HISTORICAL FICTION IS a genre that many writers fear, mostly due to the hefty amount of research needed to accurately create compelling and believable stories. Jodie Lynn Zdrok, however, accepts the challenge readily. She feels that writing historical fiction is a way to learn about and explore the past while also creating a new, modified historical universe. Her 2019 debut, Spectacle, follows the life of Parisian teen Nathalie Baudin, who begins to experience detailed visions of a serial killer targeting young women in 19th-century Europe. Nathalie’s hallucinatory visions send her — and the reader — on an investigative journey as she struggles to find and stop the killer. Zdrok creates a novel that deals with issues of gender, violence, and power in a way that resonates with both younger and older readers in the present day. A sequel to the novel is slated to appear in 2020.
BRIANNA BRANCH: Spectacle follows a young woman in 19th-century Paris who has visions of other women being murdered. Where did you get the idea for this chillingly intriguing story?
JODIE LYNN ZDROK: I got the idea for Spectacle in graduate school at Brown, where I studied modern European cultural and intellectual history. I’d always been intrigued by the Jack the Ripper mystery, and when I read about the Paris Morgue, the two things came together in my mind. What if there were gruesome Ripperesque murders in Paris, and the bodies were on display for the public? What would that be like? Spectacle also has fantasy elements, and the magic is inspired by the pseudoscience of 19th-century Europe.
What was the hardest part of penning a YA historical thriller?
Characters getting around and communicating was a challenge, as was crafting a mystery with the crime-solving techniques of the day. As to the former, we take for granted how easy it is to get somewhere or get in touch with someone. In Spectacle, I had to constantly weigh who knew what and where they were relative to other characters and events. For example, when Nathalie went to the morgue, she needed her friend to be there with her. So she had to go by foot and public transportation to knock on her friend’s door (hoping she’s there), then return to the morgue together. It would have been much easier to call or text and say, “Hey, can you swing by the morgue on your way to work?” Turning back the clock to the days before blood spatter analysis, fingerprinting, and blood typing made it hard to construct (and solve) a mystery in the conventional sense.
How important do you think it is for young readers to have access to historical fiction?
Context is important — for conversations, decisions, art, culture, politics, events, life. The more we understand who we are and where we came from, as individuals and as a society, the better we understand each other and everything that connects or divides us. Without understanding history, we lose that context.
If you had the opportunity to educate others on the craft of writing historical fiction, what would you tell them?
It requires a certain mindset, a willingness to dive deep into a time and place without a lot of familiar touchpoints. If I write something contemporary, well, I live in 2019, so I know “what it’s like” to be alive in 2019, what’s popular, how people speak, what’s fashionable. Reconstructing that familiarity in a way that makes characters relatable to today’s sensibilities requires effort and creativity in bridging the gaps. For example, I wanted characters to think and act like they would in 1887 Paris, but I also took some liberties here and there in terms of colloquialisms, casual demeanors, and the like.
Was the research process for Spectacle difficult?
Very! I had a solid foundation, given that my background is in history, but the finer, everyday details were difficult. You can’t necessarily Google, “What were the omnibus routes in 1887 Paris?” or, “What was the exact process for a writer to submit an article to Le Petit Journal?” and come up with a quick or straightforward answer. And you don’t often know what small detail you need until you sit down to write a scene. Also, I did my best to use words that were in existence at the time, and you’d be surprised how many now-commonplace words weren’t part of the parlance of the day — even simple things like “okay” and “fine.”
What’s the biggest misconception about this particular genre?
People often think historical fiction is a history lesson (and, therefore, “boring”). The history in Spectacle provides setting and the context for attitudes, beliefs, and cultural norms, but the focus is ultimately on the characters, plot, and overall story — just like any other novel.
Spectacle focuses on multiple topics, including murder and mental illness. Did you ever think of adding a trigger warning to the novel?
The back cover copy and the summary on retailer sites convey a lot of descriptive detail about the subject matter, so the reader knows where we are in time and place. My hope is that anyone who picks up the novel has an understanding that the fictionalized, historically influenced material they’re engaging with contains content some may find disturbing.
What can readers expect in the sequel? More Jack the Ripper vibes?
The sequel takes place in Paris, and the setting is the 1889 Exposition Universelle — the world’s fair for which the Eiffel Tower was built. I don’t want to give much away but, yes, it will be very murder-y and the fantasy element will expand a bit.
What would you tell aspiring writers who want to write historical fiction?
Immerse yourself. Read fiction and nonfiction books set in the era, read academic articles, watch movies and TV shows set in the era, if possible. See what works and what doesn’t in terms of execution. And don’t use the setting as a crutch — it should work with the story, not take the place of one.
Final question: Which historical figure would you choose to have coffee with?
So many! I’ll spring for the extra coffee and pick two: Leonardo da Vinci, because he had a brilliant artistic and scientific mind, and Dante, because The Divine Comedy is my favorite literary work.