Nora Raleigh Baskin is the author of thirteen novels for young readers and a contributor to two story collections. She has won several awards including the 2010 ALA Schneider Family Book Award for Anything But Typical and a 2016 ILA Notable Books for a Global Society for Ruby on the Outside. Nora has taught creative writing to both children and adults for over fifteen years with such organizations as Gotham Writers Workshop, SCBWI, The Unicorn Writers’ Conference, the Highlights Foundation, and The Fairfield Co. Writer’s Studio. Her latest, Nine, Ten: A 9/11 Story was published last summer and has received starred reviews from both Kirkus and Publisher’s Weekly.
What typically comes first for you: a character? An era? A story idea? How do you proceed from there?
Well, first of all, Nine, Ten: A September 11 Story is my first historical fiction but when I was writing it, I had no idea it would be considered historical. I always do a lot of research when I write a book (autism, criminal justice, women in the military) so, while I was writing, I didn’t think this book was any different. I was pretty shocked when I saw it categorized that way on Amazon!
At the same time, I knew from the very start I was going to have to be very accurate and very sensitive, and that there would be no room for error when writing about something that had been recorded and measured down the millisecond, and more importantly, was still a very deep, open wound.
That said, the first thing that came to me was THEME.
I knew I wanted to write about change, not necessarily 9/11, but about those events that produce seismic shifts in culture. I could easily have chosen Pearl Harbor, or the stock market crash or the Vietnam War. I chose 9/11, mostly because I had lived through it, and thought that would make it easier.
Boy, was I wrong.
What kinds of sources do you use? The more specifics here, the better!
I started out at home, on my computer. Of course, the first thing I did was to view original news footage on YouTube. 9/11 was broadcast live, as it was happening— before anyone even knew what was happening —simultaneously to the whole country. I wanted very much to capture that sense, the chaos and confusion people experienced, in particular teachers who could not attend to themselves and their families but had to care for “their children — their students.” I wanted to address, not just those living in NYC (which I knew had been written about extensively) but ALL over the country, from California to Maine, all of whom experienced this trauma to varying degrees. It was important to me that my readers understood that.
I needed to find an accurate and detailed timeline of the events, beginning with each plane taking off, number of passengers, flight path, and exact moment of impact. Again, I found that on the internet. I knew I wasn’t taking my story past that point so my research was more about life in 2001 than it was about the incident itself. Still, it was brutal. I found myself crying a lot, something that totally took me by surprise.
I even needed to learn about tiny things, like the weather in each city in the days preceding 9/11 and that’s pretty easy to look up. There’s website for that!
I even needed to know if cell phones had cameras in 2001 or if Fruity Pebbles had been created. If we had Walkmans or Discmans or Palm Pilots (remember those?) I quickly realized I couldn’t, in any way, rely on my own memory.
I used Google maps to pick the street where my Shanksville character would live.
I found photographs online of the strip mine (where flight 93 landed) before 2001. I had to look up what a drag line was and find a photo of one. I read as many newspaper reports and personal accounts as I could.
But to be honest, the best resource I used, was personal interview. (It helps to be a published author with a web presence when approaching strangers for help. People were pretty suspicious at first. It’s a scary and personal topic.)
I spoke with a first responder who had been at ground zero that day and to many 2001 middle school kids (including my own children) to find out how individual schools handled the crisis that day.
I spoke at length with the principal of Shanksville middle and high school. From him, I got the names of two boys who had been in 7th grade in 2001 (now grown men) and had email correspondence with them. I needed to know little details you could never find online. Where would you have a birthday party? What would a Shanksville dad do for a living? What is it like having only 12 kids in your whole grade from kindergarten to high school?
At what point do you feel comfortable beginning to draft? How does your research continue once you begin writing?
I continued researching throughout the entire writing process…and beyond! After the ARCs were already printed and about to go out to reviewers, I learned I had given my Iranian character an Arabic name. It was so important to me that I not make such a huge mistake— and my editor agreed —which is why my Islamic girl is Nadira in the ARCs and Naheed in the final book. Let me tell you, I sweated over that one. No one wants to look like trouble to their publisher but “getting it right” was more important. Never cut research corners..that’s what I learned from that experience.
