Author Interview: Faith Elizabeth Hough on Literary Historical Fiction, Avoiding the Info Dump and the Art of the Outline

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 and her "super writing partner" husband Mark.

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.

Welcome, Faith!

 1. Tell us about THE WITHERING VINE.

Faith shot this photo of a grapevine in her back yard, and the image has served as inspiration for 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?

Faith's husband Mark makes violins, and this is one of his instrument's scrolls.

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.  

About Laura Stanfill

Publisher, Forest Avenue Press
This entry was posted in Fiction, Research, Seven Questions, Writing and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to Author Interview: Faith Elizabeth Hough on Literary Historical Fiction, Avoiding the Info Dump and the Art of the Outline

  1. Faith says:

    Thanks again, Laura!

    • My pleasure, Faith! You’re the first historical novelist I’ve interviewed, and I especially enjoyed asking you questions about research and your process, since I’m so new to the genre. And I love the concept of literary historical, because that’s exactly what I’m writing.

  2. Hannah says:

    Thank you for the reminder about choosing our details carefully, Faith. Every description should do as much as it can.
    And thank you for sharing the interview, Laura. Great questions! (:

  3. Great interview!!! Wonderful tip about researching clothes, music, and food to learn about the details of a time period. I may also give your outline process a whirl because you are so right, writing without direction does induce writer’s block. Good luck, Faith!!

    • Thanks for commenting, Paula! Next novel, I’m going to try Faith’s sticky note approach to outlining, because it sounds so fluid compared to the way I outlined this time.

  4. bunnyphonic says:

    I loved this interview. After reading “90 Days to Your Novel” I started outlining with note cards and it has been so fun! I can rearrange scenes, cut them and insert character studies without getting lost. Thanks for this interview, it was insightful and totally interesting.

    • So glad you enjoyed it, bunnyphonic! Your notecard idea sounds great. I haven’t ever outlined before last fall, and I wrote out my ideas in a synopsis format, then made a diagram. Those methods were pretty big-picture, and I knew a lot of the story by the time I did that. I love the idea of starting with bits and pieces of the story on small squares (or rectangles in the case of notecards) and then building to a more solid foundation.

  5. Daniel Altieri. says:

    I enjoyed reading about Laura’s work and the methodology of creating historical fiction and the outline process– normally as arduous as the research that went into it– both Dan Altieri and myself have been involved mutually in the creation of several highly acclaimed international bestsellers of the T’ang Dynasty China– real imaginative fiction so the reviewers around the world have informed us, but also mixed with actual translations yes–from Chinese and Japanese– to create three mind blowing (again, so we are told), novels of China–ok I’ll go out on a limb,not even embarrassed– here they are on Kindle: THE COURT OF THE LION and IRON EMPRESS (and soon SHORE OF PEARLS:) by Dan Altieri and Eleanor Cooney– reviewers say they are right up there with THE NAME OF THE ROSE and I CLAUDIUS–well, see if they are right– http://tinyurl.com/3K4vn35 and http://tinyurl.com/4xc7sx6 on KINDLE

    • Thanks for dropping by, Daniel. I think you’re talking about Faith’s thoughts and research process. I’m Laura, and I was the interviewer, not the interviewee!

      • Apologies, my “dyslexia “taking over there. Thank you,Laura. Indeed Faith’s methodology. was what I had intended. Both my writing partner
        Eleanor Cooney and myself Dan Altieri having produced these works (two of which on Kindle so far) COURT OF THE LION and IRON EMPRESS (aka DECEPTION) regards early China have often been asked about our process and methodology, despite great world reviews I am oftne astounded at how wonderful both
        the reading public and the academic community responded to these creations of historical fiction
        based on much translation and ancient sources. A time so hard to know or understand– a process of creation that reduces you, humbles you but is most exciting. How to achieve the voices which come from a world so different and how to create what might have been from what we “know” has happened. I should like to present the reading public with the following new facebook page for these books (a third going up soon published in 2000 overseas only). This facebook page serves as a website. We would love to get a discussion group going and would hope you might spread the word to other reading communities of these books that the reviewers around the world have hailed as TRIUMPHS, linking them in quality to THE NAME OF THE ROSE and SHOGUN and I CLAUDIUS (great company to be in)>
        Please go to the address below, if you are so inclined–happy to have you. And good luck with you delightful forum– the authors
        http://tinyurl.com/3mhhsj3

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