Kate Albus is the author of A Place to Hang the Moon (February 2, 2021; Margaret Ferguson Books at Holiday House). Kate is originally from New York, but now lives in rural Maryland with her family. She was a research psychologist for many years before stepping away to be with her children. Other than writing, her favorite activities are reading, knitting, baking, and other pastimes that are inherently quiet.
What typically comes first for you: a character? An era? A story idea? How do you proceed from there?
I find that my story ideas come from specific historical details. I’m not a great history buff in general, but every now and then a particular fact or historical event will lodge in my brain and plant the seed of a story. The World War II evacuation of London has fascinated me since I was a child. The idea of putting a million children onto trains and sending them off to the country to be cared for by strangers until the war was over was – still is! – unfathomable to me. That unfathomable event was the seed for A PLACE TO HANG THE MOON.
Once the seed is planted, I read as much as I can about the era. In this case, I read a lot of World War II history and a lot of evacuee memoirs. Once the time and place begin to feel real for me, I just sit down, start writing, and let the characters take over. I do stop to Google along the way, though, looking for answers to miscellaneous questions like what sorts of snacks would have been available to a character, how she might have dressed, or what books she might have been reading.
How do you conduct your research? What kinds of sources do you use?
I buy a shocking number of vintage books from used bookstores. If it’s unusual and not too expensive, I’m in! A book about ghost sightings on the London Underground; a U.S. Forest Service manual on the principles of fire management; an old coffee table book about sea turtles; a 1920s guide to ocean travel for ladies; a collection of WWII ‘make do and mend’ leaflets distributed by the British government…. those lovely little obscurities are all cuddling with each other on my bookshelves, bursting with story details.
Like other historical fiction folk, I also do a great deal of online research, and while I find the internet frightening in many ways, it’s a treasure trove of information. In writing A PLACE TO HANG THE MOON, I was particularly grateful for the archive of ‘Mass Observation’ diary accounts of daily life in wartime.
What’s your favorite thing about writing historical fiction?
I love that writing about history gives me a sense of connection to those who came before us. I especially love it when a bit of my own family’s history finds a place in a story. I have family in Northern Ireland, and it was only while writing A PLACE TO HANG THE MOON that I learned one of them – my Aunt Florence – had been evacuated from Belfast when she was ten. Aunt Florence is in the book in a tiny way. She had a deliciously cozy room in her home that she called the snug. There’s a snug in the story, and I smile every time it’s mentioned. Another narrative detail came from my grandmother, who was a young woman during the war. She used to tell me how she ‘made do’ without nylon stockings by drawing lines down the backs of her legs with an eyebrow pencil, mimicking the seams in stockings of the time. As a kid, I always scratched my head at the story, wondering why anybody would do something so ridiculous. It’s fun to see that obscure little family tidbit there on the page.
What’s your least favorite thing?
When I can’t find the answer! And there are so many times when I can’t find the answer! I once spent hours and hours trying to figure out whether the sort of gas oven that would have been in a rural 1940s English kitchen had to be lit with a match every time the user turned it on. It was utterly meaningless to the story… I just wanted to make sure that when the character turned on the oven to toast bread, she was doing it right. I looked on every ‘old kitchen appliance’ website the internet had to offer (and there were a lot of them). No answer. I borrowed a book about vintage stoves from my kids’ piano teacher. Still no answer. In the end, I just took out the line about how the oven got turned on. The toast got made anyway!
What’s one of the most interesting things you’ve learned while researching?
The list is so long! I recently spent some time researching the life stories of surviving Titanic crew members. I was astonished to learn how many of them went straight back to work on the sea after the disaster. Violet Jessop, for example, was a ‘stewardess’ aboard the Titanic. She was back at work for the White Star Line within a month or so of the tragedy, survived a second sinking (the Britannic) four years later, and continued to work on ocean liners well into her 60s. Likewise, Titanic officer Charles Lightoller went down with the ship, but through a series of miracles, managed to help right a foundering lifeboat and save fellow passengers. After the disaster, he went back to work for the White Star Line, then served in the Royal Navy during World War I, and in his retirement on the English coast, was part of the evacuation of Dunkirk in 1940. Violet and Charles deserve their own historical novels!
What are some obstacles writing historical fiction brings?
I think there is a fine line between educating and telling a story, and in writing historical fiction for children, that’s an especially important line to be aware of. Not that education can’t happen in the course of storytelling – I hope it can! – but if the story is going to feel real, the historical detail needs to be used very carefully. For me, characters are always paramount, so the question I try to answer when considering whether to include a particular bit of history is, “would this have mattered to the characters?” If not, I think including it only removes the reader from the story and disrupts the flow.