Why is historical fiction important?
I’ve been reading historical fiction from my earliest years.
I learned to read before starting school and I read obsessively (truly, obsessively). As quickly as my limited “kid” books were consumed, I’d dive into books my older siblings brought home from high school, much of it historical fiction.
What could a nine- or ten-year-old find in books like that?
Lives and problems and realities beyond my imaginings.
The characters may have been fictional, but their experiences were real, and I lived them from the first page to the last.
With each book I read, my world expanded.
Through books, but especially historical fiction, I lived countless lives, experienced dangers and hardships, traveled the globe, and met extraordinary people.
Within those pages I found empathy, and I found myself.
Which leads to your next question:
What are some obstacles writing historical fiction brings?
Even though I’d been writing for years, I was writing poetry, humor, picture book text, contemporary… everything but historical. I had the luxury of just making up stuff.
But when I traveled with a friend to Norway I heard stories told by people who had lived through the long years of the German occupation. The details I heard, the emotions I felt, the courage I recognized all deserved to be shared with a wider public.
The obstacle was history!
Without authentic, verifiable historic context, this story would not only fail, it might offend. I wasn’t alive during World War II. I’m not Norwegian. It was presumptuous to tell their stories for them, let alone make up a novel that would encompass them. The very least I could do was to make sure the history surrounding the story was correct. That required research on a fairly obscure topic.
What is your least favorite part of research?
That’s easy: Not being able to use the Internet.
I began work on those original stories before the Internet existed. Most books about Norway’s occupation that had been written/translated into English were published in the 1940s and 1950s. When I began research in the 1980s, most were out of print. I visited old bookstores, pored over library files, and found limited references in encyclopedia volumes.
I tried writing on this subject from various points of view and for various target ages, always hitting a wall when some aspect of history was lacking. I’d set it aside and return to things I could “make up”.
Every few years I would pull out my notes and writings and renew my search. Eventually, that included online sources where I found more current research and accounts of those occupation years. Also, I could communicate and translate more readily using the Internet.
We can’t assume that everyone today has access to online resources. The digital divide is very real, in this country and around the world. Everyone is entitled to equal, uncensored access to knowledge. A lack of Internet resources for any reason is like shackling an underclass of people to the limitations of last-century technology.
What is your favorite thing about research?
I adore first person accounts, delivered face-to-face, by people who lived them.
But that can require expensive travel and many participants in history have died. At all of my appearances I’ve encountered people who were eager to share personal or family stories, suggest related book titles, and provide contact information to people with stories to share. I’m so grateful to that openness because each new link shines another beam of light on a history that has nearly disappeared.
I also love when a small tidbit of information, from conversations or traditional research, appears like the missing piece in a puzzle. It’s like hearing the sound of the tumblers in a lock clicking into place and knowing that you’ll finally be able to walk into a room that had been beyond your reach.
Which leads to…
What kinds of sources do you use? The more specifics here, the better!
Wherever possible, I seek the most primary of primary sources- first person accounts. I also collect “family lore”, despite knowing how far generational stories can stray from the facts. Within those accounts I find details about events but also the tone and attitude of the speakers.
I preserve these anecdotal scenes, relationships, situations, and struggles like nuggets to incorporate into the fictional aspects of the novel. I rely on them to bring characters to life in ways that are consistent with the time, place, and culture of history.
For research I use reliable resources that can be verified by other sources. A prefect example is a book that brought my character Mari to life, FOLKLORE FIGHTS THE NAZIS: Humor in Occupied Norway, 1940-1945, by Kathleen Stokker. (University of Wisconsin Press, 1997). In it Stokker incorporates archival clippings, journal entries, posters, letter excerpts, and countless other Occupation-era artifacts. They include original language, images, and annotations along with translation and historical context. Each is indexed to its source, all of which sounds as boring as dust.
In fact, though, once I’ve verified that the material is accurate and authentic, I can return to the content itself, reading the lines and in between the lines to gather facts and impressions. After finding it myself I discovered that other historical novels about Norway cited Stokker’s book as well.
In recent years quite a few who lived through Norway’s occupation as children have written autobiographical accounts of that time. Their stories, even when unrelated to my writing, have offered new voices and insights to broaden my understanding.
Do you have a specific system for collecting data?
Yes and no.
To me it’s a system, but it wouldn’t make sense to anyone else. It always boils down to this:
I have a good memory for things I’ve seen and heard- conversations. I can keep them in my head until I have a chance to write them down, and then a just a short summary is all it takes to recall them completely. (That’s why it’s called “fiction” not reporting.)
For historic research:
Old style- Photocopy the pages and highlight key points.
New style- Buy the book or print out the relevant pages from reliable online sources, then use sticky notes and highlight key points.
Old style- notebook outlines and handwritten text
New style- A blend of notebook outlines and using the software program Scrivener has helped.
Perhaps, as they say, a picture is worth a thousand words.
Here are some quotable quotes that explain why I write historical fiction but would not write pure historic content:
- I’m a “piler” not a “filer”.
- If I’m the only one who knows where everything is, I’m irreplaceable.
- I take some comfort in Einstein’s words: “If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk a sign?”
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?
In the first book, the opening mountainside scene takes place in August, 1940. That’s just four months after the German occupation/invasion began. It wasn’t until many months later that radios were outlawed, but my story indicated the law had been imposed much earlier. That explained the arrest of Mr. Meier and showed the danger of keeping hidden radios. In the author’s note I made it clear that the dates were incorrect, changed for the sake of the story.
It’s important to keep in mind that the basic purpose of the writing novels is to entertain and engage, not to teach precise history. Also, violent or graphic details would be inappropriate for young readers.
Anything else you’d like to share?
During school visits I use a mobius strip to demonstrate why readers of historical fiction have a responsibility to be especially attentive. A single strip of paper with one side “dull” (like the basic facts of history), and one side glossy (like the polished storytelling of fiction), can be joined into a circle with just one twist of the strip. When it is done correctly, you can start to draw a continuous line, never lifting the marker, until you’ve circled completely. At that point you can see that your story line has traveled across both sides of the paper strip, the facts and the storytelling, proceeding seamlessly without interruption. It provides readers with a satisfying and undistracting experience, but can confuse fact and fiction. I urge readers to complete the book then go back and analyze or research to sort out fact from fiction. Really good historical novels invite that search.