I’m a great lover of historical fiction and often wonder how much of the research to an historical novel ends up in the book. As a result, I’m pleased to welcome Amie O’Brien, author of The Merchant’s Pearl to Linda’s Book Bag today to tell us a bit more about that very subject.
Published last year, The Merchant’s Pearl is available for purchase here.
The Merchant’s Pearl
Sarai was led to believe that the whole world could exchange their beliefs for hers. But when her parents are murdered, she quickly learns that the world never stops for just one person. The world takes, forgets, and swiftly moves on.
By 1875, she isn’t even Sarai anymore. She’s spent her teenage years repackaged as Leila, a palace concubine-in-waiting for the overly indulgent, Ottoman Sultan, Abdul’Aziz. Leila does her best to stay out of the eye of ‘Aziz as well as his son, Prince Emre. But when young and thoughtful Emre claims Leila for his own harem, she is forced out of her shell and thrown into a ring of competitive women. Here, she cannot hide from the attention her young master wishes to lavish upon her. Nor can she can avoid the ruthless retaliations of his prior favorite, Aster. But it’s the unexpected gift of sexual sanctuary and an inside look into his family’s struggles that really collides with Leila’s upbringing. Soon, despite her better judgment, she finds her heart becoming increasingly tied to him.
But can she submit her faith and independent spirit to such a future—a future where to be loved means settling for the fact that she can only ever be his favorite? Will she be able to take turns sharing him among the four beautiful girls he had received before her, one being a jealous rival and another a closest friend? And what will happen to their love if Emre’s father can’t hold together his fragile kingdom, an empire that has grave threats encroaching from every side…including within?
Getting the Balance Right
A Guest Post by Amie O’Brien
I knew there was a fine line when writing historical fiction. Though this was the first historical novel (or novel period) I had written, I had read enough of them over the years to know that my mind tends to wander when faced with too much information. My eyes begin to droop and suddenly my face gets smacked by my fallen treasure. I typically regroup, but not without fanning the pages to see how soon I’ll be rewarded with actual dialogue, not a recapping of what was going on in politics, fashion, or plagues.
Which is why…I never told myself I was writing a historical. In my mind, I was going to write women’s fiction. It was going to be sophisticated, solid. It was going to be deeply human, filled with characters flawed on both sides. It was going to be an all-out war of the hearts and, best of all, it was going to be romantic! Then the story started to reveal itself to me and I knew I had to find the perfect home for my characters.
My mind wrapped itself around a Victorian setting. I knew my cast were Christian and Muslim. I knew I had a story of slavery, an almost Esther of the Bible scenario in which other girls would vie for my character’s position, but she would feel utterly powerless and devalued.
First, I determined who Leila was before everything in her life begins to shatter. Then, after some soul searching, it came to me what would be her deepest desire. I mapped out several of the conflicts that would be before her, even before I officially began my research. I wanted them to be matters of the heart. I was certain that if what she wanted was universal—to be loved and valued above all else—then there would be plenty of accurate and compelling historical truths I could build around her.
Researching the Ottoman Empire was something completely new to me. I knew next to nothing about “white slavery.” But I was fascinated by every article, every Sultan’s reign, their political entrapments, and harem dynamics, so much so, that it made it painful to sift what would make it into my story.
It seemed to me there were plenty of novels covering earlier sultans, such as Suleyman, Mahmud, and Abdulhamid. They focused on either the swift rise of the Ottoman Empire and the heroic feats of these men, or they focused on the truly dark parts of Ottoman history, their families, and self-destructive, epic demise. Even more so, when written from a heroine’s perspective, the stories revolved around power. Women came in feisty, were tamed after seeing the promise of reward, and (after a few cat fights) traded their ambitions of love and freedom for more attainable goals, such as massive amounts of jewelry, dominion over lesser concubines, and the joy of producing an heir.
For me, these storylines didn’t match up to what I had laid out for Leila. It wasn’t her at all. So my characters took a far less beaten path. Basically, I discovered I didn’t need the crazy part of the historical encounters (or maybe just bits and pieces of crazy). What I personally found more compelling as a story was the direct conflict between Leila and her master, Emre. I wanted to see what would happen if an attachment slowly formed. Could Leila process those unexpected and unwanted feelings? Could she balance her faith with her actions? Would she crumble under the pressure? This led me to look at history through a more compassionate lens. What could I find in my research that would make excuses for Emre’s behavior? Where were the gray and muddled areas? Where could I see when progress was being made in the culture, but perhaps other countries would meddle, keeping them where they had started?
It’s true that The Merchant’s Pearl includes elements known to have caused the fall of the Ottoman Empire. It’s a very real fear for my characters as their story unfolds. But it was best that the reader only see the parts that my characters, a slave and her prince, would have knowledge of. If it threatened their future or pressed on their day-to-day life, then it was viable material. I wasn’t trying to teach a history lesson. I was trying to say something about love.
About Amie O’Brien
The Merchant’s Pearl is the first novel from Amie O’Brien, but she would tell you her characters are constantly nagging her for their future instalments. Madly in love with her husband and children, she hopes to spend more time petting horses, reading books, and pursuing her addiction with world travel.