Lois Ruby slipped in the back door as a writer for young people. That is, she was a Young Adult librarian for the Dallas Public Library, and after reading a thousand books in her department, she decided she could write the stories herself. Her first book was published in 1977. Since then, 18 more have seen print, and Lois is no longer a working librarian. Instead, her time is divided among her family, research, writing, presenting at conferences, and visiting schools to energize children, teens, and teachers about the ideas in books for young readers. Lois’s novel, Steal Away Home, is used in the 5th grade Civil War curriculum in almost every school in Georgia.
Although Lois and her husband, Dr. Tom Ruby, raised their family in Kansas, they now share their lives in Albuquerque. Their three sons and daughters-in-law, and seven amazing grandchildren, are scattered around the country.
Thank you for inviting me to share my thoughts about historical fiction. It’s my first love, although I didn’t like history while I was in school. In those days it was all about kings and wars and memorizing dates. As I began writing historical fiction, I came to realize that history is individual people and their personal dramas within the context of events – large and small – swirling around them. So, yes, history is war and dates, but also art and music and law and order and ekeing out a living and planting and sowing and seeking meaning and purpose in the midst of huge events one cannot control. Once I saw all that, I allowed my imagination to wander until characters fixed to a certain time and place popped into my mind. Then it was simply (but not so simply) a matter of letting those characters poke around in their environment until a story emerged. I wait for characters to tell me their story. Sometimes it’s a long wait, maybe years of patient waiting.
I’m a recovering librarian, so I love the research as much as the writing. One of my friends does a huge amount of research for each novel, then disposes of all those materials before moving onto the next book. Not me. I continue to collect info and artifacts long after a book is written, which is why my office is such a jungle. So, I have boxes and boxes of research notes, print-outs, maps, articles, glossaries, bibliographies, photographs, and, of course, books on each of my historical subjects. And guess what. Even after all this research and later intense scrutiny of facts by my editors, there are still errors that surprise me in my books.
The process of writing contemporary novels differs from that of writing historicals. For contemporaries, the character comes first, and I have to figure out who this person is, and what his or her story is, and why this person is interesting or important enough for me to spend two or three years with. However, for historical novels, the time period comes first, and then my task is to figure out who populates that specific era and locale. Once that’s established, the story begins to write itself, and I have the privilege of hearing what the character has to say and recording it as fast as I can, like watching a movie in my mind.
I begin research for historicals by reading the best children’s book I can find on that subject, because the breadth and clear language are going to tell me what I need to know to get my own thinking cranked up. Then I move on to depth. Of course, I read online, but you can’t trust everything on the Internet, so any specifics I pick up, I need to verify with material that’s actually vetted and fact-checked by reputable publishers.
It’s important to visit the places we write about whenever possible, even if the events we’re describing happened centuries ago. We need to see the terrain, feel and smell the atmosphere out of which our characters spring, for I believe place affects one’s orientation and thinking. For example, I’ve been researching southeast Kansas in the 1870’s. Recently my husband and I visited the very place those dramatic events occurred, read the local papers on microfilm, interviewed people whose ancestors grew up in that area, and soaked up details about the trees, hills, and sky for sensory-loaded setting. I’ve had to put that book aside to work on other things with deadlines, so it could be years before I get back to writing it, but I’ll keep researching. In fact, I normally spend about two years researching an historical novel, all the while mentally interviewing my characters to plumb for the peculiarities and doubts and certainties, and especially the poignant moments in their lives.
When to stop research and start writing? Who knows? For me it’s a circular process. The research peppers the narrative, and as I write and realize how little I actually know, I return to the research … which yields new details and possibilities for my characters. I ask a zillion questions. Each answer opens the window on another question, the answer of which leaves me gasping because so many, many ideas pop up, and I haven’t “world enough, or time” to explore them all. Let me give you an example. I’d been doing a great deal of research on Shanghai during the 1930s and 1940s, for my World War II book, Shanghai Shadows. Finally, I said, enough study – write it, already! Then I thumbed languidly through a book I’d actually already read for this project, and a tiny, but very significant detail jumped off the page. It was something I’d overlooked in the first reading because I wasn’t ready for it yet, but now that the detail was mine, it led me in a whole new direction of inquiry. What a joy!
Something about the research process: As I read, I write or type notes on 3×5 cards, one for each fact or captivating observation. These cards are organized by broad subject, such as dates, relevant laws, crops, quotes, historical figures, geography, etc. I index the information on each card by very specific details, much as you’d see in the index at the back of a book. That’s how I can retrieve info quickly to flesh out a scene. It’s a slow and arduous process, and yeah, I know, there are programs for collecting and sorting info, but I was writing before the term apps was invented. I’m old enough to remember and love library card catalogs!
I’m intrigued by the question Caroline posed: “What sorts of decisions have you had to make about ‘muddy’ historical figures or events in order for your book to work?” Wow, that gets an author’s heart thumping! The easy answer is that I often find contradictory information from one source to the next, such as the year of a certain major occurrence that affects my created characters. Sometimes a fact can be clarified or verified by a more definitive source, but at times even that doesn’t work, in which case I have to make my best guess. But what the question is really getting at is something more complex, and it leads to the query, how much can we tweak history to fit our story? We might need to juggle less significant dates a bit. We might need to intentionally omit some historical facts in service of the story, particularly about unsavory characters who might have done things too raw for the young audience I’m hoping to reach. We might need to put words in the mouth of an actual person who lived, though we can’t verify that that person said those words. We might need to invent characters who never existed, and drop them into an historical context to breed more drama for our protagonists. After all, it’s why we call historical novels fiction. So here are two things I try to remember: (1) make the story engaging and accessible to readers; but (2) don’t lose track of the deeper truth – which is beyond the facts – of what really happened.
Historical fiction is important, I believe, because it makes the dry back-story of our shared human experience spring to life with vividness and insight. There’s a common saying that if we don’t study our history, we’re doomed to repeat it. Some terrible things have happened; some terrible things continue to happen. But my hope is that as writers of historical fiction, particularly for young people, we cast a questioning and understanding eye on cultural, historical, and heroic events of the past, to help readers make wise, humane choices for the future.