What are some obstacles writing historical fiction brings?
Since I’d never written historical fiction before, it was all one big huge obstacle..but I didn’t see it that way.
I like setting challenges for myself when I write a novel. I need to entertain myself, too. So I saw this (and remember I didn’t think I was writing historical fiction) as a giant puzzle. Four characters, four different cities, three different time zones, spanning forty-eight hours, moving forward in time toward a single event. It was a count down. Most importantly, the reader knows what is ahead, but the characters don’t.
I was constrained by pretty much everything — time (down to the very hour and minute), weather, location, and distance. In all my other fiction, I had been in control of all those things. This time, I had to adhere to facts. I had to fit my story into a reality that already existed, rather than manipulating reality to fit my story. It was a total flip-flop for me as a writer.
To top if off, I have something called Dyscalculia which means I have trouble with numbers, direction, and time. Often, I had to cut my story into pieces and tape it on the wall or lay it out on the floor in order to “see” what was going on. It was more difficult than I ever imagined it would be.
What’s one of the most interesting things you’ve learned while researching?
Oy, I learned about all the conspiracy theories surrounding 9/11 (Don’t ask). Wow. Just wow. In fact, with all the Google searches I was doing I can’t believe Homeland Security didn’t come pounding on my front door.
Why is historical fiction important?
I think historical fiction is important for all the reasons we know it is:
Instead of numbers, facts and figures, we get a single story about a single person, and that person has the ability to touch our heart, not just our mind. It is as simple as walking in the shoes of another in order to understand and empathize with their life and their experience.
In fact, there is probably no other better way to achieve real empathy, other than “living” another’s life through fiction. Even a film, which can be very moving, is still passive, whereas reading requires your brain to “see, feel, hear” in as close an approximation to having lived it as possible.
I also feel when the history is very graphic or overwhelming, then a relatable, individual story can be the best way for a young reader to enter the time period and learn about it.
Nine, Ten: A September 11 Story has been compared to Lois Lowry’s Number the Stars in the way that it provides an individual story, outside the main horrors of the Holocaust, in order to safely open a door into this otherwise brutal time in history.
I’ve gotten criticism (and yes, I know I shouldn’t read those reviews!) from people who felt there should have been more facts and information about the Twin Towers, more about that day, and the aftermath, (Hello people, did you read the title?) but that’s not the story I set out to tell. What was more important to me was to dive into themes of racism, xenophobia, bravery, and the sanctity of everyday life, which are universal and timeless. I strongly believe that is what literary fiction is supposed to do.
I was not trying to lecture or present facts.
That’s a teacher’s job.
Mine is to raise questions.
Historical fiction should not be a text book (we have plenty of those) but rather, it should tell a Story, with a capital S. Hopefully, that story inspires readers to do their own research, to go out and seek more information IF and when they are ready to do so.
Along the way, and without even knowing it, the reader experiences a greater understanding of their own place in history and their obligation to make the world better than when they entered. My goal is that this happens organically, because my reader sees and feels the power of one small, individual story which speaks to a larger, global one.
ps– In our society of immediate gratification, instant success, and quick fixes …I give you this Goodreads review of Nine, Ten: A September 11 Story:
I feel like if a young person read this they’d have a lot more questions about 9/11 than answers and that’s not what I would want for the kids I recommend books to.
And I answer with- Yes! More questions! That is exactly what I intended. I want my readers to think, to feel, to seek, and figure out “the truth” for themselves.
I wrote about four young people, from four very diverse backgrounds, and how their lives were altered in one single day on September 11, 2001, which in turn, speaks directly to the world in which my young readers are living today (The Patriot Act, airport security, new vocabulary words, fear of foreigners, distrust of government). They are living it, they should know where it came from.
“How is some event from a long time ago relevant and important to me today?”
That is the question literary historical fiction should answer.