Lindsay Bandy Talks Writing Historical Fiction

On May 19th, debut author, Lindsay Bandy, joined our young adult specialist, Ava, live on Instagram to celebrate the cover reveal of Nemesis and the Swan, her debut novel. Here's what she had to say about the upcoming book, her writing process, path to publication, and more!

Ava: Thanks so much for joining me. I'm so excited to talk about your upcoming book, Nemesis and the Swan which comes out in fall of 2020. And this book is set during the French revolution which is one of the coolest times in history, I think. Would you mind telling us a little bit about the book?

Lindsay: As you said, it takes place during the French Revolution, and my main character is 19 at the outset of the book, awaiting her fate in a Paris prison (which is being mobbed), remembering what led her there. There are two interesting pieces of the story that lead her into a mystery about her family's past, the secret behind which will determine her fate.

A: TL:DR version, what are three words you would use to describe the book?

L: I would say love, blood, and secrets.

A: Without giving too much away, do you have any favorite characters you loved writing about the most in the book?

L: I love Theo, of course. He's probably my favorite, and the love interest. As far as some minor characters I liked a lot, I really liked writing Simone because she's the badass, revolutionary, fighting girl who puts on her pants and gets out her gun. I think she's the girl Hélène wishes she could be - maybe the girl I wish I could be, but I'm not. She was fun to write, and I enjoyed writing her friendship too. But honestly, I love them all.

A: They were all so interesting. And so aggressively human as well. Especially when looking back on this piece of history that we view as 'above human' and mesmerizing and horrifying. The fact that you were able to incorporate these very human flaws into your characters was incredible.

L: Thank you. You almost imagine that it couldn't happen to someone like you, or that the people who lived through it didn't have feelings like we do. But what pulled me into the story was trying to imagine 'what if I were just me?' What would it be like to be someone who's just caught in the middle?

A: The French Revolution is such a crazy time, so what made you decide to set your book during that period?

L: It actually kind of happened by accident. I was in college and I had this idea that I wanted to write a novel that would somehow be set in the past. I started writing scenes and it wasn't coming together. But then I took a 19th century art history class, which started with the art of the French Revolution as a segue into the 19th century since it was such a tumultuous time that affected so much in Europe, and so much of the art. So it was this really interesting view of history through art.

One of the pieces we studied was The Death of Marat - a guy who is stabbed to death in his own bathtub. When he was killed, he wasn't just taking a bath, he was soaking in herbs after developing an itchy skin disease from hiding off and on in the sewers of Paris because of how controversial he was. But he's painted as a martyr, though he was responsible for some of the biggest mass murders of the revolution, including the prison mass murder, which is where Hélène finds herself in my story. So I thought it was really interesting to see how differently the same character could be portrayed depending on what side of the conflict you were on. And it really led me to think about what would happen to a character who's caught in between.

So Hélène does come from an aristocratic family but she is progressive and wants things to change. She's caught in between these extremes in a time where you're really pressured to choose a side, have absolute loyalty, and follow your marching orders. And she wants to think for herself. So the painting got me started, and then I did more research into the people who lived during the time, especially some of the interesting women. There were those who were fighting. There were those who were behind the scenes. But I thought it was really interesting - very different from our time, but similar too. You see the same sorts of rifts, and how it can be difficult to come together in the middle.

A: I really do think that you captured that. And it really made for a gripping story. Could you tell us a little more about the inspiration for the characters, the love interests in particular?

L: I wanted Hélène to be caught between sides in a lot of different ways so there is a bit of a love triangle, but I have to admit that Theo is a lot like my husband so he's my favorite. I think that was a lot of it for me. As far as Bennett goes, I really like him too. Don't tell my husband, but I still have a bit of a crush on Bennett... I wanted to put her in a tough spot.

As for the kids that were the story... I was very closed to one of my college professors, Elizabeth. She was this awesome role model for me, and she and her husband had several adopted kids that I loved so much so I wanted them to be reflected in my story. And Hélène is in a big way, me. I have a thought of people that I've loved very much on opposite sides of conflicts, and find myself in the in-between.

A: What do you think your characters would be up to during quarantine?

L: This is hard because I can't give anything away. But let's just go with the beginning of the book so... Hélène is probably painting and working with music. She's by herself a lot anyway, so I don't think too much would change. Theo would be working on designs for his master jeweler's evaluation, and thinking about what Hélène would like to wear. ;)

A: Can we talk a little bit about writing and what that looks like for you? It's a bit of a crazy time, maybe not French Revolution crazy but... How are you staying motivated to write these days?

L: Writing has been tricky lately. I have two daughters both doing school from home right now. My computer is always being taken, and they need help from mom so that's taking a lot of my time. My husband's working from home part time so he's distracting, but I am doing what I can to carve out a little time. One of the things that's been motivating for me since I work for the SCBWI was getting a grant for my work in progress, a post-WWII novel that deal with dissociative identity disorder. I've been able to use my grant to make a lot of connections and further my research. So it's been more of a research time than a writing time lately, but it's been really wonderful to have that support.

A: So you've got the French Revolution, and now post-WWII, some of the coolest times to write about... it sounds like you must be having a lot of fun with it, and that research must play a huge factor. The culture certainly jumped off the page in Nemesis and the Swan, this sense that you were really there in the streets of Paris. What did you do to prepare yourself to write such an atmospheric book?

