Friday, March 10, 2023

by Patricia Bernstein

When I was in college, I took a creative writing course and fell on my face—figuratively speaking. My classmates had attended posh private schools, skied in Switzerland and had “coming out” parties. I had gone to a public high school and led such a sheltered suburban life that, at 18, I just didn’t have much material to work with. The teacher gave me the only “C” I ever received in college and convinced me that I couldn’t write.

It took me about ten years to overcome that traumatic pratfall. In my thirties, I finally began to write magazine articles—journalistic-type pieces--and ultimately sold some to Texas Monthly, Cosmopolitan and even the august Smithsonian. Well, OK, I thought, I can craft snapshots of current life. But I don’t have enough imagination to write fiction.

Eventually I published three non-fiction books with historical subjects. The most recent one was a finalist for an award from the Texas Institute of Letters. But I still made no attempt at fiction.

In 2014, my husband and I visited Scotland and heard an amazing story about a persecuted Catholic noblewoman who, in 1716, had mounted a complicated plot to rescue her husband from the Tower of London the night before his scheduled execution! I couldn’t get it out of my mind. I thought this woman’s story should be much better known. So I decided to try my hand at fiction after all.

I discovered two wonderful things about fiction right away—a big thing and a small thing. The small thing was NO FOOTNOTES NEEDED! What freedom not to have to obsessively support every single statement with a footnote. The much bigger thing was that in fiction, YOU CAN CHANGE ANYTHING YOU WANT! In fiction facts are malleable.

I believe the framework of the historical novel has to be true to the period. You can’t, for instance, have ancient Romans drinking coffee or tea, chowing down on mashed potatoes or smoking Longbottom Leaf in clay pipes, but you can modify events to suit your purpose, invent characters while dramatizing your version of real ones, and maybe even introduce an anachronism here and there if it doesn’t undermine the whole tale.

My novel A Noble Cunning follows the real story of my heroine’s life fairly closely, but I do think an appealing novel needs memorable villains. That is, beyond King George I. George I acted as a true villain to my heroine in real life, but in the novel, she only meets him face to face once. I thought additional villains were needed to bring the story more vividly to life.

So I invented a mad “field preacher,” a Protestant fanatic who invades my heroine’s home. I also invented a vain, self-absorbed sister with a lifelong resentment of my heroine. And finally, I had no knowledge of the real guards at the Tower of London in 1716, so I invented a villain there too, a young warder with a visceral hatred of Catholics. My heroine has to somehow circumvent all of these obstacles in her way, plus a violent snowstorm (which really happened) if she is going to save her husband’s life.

This whole exercise was the hardest work I’ve ever done, but also so much fun that I’m doing it again with another novel in the works. And I’ve learned that I wasted a lot of time letting someone else early in my life tell me who I am and what I can do.

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Patricia Bernstein’s debut novel, A Noble Cunning: The Countess and the Tower, was released by History Through Fiction on March 7, 2023. Upon release, the book was a Semifinalist for a Chanticleer Award, and was one of Hasty Book List’s Most Anticipated Historical Novels of 2023. Visit Patricia at
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