendship of a feisty nun, the quiet love of an injured soldier—but most of all the secrets held in a mysterious hidden manuscript—to help Jenny find her place and find herself.
2. What was the research process like for this novel? Please share any favorite techniques or sources that helped you tap into the details of life in 14th century France.
I love research; it was one of my favorite parts of writing this novel…I just had to force myself to stop eventually! Because this book centers around vineyards and wine, that was the first area in which I had to educate myself—I confess that previous to starting this story, I was nearly illiterate as far as wine was concerned. An excellent source was Hugh Johnson’s STORY OF WINE, which is actually a riveting world history, just told from the perspective of, well, wines and vines. Then, you know, I HAD to visit vineyards and attend wine tastings to, um, learn the vocabulary and give myself credibility. (I’m a huge Riesling fan now, even if my book is about French wines…) In terms of the historical aspect, I can’t name one specific source that I found most helpful, but I do begin my historical research with a few aspects: food, clothes, and music. I find these give me a better sense of “real life” than any other details…and often the other things fall into place beside them.
3. You consider yourself the author of “literary historical fiction,” a term I absolutely adore. How would you define literary historical? And what appeals to you about setting a story in the past?
Like any broad genre, I think historical novels fall into many categories. My plots are always centered around a character’s growth; and language and craft are very important elements in their creation. I guess for that reason, any novels I write will fall into the “literary” category, but the past does have a strong pull for me. Without all our modern distractions of computers and television and “social networking,” it’s easy to view older time periods as dull and backwards, so I find it fascinating to discover the little details that disprove this misconception. There were always scientists and experimenters and artists…and without “technology,” the social lives of ages past were actually far more personal than most you see today. Everyone in society was forced to rely on his or her neighbor—so they actually knew their neighbors. Oh, and at least in medieval France, they had some seriously great parties. (We need more feast days!)
4. What are you working on now?
Well, mostly, taking care of my newborn baby girl! But on the book front… I’m researching another YA historical novel about Francesca Stradivari, the daughter of the great Cremonese violin maker. My husband is a violin maker by profession, and the process of making violins has changed very little in the last 300 years, so much of the research involves watching him carve or letting him teach me some of the easier bits. Oh, and cooking traditional northern Italian food. (I may gain a few pounds before the research is done…)
And, because I’m always working on two things at once, while I research Francesca’s story, I’m writing a contemporary/historical middle grade novel which intertwines the stories of a present day 12-year-old and her grandfather’s memories of his childhood during World War II, all of which center around a decrepit old theater in central New York State. (A little vague, I know, but it’s in development.)
5. How do you incorporate history and pertinent details into your plots while avoiding the dreaded info-dump? Do you start writing a novel with the story in mind, or the time period, or does it depend?
This is a great question, and I think it relates to all genres, not just historical. I think details are the salt to any story—but add too many and it’s just unpalatable. In order to be worth including, in my opinion, details MUST do “double duty.” They should contribute to the setting/background/atmosphere, but they should also say something about the characters, and particularly your main character. I heard Patricia Lee Gauch speak on this topic last year, and she gave the great example of THE HOBBIT, where we are introduced to Bilbo Baggins through the fascinating details of his hobbit hole…such as the “lots and lots of pegs for coats and hats” which tell us, in so simple a way, that Bilbo is an extrovert who loves company! Tolkien chose each detail of Bilbo’s home with so much care that he had very little he needed to say about Bilbo himself.
In terms of how I start a novel…it depends on the novel. THE WITHERING VINE actually began as a fantasy/fairy tale retelling! I gave that up pretty quickly, but the story was set a full century ahead of where it is now for an entire draft. In this case, it was the main character’s story and growth that was most important to me, and the more I wrote the more I realized exactly where and when that had to happen.
6. Tell us about writing for children and young adults. What do you love about that audience? What are some of the ways you tailor your writing to those demographics?
I’m never conscious of “tailoring” my work to my audience until I get to revisions and my critique group tells me I need to…for example, in THE WITHERING VINE, it was only in revision that a critique partner told me adding more romance would help make the book more appealing to teens—and she was right. (It made it more appealing to agents, too.)
There is a lot to love about writing for kids and teens; for me, the most important aspect is that young people tend to be optimistic and passionate. They believe and hope and love deeply—to me, that not only makes them great as an audience, but great as characters. These qualities make it possible to write about so much that really matters and defines us as humans.
7. You’re a self-professed “neurotic outliner.” Can you tell us a little about how you outline? Do your novels ever veer off their planned course? If so, what do you do?
Two words: sticky notes. At least, that’s how my outlines begin. I write short ideas for scenes on sticky notes, color-coded by character/setting/plot, and stick them onto a bulletin board so I can see if everything works linearly. From there, I type up a much-more-detailed chapter outline, which I often color code as well by changing text color. Then, even though it seems a little backwards, I write up a one-page synopsis, just to make sure it works that way, too. And THEN I write. For me, writing without an outline is terrifying—or at least writers’ block-inducing. When I know where I’m going, it frees me to write fearlessly.
Thank you so much for having me, Laura! This interview was great fun.
Thank you, Faith, for participating in Seven Questions today. You can find her blog at http://faithehough.blogspot.com, so please drop by and say hello to her.