Straight From the Source: Dianne K. Salerni on Writing Historical Fiction

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.

Classroom Connections: UNDER A PAINTED SKY by Stacey Lee

age range: 12 and up
setting: Missouri en route to California, 1849
Stacey Lee’s website

High drama, tension, romantic longings, and touches of humor will entice historical fiction fans, and will be a perfect tie-in to social studies curriculum.
— School Library Journal

Please tell us about your book.

Missouri, 1849: Samantha dreams of moving back to New York to be a professional musician—not an easy thing if you’re a girl, and harder still if you’re Chinese. But a tragic accident dashes any hopes of fulfilling her dream, and instead, leaves her fearing for her life. With the help of a runaway slave named Annamae, Samantha flees town for the unknown frontier. But life on the Oregon Trail is unsafe for two girls, so they disguise themselves as Sammy and Andy, two boys headed for the California gold rush.

Sammy and Andy forge a powerful bond as they each search for a link to their past, and struggle to avoid any unwanted attention. But when they cross paths with a band of cowboys, the light-hearted troupe turn out to be unexpected allies. With the law closing in on them and new setbacks coming each day, the girls quickly learn that there are not many places to hide on the open trail.

An unforgettable story of friendship and sacrifice—perfect for fans of Code Name Verity.

What inspired you to write this story?

I’d always wondered what life in America was like when my ancestors arrived to California in the late 19th century. When I researched the history of Chinese in America, I learned that the bulk of the Chinese came during the western expansion and California Gold Rush. I don’t speak Chinese myself, so I knew my heroine needed to have a full command of the English language. The story grew from there.

Could you share with readers how you conducted your research or share a few interesting tidbits you learned while researching?

I’m not a historian, so for me, every book begins with a trip to the library. There are plenty of online resources as well, but I seem to learn better when reading a hard copy. Also, I find the Children’s section of the library to be invaluable for subjects I know nothing about. Children’s books and videos break down the material into easy to understand chunks, not to mention, they’re much more entertaining than the adult stuff.

What are some special challenges associated with writing historical fiction?

One challenge is understanding the geography of the area as it existed during a particular period in time. Cities can change a lot over a few years, and while I certainly believe in taking liberties, I like to know when I’m doing it. I’m starting quite a collection of antique maps and reproductions!

What topics does your book touch upon that would make it a perfect fit for the classroom?

The Oregon Trail and western expansion, slavery, Chinese American history, and the California Gold Rush, and last but not least, cowboys.

 

Writing Links

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Le Mot Juste :: Avi

Reading the Archetypes: Another Look at Levels :: Nerdy Book Club

An Epic Post about the Submission Process, from an Agent’s POV :: Jennifer Represents…

The Craft of Writing: Selling on Proposal, AKA the Dreaded Synopsis by Gretchen McNeil :: Adventures in YA Publishing

Voices of Self-Sabotage :: Writer’s First Aid

Why Writers Are Often Blind to Their Own Faults :: Jody Hedlund

A new middle-grade blog focusing on historical fiction — Mad about MG History

The Gift of Friendship

Update: I’ve extended the giveaway through Sunday, 1/25. Details below.

girls and pearls

My husband’s first pastorate out of seminary was in Northern Virginia, just outside Washington DC. He was a youth pastor and I was a teacher, and we were still pretty new to town. One Sunday a young couple visited our church. I casually chatted with them — a British fellow with the name Steve Martin (isn’t that fun?) and his lovely American wife, Jamie. And in those few moments I had one of those weird experiences I’d only had once before: I knew immediately that Jamie and I would become very good friends.

It was a strange feeling with no real basis, other than an underlining conviction we had clicked in a meaningful way. Almost fifteen years have passed since that Sunday. We’ve lived apart for eleven of them. But the fledgling friendship that started that day has been one of my life’s dearest gifts.

One spring Jamie came to visit us in Michigan. As the two of us wandered through an antique shop, she handed me a worn school primer she’d found on a shelf. Maybe it will be helpful for that new book idea you have, she said. It ended up being key. On the day May B. came into the world, Jamie wrote something that to this day makes me cry.

As I struggled with writing Blue Birds, Jamie was the one to tell me good work is often hard work. Each time I’d email about how difficult it all was, she’d remind me the writing was hard because it was important.

This time last year I was deep in the midst of second-round edits and desperate to connect with Alis and Kimi in a meaningful way. So I started wearing a strand of pearls. Everyday. With sweats and dressy clothes and everything in between. Unless I was sleeping or exercising, the pearls were there. My Blue Birds girls share a pearl necklace (you can see Alis wearing it on the cover). Wearing pearls was a constant reminder of their friendship, a way to meet them beyond my writing sessions, to carry them with me to the grocery store, while walking the dog, into life’s small, quiet moments.

It was during this time I found this treasure in my mailbox. A gift from Jamie (who knew nothing about the pearls). And that’s when I knew with certainty exactly who this book was for.

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If we’re lucky, we find friends in this world who love us as we are and bring out our best selves. I hope that’s what I’ve captured in Alis and Kimi’s relationship. It’s what Jamie Martin has given me.

BB PDF pic for blog postsThis post is part of a week-long celebration in honor of  Blue Birds. I’m giving away a downloadable PDF of this beautiful Blue Birds quote (created by Annie Barnett of Be Small Studios) for anyone who pre-orders the book by January 25. Simply click through to order from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Books A Million, IndieBound, or Powell’s, then email a copy of your receipt to caroline@carolinestarrrose.com by Sunday, January 25.

Join the Celebration!

An Interview with Caroline Starr Rose, author of Blue Birds :: From the Mixed Up Files…

What I’m Reading: Blue Birds by Caroline Starr Rose :: Views from a Window Seat

Blue Birds :: Augusta Scattergood

Blue Birds Interview with Caroline Starr Rose :: Reflections on the Teche

Book Review: Blue Birds by Caroline Starr Rose :: Book Covers

 

 

 

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