Earlier this week, Janis Cooke Newman wrote about why she writes historical fiction. She is the author of the novel Mary: Mrs. A. Lincoln and A Master Plan for Rescue as well as a memoir The Russian Word for Snow. She will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council’s Visiting Scribe series.
I often think I’m the ideal writer for historical fiction, because I’m not a fan of doing research. Other writers tell me how they disappear down the rabbit hole, spending weeks in the library, or jumping from one obscure website to another. How months go by and they don’t get any writing done.
To me, the whole idea of settling in with a big stack of historical texts just makes me itchy. Mainly because it’s the fiction part of historical fiction I find so compelling — the story and the characters, not the facts.
Not that I’m willing to ignore them entirely. I’m one of those writers (and readers) of historical fiction who feels cheated if the narrative takes too many liberties. I don’t want the wrong side to win the war, or a real person to have three husbands she didn’t have. And frankly, I’d rather a fictional character not ride a subway line that didn’t exist, or eat a kind of hot dog that hadn’t been invented. But ultimately, I’m more interested in how it felt to live and love — and even hate — during a certain time period. And you don’t get that from facts.
When I’m writing, I try to be as imaginative with what I use for my research as I am creating my story. Because to really understand what it was like for my characters to live in their time — to really write their worlds — I have to go beyond history books. I sometimes even have to go beyond books.
For the boy, Jack, in A Master Plan for Rescue, I relied a lot on my own father’s stories about growing up on the northern tip of Manhattan during the early days of World War II. My father was the one who told me about the blue Son in Service stars people hung in their apartment windows whenever someone in the family went to war — and how those stars were replaced with gold ones if that son, or brother, or father was killed in action.
To write the chapter about Jakob — the young German Jew who falls in love with the ill-fated Rebecca as Hitler is coming to power — I read Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin Stories. These stories, full of decadence and violence, gave me a sense of what that German city must have been like at that moment in time — and did it better than any nonfiction book could have.
When I wanted to write the character Rivka’s escape from German-occupied Paris, I re-read Irene Nemirovsky’s wonderful Suite Francaise. Again, better than any history text, this novel allowed me to imagine into what it would feel like to be a young, deaf girl fleeing the Nazis on foot across an entire country.
For fiction writers, everything becomes a kind of research. But for those of us who write historical fiction, we’re dependent on it. The trick is not depending on it too much, and not limiting ourselves to facts. Because stories — like lives — are made up of more than facts. And that is what fiction understands best.
Janis Cooke Newman is a member of the San Francisco Writers’ Grotto, on the board of Litquake, and a founder and organizer of the Lit Camp writers conference. Read more about her and her work here.
Janis Cooke Newman is the author of the novels A Master Plan for Rescue, Mary: Mrs. A Lincoln, and the memoir The Russian Word for Snow. She is the founder of the Lit Camp writers conference.