Rebecca Behrens grew up in Wisconsin, studied in Chicago, and now lives with her husband in New York City. A former textbook editor, Rebecca loves writing and reading about kids full of moxie and places full of history. She is the author of the middle-grade novels When Audrey Met Alice, which BookPage called “a terrific work of blended realistic and historical fiction,” and Summer of Lost and Found, which Kirkus praised as “a good find indeed.” Visit her online at www.rebeccabehrens.com.
What typically comes first for you: a character? An era? A story idea? How do you proceed from there?
It varies depending on the book! For When Audrey Met Alice, the characters came first—a famous historical First Daughter (Alice Roosevelt) and a fictional contemporary one. They came with their own eras and shared setting, and the historical record even provided plenty of plot ideas for Alice’s diary. For Summer of Lost and Found, setting came first. I knew I wanted to write about Roanoke, both in the past and the present. The characters, Nell and Ambrose, grew out of the place and its history. For The Last Grand Adventure, the story started with a historical figure, Amelia Earhart, although she’s not one of the main characters. I knew I wanted to write about Amelia’s disappearance because it had fascinated me so much as a kid (and it still does), and it made sense in terms of the timeline to set the story in the 1960s, which was great because I have always had a strong interest in that decade.
How do you conduct your research?
I start the old-fashioned way: heading to the library. I find it very helpful to talk to the librarians, who are experts at helping to point you to the right sources. I like to get a few call numbers and then browse the stacks—sometimes you don’t know exactly what topics you need to read about until you start exploring a section.
The Internet is a great research tool because it is so broad and it kindles curiosity. While I’m not picky about which sites give me ideas, I am picky about the ones I consider sources. If information seems fishy, I confirm it on a different site or in print.
Once I have built up a solid base of general knowledge about a topic, I like to find primary sources whenever possible: newspapers from the time; letters and diaries; menus and catalogs and brochures; books not just about an era but from it. Sometimes primary sources aren’t readily available, but when they are, I try to make use of them. The Library of Congress’s online archives are a great place to get ideas about what’s out there and where to look. YouTube also has some great old advertisements and filmstrips.
My favorite form of research is always travel. When I’m writing about a particular setting, I try to visit it. Of course, sometimes that’s not possible, and then Google Earth and films become important tools. I’ll also reach out to people who do live there and get their feedback on what it’s like—especially the sensory details that stand out to them. I’m always asking people what places smell like.
How long do you typically research before beginning to draft?
I research until I know enough to outline the plot. Sometimes that takes a lot of research; sometimes less. I know that as I go along, I will either have to pause and dig deeper, or otherwise flag sections of the manuscript to return to later, with more information. I rarely feel ready (in terms of research) to start writing when I do begin to draft, but at some point you have to dive into the writing, knowing that you’ll be balancing both as you move through the process.
What is your favorite thing about research?
I love how much I learn while I’m researching. I always start a project with a lot of curiosity about the topic, and that only grows once I start reading and exploring it. I think most writers have had the pleasant experience of falling down a Wikipedia rabbit hole when researching for a book, whether or not they write historical fiction. There are also so many serendipitous moments while researching: little details you come across that fit perfectly for the fictional characters or setting you’re creating. For example, I knew I needed a significant object in The Last Grand Adventure: a toy or book that had held a lot of meaning for Amelia Earhart and her sister. I thought I might have to fictionalize that detail. But when I read about Donk and Ellie, their beloved wooden elephant and donkey toys, I knew they were perfect to incorporate into the story. The unexpected connections you uncover are really exciting. (These are the entries in my research notebooks that are surrounded by asterisks and exclamation points.)
What’s your favorite thing about writing historical fiction?
Getting to experience life in the past—at least in my imagination. I think it’s the closest I’ll ever get to time-traveling. ☺ I also love getting to share my enthusiasm about these historical people and places and events with others.
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?
I think this is the biggest obstacle when writing historical fiction: How to handle it when history is “muddy” or the facts aren’t working with your fiction. There is such a delicate balance between keeping to the historical record—accuracy and authenticity are important!—and telling a good, satisfying story for contemporary readers. You and I both wrote about Roanoke and had to make choices about how to resolve the mystery—still unsolved—about what happened to the Lost Colonists. When writing about Amelia Earhart, I felt pressure to somehow explain her disappearance, which to date hasn’t been solved. I try to remember the advice you shared with me about writing historical fiction—that history can be hazy, but stories can’t. I always try to make a choice and, at least in the world of my fiction, have a very clear idea of what happened, even when the historical record is uncertain.
I think an author’s note can be very helpful, and important, when writing historical fiction because it’s a space in which the author can break the fourth wall and acknowledge the liberties taken with the history in a story. It’s also a good way to encourage curious readers to do some research of their own, to discover the truth beyond the fiction.
Why is historical fiction important?
Knowing the past helps us understand the present. And historical fiction makes history “real” by helping young readers understand what life was like at various points in history. It adds feelings to the facts, and it helps readers create not just informational but emotional connections to what they are learning. Whether read on its own or with related nonfiction, historical fiction can be a powerful tool to make meaningful and rich connections to the text, the self, and the world. It kindles awareness and empathy, which are so important to encourage in a world that is very often divided.