On Writing Historical Romance Set in Canada: An Interview with Author Estella Kuchta
We’re gearing up for the release of Estella Kuchta’s historical romance novel, Finding the Daydreamer! The book launches on September 10th, 2020. Pre-orders are available on our website, as well as Amazon or Smashwords.
In Finding the Daydreamer, author Estella Kuchta addresses trauma, courage, and desire with the grace and insight of a practiced storyteller. I was awed by the beauty and inventiveness of this novel. The depth of emotion in Kuchta’s poetic style breathes life into compassionately imagined characters. Annabelle, motherly and courageous, exemplifies the struggle to be truly seen and loved by others. Finding the Daydreamer is a testament to human resilience in the face of disaster, something especially vital in our world today.
I got the chance to interview Estella about the book and her experience as a novelist, researcher, and mother. She had some great insights to share about love stories, as well as questions to consider when writing them!
Luka Dowell: I was really impressed with the emotional depth of your characters. What's your process for creating characters and developing their personalities?
Estella Kuchta: In a dusty box in a closet, sits my “practice novel.” One thing I learned from that practice attempt is that plot-driven novels feel a little empty. So, when I sat down to start this novel, I chose a completely different approach. I spent months developing some of the characters before I started writing. In fact, I had no idea where the plot would go—and that was true during the entire first draft. I only listened to the characters, especially Annabelle, and followed her lead. Partway through the book, characters started to come much easier. Some of them arrived whole and fully formed.
Luka: Where did you look for inspiration? Are the characters based on real people you know? What's your character development process like?
Estella: The trend in books, movies, and TV shows these days is to show characters who are incredibly flawed human beings. I guess we’re supposed to feel better about ourselves through feasting on the amusing flaws of others. But as an audience, I find that rather boring. It’s harder to develop really admirable characters who are still whole humans. I wanted Annabelle to be someone I could look up to and learn from. For sure I share some of her characteristics—and that was part of my motivation to write about them—but my goal was to develop a character with real integrity. Harvey vaguely resembles a guy I dated for a while. Other characters contain traces of this person or that whom I know, but also come from imagination.
Luka: You also research love stories academically. How does your research influence your fiction writing?
Estella: What are the characteristics of a classic Canadian love story? —That was the question I set out to research in my graduate literature program. Finding the Daydreamer emerged as a creative exploration of that question. I was very lucky to have been funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Council Research Grant (SSHRC), so that allowed me to investigate Canadian literary love stories in-depth. What I discovered was that Canadian love stories are often impeded by: our vast geography; cultural tendencies toward politeness and harmony (instead of fire and passion); and economic priorities (love is often sidelined). In fact, exceedingly few literary novels set within the Canadian border focus primarily on romantic love, passionate love, or devoted companionship. In writing Finding the Daydreamer, I wanted to see if I could overcome those barriers and write a truly love-rich novel. Readers can judge whether I succeeded!
Luka: I certainly think you did! Do you think more Canadian authors should write about love? What advice would you have for those authors?
Estella: I would love to read more rich, in-depth love stories set in Canada. Some of Canada’s most brilliant authors have written engrossing love stories—but set outside of Canada. I’m thinking of Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient or Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad. Of course, I haven’t read the entire Canadian canon, so people might suggest some reading that I’ve missed.
Luka: What were the most challenging parts of writing this book? What do you wish you knew beforehand?
Estella: If anyone is wondering whether it’s challenging to write a book while being a low-income single-parent of two children, moving between four countries and multiple jobs—YES, it is! I started this book in Canada, wrote a significant portion of it while working in Japan, revised it in California, and did a second revision while working in China. During the writing of this book, I moved seven times, worked at ten jobs, finished a graduate degree, had knee surgery, a car accident, and a miscarriage. Without a doubt the most challenging part of writing this book was simply finding time. I’m so glad I persevered. It's worth it!
Luka: Wow, that sounds intense. Did the difficulties you faced (like moving around a lot) help you become more adaptable? How consistent do you need your workspace to be?
Estella: I’m not fussy about my workspace. I can write in cafes, at home, in messiness, in spotless clean, in silence, and with 10 conversations swirling around me. That’s one of the gifts of being a mother—I have the ability to tune out noise and mess. The problem is that once I start writing, I don’t want to stop and do anything else. I become so completely engrossed in the writing, I feel like the real world is peripheral for a while. There were times writing this book where I felt like I was living two lives at once. I long to have the time and space to drift fully into the world of my novels. That happened infrequently with Finding the Daydreamer. Maybe I’ll have that with my next novel. I’ve experienced a life jam-packed with experiences, so I don’t ever stare at paper wondering what to write. There are so many stories inside me waiting to pour out.
Luka: What does your writer's routine look like?
Estella: Sometimes I write for 12 hours a day, other days only two. I’ve never been a very routine-oriented person. Mostly, I write whenever possible. I often have to force myself to stop writing and go to bed. I get so focused that I might not even eat dinner until 11 at night. But in the morning, I don’t feel like doing much of anything except sitting on the couch, sipping tea.
Luka: You put a lot of time into researching the historical aspects of the book, including consulting with experts. What ethical considerations should authors have when writing historical fiction?
Estella: The most challenging ethical consideration for me was how to handle the Indigenous characters and history. I’m not Indigenous myself, and I felt a real responsibility to write about those characters and the First Nations reserve in a way that would honour and acknowledge Indigenous histories. Yet, my many attempts to make contact with the specific First Nations Band of that area went unanswered. Quite understandably, some Indigenous peoples are reticent to talk to strangers about their histories, since those histories have often been used against them, misunderstood, or taken without permission. This left me in a bit of a bind, however. I didn’t want to omit Indigenous histories altogether and paint the illusion that only settlers lived in that area. I also couldn’t write about them without permission. If my parenting and financial situation would have allowed, I would have flown up to the Cariboo on multiple occasions for the sole purpose of developing relationships with the local Band members. But that was out of my reach. In the end, I altered those sections of the book dramatically so that I was no longer writing about the local Band. Two of my friends who are Indigenous elders very kindly read through the sections containing Indigenous characters and histories and offered feedback. I’m very grateful for their approval. Other aspects of the book also posed ethical considerations, such as issues of homosexuality and abuse. I also wanted to give voice to the more-than-humans who appear in the book.
Luka: Can you expand on what you mean by more-than-humans?
Estella: By “more-than-humans,” I mean the plants, animals, mountains, and weather the human characters encounter. As a Canadian, a researcher and a writer, I’m very interested in the relationships that develop between humans and nonhumans, and the way those relationships shape and influence human identity, values, and behaviour. As part of my research for this book, I studied and “listened to” chickadees, wind, fir trees, moss, rivers, and of course, horses.
Estella Kuchta is a writer, researcher, and postsecondary instructor in Vancouver, Canada. Her research focuses on ecocriticism, eco-education, and the biological impact of reading love stories. Her creative writing and journalism projects have been published, aired, and broadcast in newspapers, literary magazines, radio and TV in Canada and the United States. She earned a BFA in Creative Writing and MA in Literature from the University of British Columbia, where she won several awards for writing. Her website is https://estellakuchta.com/.