Mindy Nichols Wendell writes historical fiction for young readers. Before beginning her writing career, she taught college-level English for thirty years. She always felt lucky to get paid for doing a job she loved. Mindy and her husband live in Western New York, not far from the ruins of the sanatorium that inspired her debut middle grade novel, LIGHT AND AIR. These days, when she’s not writing or reading or taking long walks in quiet places, Mindy is probably visiting her grandsons.
What typically comes first for you: a character? An era? A story idea? How do you proceed from there?
Light and Air started with place. Many years ago, a closed road forced me to take a detour that led me past some old crumbling buildings in Perrysburg, NY. It turned the buildings were part of an old tuberculosis sanatorium. I became fascinated in learning about this place (the J. N. Adam Memorial Hospital for Tuberculosis), in particular, and TB sanatoriums in general. So the process for me moved from an intriguing place I couldn’t get out of my mind to lots of research and finally to story.
What kinds of sources do you use? The more specifics here, the better!
Due to the condition of the buildings and vandalism, the sanatorium in Perrysburg is surrounded by a locked fence with a tight no-trespassing policy, so I was not able to walk around inside, which would have been at the top of my list for research. But I walked around the adjacent grounds where the superintendent’s house still stands, and I visited Perrysburg to learn about the tiny town. I saw where the train station had been and drove as far as I could on AirView Drive, the now-overgrown, tree-lined road that used to lead to the sanatorium. I am indebted to photographers who gained access to the sanatorium in the past and published books with photos that fueled my imagination.
There is also a small historical museum in Perrysburg that contains period photographs and postcards, a model of the sanatorium, artifacts from the sanatorium, and copies of Grit and Grin, a magazine published by residents. The curator of the museum offered stories and details and put me in touch with a woman who had been a patient and had also worked at the sanatorium in the late 1940s—these were invaluable sources of information. I watched documentaries about the Perrysburg hospital as well as other TB sanatoriums. I read old newspaper articles about J. N. Adam (the former mayor of Buffalo who donated the land and for whom the sanatorium was named) and the sanatorium. I read nonfiction and medical texts about tuberculosis (then and now), and I pored over articles about Edward Trudeau and the Trudeau sanatorium in the Adirondacks, as well as some of the sanatoriums in Europe that influenced Trudeau. I read Betty MacDonald’s book The Plague and I and a MG novel called Breathing Room by Marsha Hayles.
What is your favorite thing about research? It never ends.
What’s your least favorite thing about research? It never ends.
What’s your favorite thing about writing historical fiction?
I love escaping into the past. I love learning about and imagining what life was like in other time periods. When you write a story, it’s like slipping into the shoes of your main character and walking around in their world—I love that.
What’s one of the most interesting things you’ve learned while researching?
Much of LIGHT AND AIR takes place in a tuberculosis sanatorium in the days before we had antibiotics to treat TB. As I researched the disease, I discovered that once people began to understand that tuberculosis was caused by bacteria rather than heredity, it led to some fascinating changes in society: Women began shortening their hemlines to keep their skirts from dragging in the dirt and picking up germs. Men shaved off long beards or kept them neatly trimmed. Front porches and screened-in sleeping porches were added to houses so TB patients could breathe in fresh air. Disposable, single-use items like Dixie Cups and Kleenex were invented. “Penny-lick” ice cream cups (tiny glass containers that were reused without proper cleaning) fell out of favor, and this helped popularize the newly invented edible ice cream cone.
Why is historical fiction important?
I write for middle-grade kids. So my answer applies specifically to them, but I think it is true for all readers of historical fiction. First, I think reading historical fiction breathes life into history because reading a character’s story helps make history personal and relevant. Second, a friend of mine recently shared this Winston Churchill quote with me: “The further backward you look, the further forward you can see.” That’s another big reason: Telling stories of the past, even the painful ones—maybe especially the painful ones—is important. It helps us remember and warns us against making the same mistakes again. Third, I think historical fiction gives kids perspective. It helps them take a long view of life. Reading about people who lived in other time periods reminds kids that there have always been hard, sad, bad times. But kids and families and societies get through it. They come out the other side—and just about always, they are stronger, wiser, and more resilient as a result. That leads to the last thing: Reading historical fiction gives kids hope.