Please join me in welcoming Margaria Engle to the blog today.
Margarita is a poet and novelist whose work has been published in many countries. Her books include THE SURRENDER TREE, a Newbery Honor book and winner of the Jane Addams Children’s Book Award, the Pura Belpré Award, the Américas Award, and the Claudia Lewis Poetry Award; THE POET SLAVE OF CUBA, winner of the Pura Belpré Award and the Américas Award; and HURRICANE DANCERS, winner of the Pura Belpré Award. Her most recent book, SILVER PEOPLE: VOICES FROM PANAMA CANAL, releases March 25.
What typically comes first for you: a character? An era? A story idea? How do you proceed from there?
I love to read anything I can find about Cuba, so when I encounter a historical figure who astonishes me, I get excited. This is especially true for first person accounts. For instance, while I was doing research for THE POET SLAVE OF CUBA and THE SURRENDER TREE, I encountered diaries that would later lead to THE FIREFLY LETTERS and THE LIGHTNING DREAMER.
How do you conduct your research?
I love interlibrary loan! I love diaries! I love variety, so I read all the current nonfiction books and articles about a subject, then look at their bibliographies to find earlier works. When I keep moving farther and farther back in time, sometimes I’m lucky enough to find first-person accounts.
You do have a specific system for collecting data?
I’m an omnivore. I read everything. When something interests me, I fill index cards with notes. It’s extremely low-tech.
What kinds of sources do you use?
New books, antique books, diaries, scholarly journals, bibliographies, helpful librarians, just about anything I can find.
How long do you typically research before beginning to draft?
A year of afternoons spent reading and re-reading about a subject (while writing my current project—using last year’s research—during the mornings.) It’s difficult sometimes, because it means time traveling back and forth between the current project, future project, and my real life.
At what point do you feel comfortable beginning to draft? How does your research continue once you begin writing?
I don’t consider the research finished until I remember a lot about the subject without having to constantly look up details. Of course, once the book is finished, I instantly forget everything, because my brain’s storage capacity is tiny, and by then it’s already starting to get filled up with information about the next project.
What is your favorite thing about research?
I love learning! I’m in love with those aha moments when I wonder why I’ve never heard of this person, or this event, that seems so significant and inspiring.
What’s your least favorite thing about research?
The fear of making factual errors or incorrect assumptions, especially regarding earlier time periods, when there were few first-person accounts, and especially regarding indigenous cultures that left no written record.
What’s your favorite thing about writing historical fiction?
The daydreaming! I love to imagine.
What are some obstacles writing historical fiction brings?
Unfortunately, chain bookstores rarely stock my books. They seem to be thought of as limited to the school and library “market.” I don’t know if it’s because they’re historical, multicultural, or verse novels—possibly all three. I sometimes feel like a second-class citizen in the publishing world.
What’s one of the most interesting things you’ve learned while researching?
While researching HURRICANE DANCERS, I was invited to become a subject of the Cuban DNA Project. I learned that my maternal ancestry is indigenous. I am a descendant of the people I was researching! This was especially thrilling because like all Cubans and Cuban-Americans, I had been brought up believing that Cuban Indians are extinct. In other words: the history books were wrong.
Has your research ever affected the overall trust of your book? How so?
I once had an awkward experience at a conference. I was sent into a roomful of teachers who were discussing THE FIREFLY LETTERS. Most were polite, but one challenged me, saying she didn’t like the ending, because it was too hopeful. She didn’t see hope as a realistic facet of slavery. To quote her, she said my ending was, “happy ever after.” In my defense, I explained that I only choose stories where I’ve found a hopeful ending. Other stories might fascinate me as a reader, but as a writer, I don’t choose to offer hopeless endings to young people.
Because life isn’t always clear cut, the motives behind our actions don’t always make sense. But stories need to follow a logical path. What sorts of decisions have you had to make about “muddy” historical figures or events in order for your book to work?
Sometimes I create fictional characters in real situations. Sometimes I combine fictional characters with historical figures. This is the approach I took in my newest verse novel, SILVER PEOPLE: VOICES FROM PANAMA CANAL. It’s such an incredibly enormous subject, involving hundreds of thousands of laborers from more than a hundred nations. I had to narrow it down to a few characters. When I tried to include too many, it fell apart, so I chose to focus on the ones I could picture most clearly, the ones whose voices reached me.
Why is historical fiction important?
Historical fiction can help us understand the enormous world, by learning about specific people, cultures, and events. My hope is that young people will feel encouraged and inspired when they read about real people who made hopeful choices in times that must have seemed hopeless.