Ellen Klages is the author of three acclaimed MG historical novels: The Green Glass Sea, which won the Scott O’Dell Award and the New Mexico Book Award; White Sands, Red Menace, which won the California and New Mexico Book awards; and Out of Left Field, which won the 2019 Children’s History Book Prize and the 2019 Ohioana Book Award. Her adult novel, a historical fantasy, Passing Strange, won the World Fantasy and British Fantasy awards in 2018. Her short fiction has been translated into a dozen languages and been nominated for or won multiple Hugo, Nebula, Locus, Mythopoeic, and World Fantasy awards. Ellen lives in San Francisco, in a small house full of strange and wondrous things.
How do you conduct your research?
I love research. It’s like a treasure hunt, looking for clues about what happened in the past, following leads and links, and never quite knowing what I’m going to find. I usually start online, with some simple Google and Wikipedia searches, to get a few facts — dates and names and places — settled firmly in place. Then I go looking for details to expand the story and make the characters and places and timelines as accurate and three-dimensional as possible.
I read a lot of books. I buy old magazines and other “period” pieces on eBay, to get a feeling of what that time in the past was like. What did people wear? What was in the news? What foods are advertised? I also travel to the places I’m writing about — if I can — and take lots of pictures with my phone, and lots (and lots and lots) of notes. Not just about what things look like, but using all five of my senses: sight, sound, touch, taste, smell. When I’m back home again, those notes remind me of what it was like to be in that place and help me make it come alive for my readers.
That process is very similar for all of my historical novels. For each, I’ve ended up with several boxes of material and three or four notebooks crammed with information. Only about five percent of that makes it into the actual book, by the way.
How long do you typically research before beginning to draft?
I research for as long as I possibly can! I love research, and I hate drafts. Eventually, deadlines loom, and I need to start putting words onto paper. Then for the next six months, it’s two simultaneous streams, researching and drafting, as I discover where the holes are in my knowledge, and what other information I need to fill my characters lives and move the plot forward.
About my first drafts: I write longhand. Bold ink, wide-lined paper. I cannot create on a keyboard. I scribble images, crumple pages, toss them across the room. I make some pictograms, cross them out, draw big loopy lines that tether sentences to marginal notes as if they were zeppelins. Eventually, I get a keeper, a few words, a paragraph that is strong enough to anchor other prose. Another sentence crawls out of the ooze and onto dry land, grows legs, begins to explore new territory, and I follow.
I struggle until I watch my hand write that one sentence that makes the hair stand up on my arms, that makes my eyes sting, that lets me know that I’ve found a bit of truth that will be the story’s center. Then the words finally begin to come.
What typically comes first for you: a character? An era? A story idea? How do you proceed from there?
I have a confession: I don’t like writing.
But I love having written.
At the beginning of a book, I have only the glimmer of an idea, and it’s different each time — a line of dialogue, a character, a setting, a time period. I think about it. It settles in my brain, nestles—or nettles—like a tickle or an itch. It often sits like that for a very long time.
My process is messy and non-linear, full of false starts, fidgets, and errands that I suddenly need to run now; it is a battle to get something—anything—down on paper. I doodle in sketchbooks: bits of ideas, fragments of sentences, character names, single lines of dialogue with no context. I play on the web as if Google was a pinball machine, caroming and bouncing from link to link to tangent, making notes about odd factoids that catch my eye.
Writers are magpies. Ooh! Shiny! Some of those shinies are distractions, but others are just the right size or shape for me to add to the jumble of flotsam and fragments that I am slowly building into a mental nest where I will—I hope—hatch a story. I gather scraps until that amazing moment when a few of them begin to coalesce into a pattern.
What’s your favorite thing about writing historical fiction?
So many people think that history is just a list of facts and dates to memorize; dry, irrelevant, and unconnected to their lives. But the past isn’t some far-off, mythical place. History is a long, winding river of people’s lives: what they ate, what they wore, how they talked, what they believed, what was happening around them and to them.
For me, writing historical fiction is like having a time machine. When I visit the past, I don’t want to go as a tourist, just getting the highlights. I want the backstage tour. I want to look around corners and peer into windows and get to know the people of the neighborhood. I want to be there as events unfold, seeing them through the eyes of a character for whom this time is not “history” — it’s just everyday life.
Historical fiction tells the stories of ordinary people living in extraordinary times, and extraordinary people living in ordinary times.
In skilled hands, the factual history makes the character’s story feel real, and being immersed in that story makes history come alive for the reader, sometimes in surprising ways. Human emotions are timeless; relationships, social status, age- and gender-appropriate roles and issues are fluid and ever-changing.
Why is historical fiction important?
Good historical fiction opens a dialogue between the past and the present. The attitudes of the past, from the more enlightened perspective of a present-day reader, may seem wrong-headed, even ugly; many social norms were not questioned, not then. There are no warning labels on history. People smoked and didn’t know it was bad for them. Women and minorities were treated like second-class citizens and denied fundamental rights.
Unfortunately, that same racism, sexism, abuse of power are all part of today’s headlines. I think it’s important for us all to be aware that the past was often less than savory, that what we learned about in school was not necessarily what actually happened, although some would like to pretend it was. I find it fascinating to discover how things have changed in the last 30 or 40 or 50 years — and how much they haven’t.
What’s one of the most interesting things you’ve learned while researching?
One of the things I love about research is that in the course of looking for one bit of information, I frequently stumble onto another, even more interesting subject, one of those hidden parts of history that no one seems to know about. What’s more intriguing than a long-lost secret, right?
My second novel takes place in 1946 and 1947. When I started reading about the period, I knew almost nothing about it. The 1940s appears to be the only five-year decade in American history. The war ends, and boom — now it’s the Fifties. At least according to most history books.
As I started reading, I realized that it was not only brand-new territory for historical fiction, it was a really fascinating time. World War Two was over, and everything had changed. Everyone was still reeling and, although they weren’t aware of it, the world was about to change again, and people were choosing sides. The future was looming, just beyond the horizon, and no one knew if it’d be the end of the world or the beginning of a brave new one.
I once described that book as a history of the future, because that’s what struck me most as I did my research. The past was over, and magazines, books, ads were all looking ahead. Rockets to the moon! Ovens that would cook dinner in five minutes! Atomic fuel pellets that would cost pennies and run your car for a year!
What had been science fiction was becoming reality. (At least some of it.) As an SF writer, as well as a historian (and a citizen of that far-off future, the 21st century) that was very fertile ground to explore.
Linda Mitchell says
A wonderful interview. Thank you for this quote: “Good historical fiction opens a dialogue between the past and the present.” I will use this with my students!