Straight From the Source: Kathryn Fitzmaurice on Writing Historical Fiction

When Kathryn Fitzmaurice was thirteen years old, her mother sent her to New York City over the summer to visit her grandmother, who was a science fiction author. After seeing how her grandmother could make the characters in her books into whomever she wanted, Kathryn decided that she, too, wanted to become a writer someday. Years later, after teaching elementary school, she now writes full time and lives with her husband, two sons, and her dog, Holly, in Monarch Beach, California.

Kathryn is the author of The Year the Swallows Came Early (2009, HarperCollins), A Diamond in the Desert (2012, Viking), and Destiny, Rewritten (2013, HarperCollins). Visit her at www.kathrynfitzmaurice.com or at http://kathrynfitzmaurice.blogspot.com/   

How did you conduct your research for A Diamond in the Desert?

Kathryn:  Very carefully and with an amazing amount of note taking.  I conducted several interviews over the course of two years and read through four years of THE GILA NEWS COURIER, which was on microfiche.  I collected photographs and maps, printed several pages from the newspaper, and kept all of this in a file.  I made sure to find at least one other back-up source, which confirmed what I had learned, so that I had two primary sources.  In some cases, I was unable to do this, but for the most part, I did my best to confirm what I had learned.  This was so that when the copy editor asked a question, or was attempting to confirm a fact, I could easily send her what I had.

How long do you typically research before beginning to draft?

Kathryn:  I make sure ALL of my research is complete before I start writing.  This is because I want to understand everything that has happened in my story before writing the first word.  I need to know how the story will begin and how it will end.  I believe that by making a timeline in my office on the wall (with sticky notes) that this helps me to know where I am going.  Each day, I can write, using the timeline as a reference, and then the next day, I am able to pick up where I left off.  I also like to place photographs on my wall and maps of the area I am writing about.  All of these things help to keep me grounded in the time period I am writing about. 

What is your favorite thing about research?

Kathryn:  Finding something I had no idea had happened, and then deciding whether or not to include it in my manuscript. 

What kinds of sources do you use? 

Kathryn: Phone and in person interviews, newspaper articles from the Pacific Region National Archives Center in Laguna Niguel, online research, The Japanese American National Society in San Francisco, and California State University at Fullerton provided a collection of Japanese American interviews.

What’s your favorite thing about writing historical fiction?

Kathryn: Being able to give a copy of the finished book to the person whose life it was written for.  In my case, I was able to do this because the gentleman I interviewed is still alive.  This was such a thrill and to this day, nothing brings more joy than to see how happy Mr. Furukawa was when he first opened A Diamond in the Desert and saw that it was dedicated to him.

Why is historical fiction important?

Kathryn: Historical fiction novels are able to show young readers a part of our history they may not be aware of.  These stories are important because often times, readers are introduced through a medium that brings more understanding and therefore, perhaps, more compassion toward a situation or group of people. 

Writing Links

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Bullet Journaling (Children’s Author Version!) :: Kate Messner

Nine Things I Wish I’d Known About Publishing :: Alison Cherry

Protecting the Creative Self :: Mettie Ivie Harrison

The Privacy of Reading :: Avi

The Nitty Gritty on Authors, Signings, and Filthy Lucre :: Shannon Hale

Why You Should Do It For the Money (And Stop Feeling Guilty About It) :: Michael Hyatt

Win a Ten-Copy BLUE BIRDS Book Club Kit!

blue birds on shelf

Update: Congratulations to Anamaria Anderson, who is our winner!

As I did with May B., I am donating to one lucky school, library, homeschool co-op, or reading circle a Blue Birds Book Club Kit. The kit will include the following:

  • 10 copies of Blue Birds
  • teacher / discussion guide
  • bookmarks and stickers for all readers
  • interactive Skype visit

Grades four through eight qualify. To enter, simply tell me about your readers and why Blue Bird is a good fit for your group in the comments below. That’s it! 

The contest is open to US residents only. Winners will be announced March 27. Thanks to G.P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers for providing the books.

