Too much research hurts promising historical novel

Published: March 23 2014 | 7:00 am - Updated: 1 April 2014 | 10:02 am in

A classic adage for writers is to “write what you know.” And while some writers find hands-on experience leads to detailed and emotionally-gripping prose, others can become so wrapped up with researching their subject that the narrative structure of the novel suffers. This, unfortunately, is the case for classically-trained singer-turned-author Vivian Shotwell and her debut novel, “Vienna Nocturne.”

Vienna Nocturne is the fictionalized story of 18th-century English opera singer Anna Storace who, at 15, leaves England to make her presence known on the stages of Italy and Austria.

Given Shotwell’s musical background, it comes as no surprise that the novel is filled with beautifully detailed passages about voice and technique.

But there’s also romance and intrigue, as Anna seems to cause scandal wherever she goes, taking married lovers (including Mozart) and using her influence to turn the fortunes of those she holds dear.

While Vienna Nocturne sounds like La Vie en Rose without the heroin, Shotwell moves so quickly from dramatic scene to dramatic scene readers never fully have a sense of who Anna is as a character, making her actions come off as stilted. Shotwell is also spare with period details, describing 18th century Vienna simply as “one of the largest cities in the world” and plopping in period details such as the execution of Franz Zahlheim seemingly as an afterthought.

As a result, the narrative feels as though it could take place in any city – not what readers want from a historical novel.

With a lack of connection to characters and an underdeveloped setting, the climatic scenes where Anna performs the classic arias fall flat and “Vienna Nocturne,” for all its promise, is a disappointment.

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