Jeannine Atkins writes about remarkable girls and women from the past. Her verse histories are Borrowed Names: Poems about Laura Ingalls Wilder, Madam C. J. Walker, Marie Curie and Their Daughters; Finding Wonders: Three Girls Who Changed Science; and Stone Mirrors: The Sculpture and Silence of Edmonia Lewis. She teaches writing in the MFA program in Simmons at the Carle. You can learn more on her website at www.Jeannineatkins.com.
What typically comes first for you: a character? An era? A story idea? How do you proceed from there?
Most of my books start when I’m intrigued by a real girl or woman from history and want to know her better. If my love deepens as I research, I’ll keep going – for years – until I have a book. If she lived in a fascinating time and place, so much the better. I love exploring settings – which often means poring over photographs – for details that help bring a story alive.
How do you conduct your research?
As I read, almost from the beginning I’ve got pen and paper nearby. I take notes both on what I find and what I want to know. I let my imagination rise and consider how scenes could be fleshed out. Still, there’s more research at the beginning of the process. Once I have a general idea of how much is known, as well as not known, about a person, I start drafting, jotting notes about what I need to research. Reading is easier than writing, so writers have to be careful not to get stuck there. It’s not for nothing that people say, “Research is a rabbit’s hole.”
What is your favorite thing about research?
Research is a fancy name for reading, which may mean combing library shelves or curling up in chairs. Who wouldn’t love that? Sometimes research also means I should walk where someone else walked, or at least somewhere like it. Sometimes I wade or hike through snow, paying attention to all the sounds, smells, aches, and pleasures. Just as with writing, there are times research flows and times it stalls, but I think most of us who write about history choose to do so because we find research is almost like recess.
What’s your favorite thing about writing historical fiction?
Many of us write in the genres we most love to read. I grew up dragging some old books down from the attic of old house, mostly about the lives of saints and good Americans. As I read and played that I was some of the people in the books, I made my family seem older and bigger. As a writer, I also imagine other lives so closely that I start to feel as if I know them. Their lives become part of mine. I feel so lucky to write about good people who truly matter.
Why is historical fiction important?
The past felt close to me as a child and feels even closer to me today. So many personal and political struggles seem won, or almost, and yet … someone else in another generation seems to have to fight for simple fairness all over again.
While writing STONE MIRRORS, I thought that the clothing and furniture has changed, but the complicated friendships and terrible betrayals found in the dormitories in Oberlin, Ohio in the 1860’s seem as if they could exist today.
Knowing that people in the past have struggled for the right to be accepted as they are – as they so wonderfully are – and made a grand mark gives us all hope for the future.