Today I’m welcoming Aimie K. Runyan to talk about her Canadian tale (well, New France, if you want to be strictly accurate), Promised to the Crown.
Welcome Aimee. Let’s get started, shall we?
Tell us about your novel.
AKR: Promised to the Crown tells the story of three very different women who chose to accept Louis XIV’s offer to travel to his colony in Canada, then known as New France, in order to choose husbands from among the legion of bachelor settlers. The King needs women to help increase the population to hold the colony from the British menace and to tie the men to the land. France was in a time of relative prosperity, yet 770 brave women answered the call to go to the frozen north. Elisabeth, Rose, and Nicole face hardships and triumph in the new world, and the friendship they forge on their crossing sees them through it all.
What prompted you to write about this historical event?
AKR: I am a sucker for little-known history, especially when it tells the story of women who have gone unappreciated for centuries. History has dismissed these King’s daughters, or filles du roi, as a footnote in history. The truth is that 2/3 of all French Canadians today can trace their lineage back to one or more of these remarkable women.
How closely did you stick to the historical facts? If you used them loosely, how did you decide whether to deviate from them?
AKR: I stuck to the details available—dates of crossings, legal precedents (no lawyers allowed! Strict regulations on bakers! All great plot fodder), diet, housing, and what experts can contrive about relationships and family hierarchies… all that made daily life come into vivid relief. The characters and their situations are mine. I took three characters and tried to show a broader picture of what life would have been like for these women and the options available to them in the new world. I didn’t want to tell just one woman’s story.
What research did you do for this book?
AKR: I lived in Canada for three months (not contiguous) on a research grant from the Quebec government when working on my thesis on female immigration to Canada. I knew I wanted to write this novel someday, so I hunted down a lot of extra research that wouldn’t fit into the paper—daily life type things—and socked them away until I had the chance to write my book. I visited monuments, museums, and churches. I wandered the streets of Old Quebec trying to memorize the ambiance. Not only did I find all the resources I needed, I fell in love with a new city!
Do you use a mixture of historic figures and invented characters in the novel. Which is more difficult to write? Which to you prefer to write and why?
AKR: There is only one historical figure in my book—Mother Marie de l’Incarnation who is present in one scene. Since my books aren’t really biographic, I prefer to create my own characters and throw the, in a historical context. It gives me more freedom to explore the story behind the history without worrying if Character X Y or Z would have been in the right place for a scene to happen. It was almost a necessity to work this way for Promised because so few personal records exist. I may deviate from that in the future, but for now that seems to be my wheelhouse.
In an historical novel you must vividly re-create a place and people in a bygone era. How did you bring the place and people you are writing about to life?
AKR: I had the chance to spend so much time in Canada breathing in the city, that it made the task much easier. I spent a lot of time visualizing the settings before I sat down to write a scene, and tried to convey that to the page. The people were harder. A modern reader would not have had much in common with a woman who lived 350 years ago. The 17th century woman would not have been just a quaint version of the 21st century woman; she would have had a different outlook on virtually every aspect of life. Taking into consideration just one major difference in women’s lives is telling. Today’s new mother can almost be guaranteed of a safe delivery and a healthy child. The odds aren’t 100%, but they’re pretty darn good. A woman in the 17th century gave birth to a dozen children hoping two or three might live to reach adulthood. That reality alone would be enough to change a person’s whole frame of reference on life. I had to tap into aspects of these women’s personalities that made them relatable—education, experience, and ambition—just as a start.
There often seems to be more scope in historical novels for male characters rather than female characters. Do you prefer to write one sex or the other. And, if so, why?
AKR: If ‘men’s history’ has an advantage, it’s that it was always ‘front page news’. It has been what the history books have put down as the official record. The truth, however, is that ‘women’s history’ is just as rich (or even more so) than the accepted truths we learned in school. Sadly, the contributions of women at many times in history has been largely ignored. Women created the framework of our societies along with their husbands, fathers, and brothers, even if their work wasn’t always lauded on center stage. Women took advantage of the backchannels to evoke change and to influence men in power. There is a treasure trove of women’s stories that are yearning to be told, that deserve to be told for the historian willing to dig past the ‘headline news’.
I remember learning about les filles du roi in history classes at school so I found your answers to my questions fascinating, Aimee. I love it when all the details of history come to life in a story I can sink into. Thank you for taking the time to answer my questions.
About Aimie K. Runyan: A member of the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers and Women’s Fiction Writers Association, she has been an avid student of French and Francophone Studies for more than fifteen years. While working on her Master’s thesis on the brave women who helped found French Canada, she was fortunate enough to win a generous grant from the Quebec government to study onsite for three months, which enabled the detailed research necessary for her work. Aimie lives in Colorado with her husband and two children.