Classroom Connections: THE ACTUAL AND TRUTHFUL ADVENTURES OF BECKY THATCHER by Jessica Lawson

age range: 8-12

setting: 1860 Missouri; retelling of Tom Sawyer

curriculum guide

Jessica Lawson’s website

“The deliciously impetuous, devilishly clever, and uncommonly brave Becky Thatcher is now one of my all-time favorite heroines, and I’m desperate to follow her on more adventures. Captivating, exciting, and great barrels-full of fun, this is a book to adore.”
Anne Ursu, author of The Real Boy and Breadcrumbs

A delightfully clever debut.”
– Publishers Weekly, starred review

“Young readers will race through this adventure, while teachers and adults will delight in its gold mine of creative parallels.”
– BookPage

Please tell us about your book.

The Actual & Truthful Adventures of Becky Thatcher is part origin story, part retelling of Mark Twain’s classic The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. Written from the perspective of Becky Thatcher, it takes the setting and many characters from Twain’s beloved work and forms a new plot that puts Becky in the spotlight as she grapples with the after-effects of her brother’s death and has adventures in his honor. Samuel Clemens (aka Mark Twain), who was actually a riverboat pilot on the Mississippi during the time of the novel (1860), makes several appearances and serves as a reminder that every writer’s stories and characters have an origin.

What inspired you to write this story?

I’ve always admired the wit and wisdom of Mark Twain. His books are among the most treasured of my personal collection. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer caught my eye while I was dusting my bookshelf one day, and I found myself thinking about how, as a much younger reader, I had wanted nothing more than to run around with Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn, making mischief and having adventures. As I thought about the other characters, I considered the fact that I’d never really connected with Becky Thatcher. Why was that? Upon reflection, I think it was because Becky, an iconic female character in her own right, didn’t get to embrace the same things/traits that the boys did. And although her actions and manner fit Twain’s image of the character perfectly, they didn’t really fit the girl I had been. So as an adult, I decided it could be fun to give Becky Thatcher an opportunity to embrace adventure and see what she did with it.

Could you share with readers a lesson learned while conducting research?

During my normal research process for historical fiction, one of favorite things to do is read old newspapers. Not only do I discover a sense of what sort of things were newsworthy, but I get a sense of language and culture. I also like to hunt down academic articles; for a recent Work-In-Progress, an internet search helped me find some article titles that sounded informative, intriguing, and pertinent to my setting/plot. I sent an email to the author, a professor at New York University’s Irish House, explaining who I was and that I was hoping to get access to a few of his articles that were only published in a (very large, very expensive) anthology. I was so thrilled when he responded, attaching the requested articles and wishing me luck with my project. The lesson I learned is that people, even ones that may seem intimidating in skill level/profession, are nearly always willing to help. So ask. 

With my Becky Thatcher book, my research was fairly limited, concentrating mostly on finding biographical information about Samuel Clemens’s life. I avoided close re-readings of Tom Sawyer until after I’d written several drafts to avoid any subconscious tendency to try to copy Twain’s voice. I wanted any similarities in tone to come out naturally and not be forced.

What are some special challenges associated with retellings?

I wrote something several months ago about the nature of retellings and how such a large variety of approaches exist, making it difficult to establish “rules.” But my personal guidelines for retellings always involve the following three things:

First, you should love the original work as written and have respect for the author. In my opinion, a retelling shouldn’t be undertaken in order to “fix” something that the original author did wrong, but rather to bring fresh attention and a new perspective to a well-loved tale.

There must be at least one large twist. But the twist should be a playful/thoughtful/deliberate one that has meaning within the original elements, not just a random item. Know why you’re changing a key element of the story and be confident in your reasoning.

Keep the heart of the original in mind and try your best to honor it. While my own retelling of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer alters personalities and changes plot elements, the themes of learning what it means to grow up and struggling with losing pieces of childhood are still there and are recognizable.

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

I think the inclusion of historical figure Samuel Clemens could promote interesting classroom discussions on who the “real” Mark Twain was as a younger man and how writers form their stories.

Themes touched upon in my book are things that students deal with each day in both home life and school situations (morality, friendship, telling truth and lies, labeling people, decision-making, consequences of choices) as well as a couple of more personal, sensitive themes (loss and grieving).

Simon & Schuster was kind enough to put together a curriculum guide for the book as a standalone and also as a companion to both The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. 

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