L: I read a lot. I read as much non-fiction as I could, especially first-person accounts. I looked at a lot of paintings. I made Pinterest boards with fashion and different paintings from the time just so I could see what people from the time were seeing. I also spent a lot of time looking at jewelry. Fashion at the time was really important because it showed your allegiances. If you were loyal to the revolution, you wore a red, white, and blue cockade. If you didn't, you were in big trouble and people were more suspicious of you.

I read as many first person accounts as I could, but I don't read French, so that was a little tricky. I tried to watch all the movies and read other historical fiction. A Tale of Two Cities is one of my favorites. Marge Piercy's City of Darkness is awesome as well. So of those were really helpful too to try and get in in that world.

A: What is your favorite part of writing?

L: Being surprised. I like sitting down and having a general idea, but then a character surprises me. It's this moment of 'yes, you're alive!' and it's awesome.

A: And it sounds like there were a few surprised while writing Nemesis, like you mentioned the jewelry?

L: I kind of knew that I wanted Theo to be a jeweler what with the aristocracy and their jewels, but I saw the Lover's Eyes and had a wow moment - knowing I needed to find a way to use it. I started down a rabbit trail - like most of my research because I am a rabbit - only to find it wasn't a fad in Europe until the 1800s. But I started looking into it further and found theories suggesting the first ones were made in Paris in the 1780s. These are the sorts of moments when I find myself rewriting since I don't do all my research at once. I'm always researching as I go so I can account for new surprises, and get unstuck because I usually find that I get stuck when I don't know enough. Research helps tell me where to go next.

A: And what does that writing process look like?

L: I started out as a total pantser. I had no idea what I was doing or where I was going and I got frustrated because I would have these scenes that I was really in love with, but they weren't going anywhere or building. I came to realize that even pants have structure. There are lots of different kinds of pants, but they all have a spot for each of your legs, openings for each of your feet, a spot for your butt - they have a structure, and so does a story. So I now have more of a back and forth between surprise and structure. I've found this rhythm that works for me. I like to say that I've found my special pair of stretchy plotting pants that I wear. It sounds goofy, but they're very stretchy and comfy, but they have that structure.

So when I sit down to write, when I'm starting a new project, I try to have things like my major plot points at least sketched out. I ask myself how my character's going to grow, how are they going to change by the end. I'm very character-focused. I get into their heads and senses and then try to move the plot chess pieces. I'm not an outliner. When I was in high school I would fake outline. I would write my paper first, then write the outline, turn it in and pretend I did it before. But what I do now is do some writing, make some charts & graphs with pictures and arrows. I map out movement - what do my characters expect going into a chapter and how do those expectations get flipped on their head? It allows for those surprises, but ideally keeps me from throwing out hundreds of pages.

A: I love the idea of stretchy pants as a process.

L: I'm ready to shop at Forever 35 now. I'll get my stretchy plotting pants and be good to go.

A: What is one piece of writing advice you live by in your stretchy pants?

L: My very first agent, though she's not in the business anymore, gave me the best advice I've ever heard. She said, 'Don't be afraid to make broad and sweeping changes to something.' Just save a copy and try something new. You can always go back to it if it doesn't work, but just be bold and try.

A: I feel like that's the kind of advice that doesn't even just apply to writing either. You can carry that through every aspect of your life.

A: And now for a speed round... Coffee or tea?

L: Hot coffee but cold tea. I don't like cold coffee unless it's really sugary and creamy like a frappé.

A: Sweet or savory?

L: Savory, although I do like my sweets. My favorite would be the smokin' sweet chips.

A: Are you a snacker while you write?

L: Not a big snacker, but I do drink coffee. Since I became a mom, if I sit down to do something like write or read, I fall asleep. My child told me one time that I finished an entire book that I had no memory of reading, because I fell asleep. Apparently I can read in my sleep. So coffee's important to keep me awake.

A: Board games or puzzles?

L: Definitely board games. Puzzles make me mad. I do them for my children sometimes but I get so frustrated with them. Which is kind of funny because writing a novel is like putting a puzzle together...

A: New releases or backlist?

L: I try to do a mix, but I read whatever seems like it would capture my interest most

A: Bookmark or dog ear

L: I am a book splatter. I don't do either. I hear 'mom' and I splat my book down wherever I was reading it. All my books are spread out everywhere. But if I'm feeling responsible, I'll grab a bookmark.

A: Ocean or mountains?

L: Ocean. But I'm also very pale, so I can't do it midday or I'll fry.

A: TV or movies?

L: Usually movies?

A: Do you have a favorite French-themed movie?

L: Not sure about French revolution, but I love historical fiction: The Painted Veil, Memoirs of a Geisha...

A: Do you have any favorite historical fiction authors?

L: I have so many. I think my two favorites would probably be Ruta Sepetys. I love Salt to the Sea. I think that's pretty much the best historical fiction, and I sat in a pile of tissues finishing it. I also really love Marcus Sedgwick. He doesn't only do historical fiction - his have a little bit of a speculative element. But Midwinter Blood and Revolver are two of my all-time favorites. I love Julie Berry and her Lovely War. I could go on, but those are my top three.

A: And are you currently reading anything?

L: I am and it's definitely a backlister. It's from the 50s, by a Swiss writer, and it's called I'm Not Stiller. It's a post-war novel that somewhat ties into the research I'm doing on my current project. It's all about self-deception and memory and reinventing yourself. I'm really enjoying it. It has a very unreliable narrator, but you slowly get to the truth of who he is.