DIANNE K. SALERNI, a former fifth grade teacher, is the author of young adult historical novels, We Hear the Dead (Sourcebooks) and The Caged Graves (Clarion/HMH), and the middle-grade fantasy series, The Eighth Day (HarperCollins). In her spare time, Dianne is prone to hanging around creepy cemeteries and climbing 2000 year-old pyramids in the name of book research.
What typically comes first for you: a character? An era? A story idea? How do you proceed from there?
The premise of the story comes first, and that usually dictates the time period. When I decided to write about the Fox sisters, their séance fraud, and Maggie Fox’s romance with Elisha Kane, I had to follow the timeline of their true story. When I decided to write about the caged graves in Catawissa, Pennsylvania, I could have changed the time period, but I thought it was better to work with the actual dates of death on the headstones. When I began working on a project that involved Nikola Tesla, I obviously had to work within the span of his life.
Having determined the time period of each story, my first step is to research the subject (ie: biographies of Maggie Fox, Elisha Kane, Nikola Tesla), the setting (ie: the history of Catawissa), and when possible, read other books set within the same time period.
What kinds of sources do you use?
I do a lot of my research online and depend on historical society websites, historic photographs, census information, and even online copies of old magazines, such as Godey’s Ladies Book. Who scans all this information and puts it online, I don’t know, but I owe them a debt of gratitude!
I also purchase books when appropriate, especially biographies and books on local history. If a historical character in my story has written a book (such as Elisha Kane’s Arctic Explorations) I may read that. I also have a few reference books on hand in my house, such as a giant dictionary of slang (which helps me date slang accurately for historical use) or The Writer’s Guide to Every Day Life in the 1800s.
On occasion, I’ll visit a location related to my book or a scene in the book, such as a cemetery, a town, a coal mine, or in one case, a pyramid in Mexico! (Did you know traveling for book research is tax deductible?!)
At what point do you feel comfortable beginning to draft? How does your research continue once you begin writing?
I begin writing when the opening of the story reveals itself to me and I have enough plot ideas to move forward from there. Although I usually sketch out a basic outline for a plot before beginning the story, I rarely stick to it. For me, the true story develops along the way, and it’s often not exactly what I planned it to be.
I will continue to research as things come up during the writing. (ie: What town was accessible to the main character’s home by train in a single day? Were cupcakes invented by the 1860s? How did someone acquire decorative plants in the days before florists and nurseries?)
What’s your favorite thing about writing historical fiction?
I love learning about the details of life and marveling at what people could do then that we can’t do now. Yes, that may be the opposite of what one expects – Can’t we do more now? – but the people of the past had many more skills than we do. We are specialized and rely on our technology. We need to know less, because we can always look something up or find somebody else who knows what we need. (People don’t even bother to memorize phone numbers anymore!)
I also love portraying people in historical time periods as very much the same as people today. For example, when one of my characters, Verity, becomes engaged to a young man she knows only through letters, it’s a lot like today’s online dating. When she finally meets him, she’s expecting insta-love, and when that doesn’t happen, it’s a disappointment to her.
What are some obstacles writing historical fiction brings?
If I had a penny for every time an editor passed on a manuscript, saying, “Historical fiction is a hard sell” … well, I’d have a lot of pennies.
I wish so many readers (especially YA readers) didn’t automatically write off historical fiction. History is a setting like any other – contemporary, dystopian, fantasy, or science fiction. Where and when the action takes place helps shapes the story, of course, but why historical settings would be considered less appealing than others puzzles me!
Because life isn’t always clear cut, the motives behind our actions don’t always make sense. But stories need to follow a logical path. What sorts of decisions have you had to make about “muddy” historical figures or events in order for your book to work?
This definitely came up a number of times when I was writing the story of the Fox sisters. They did what the historical record says they did, and I had to work with that. I had to provide the motivation behind their actions, even when those actions didn’t make sense. I believed the girls were frauds, but I had to work with witness accounts of their eerily accurate séances. Elisha Kane disappointed Maggie Fox repeatedly, but she always took him back. Why?
In the end, I had to remember that people in the past were not very different than people today. Witnesses lie. Girls believe their lovers will change, that this time, things will be different. When faced with a conundrum in history, I almost always found that human faults and frailties provided the solution for me. Because people aren’t logical or perfect.
Why is historical fiction important?
For exactly the reasons I stated above! People in the past were the same as people today. It’s important for us to understand that there’s nothing new under the sun – even if we think there is! Online dating and long-distance romance? Not new. Boyfriends who won’t commit and businesses that defraud the customers? Not new.
We need historical fiction in order to be less self-centered, to remind ourselves that people who came before us led lives as rich and interesting as our own – as will the people who come after us.