Hot off her recent Goldie win for the stunning novel, In This Small Spot, Caren Werlinger graciously joins me to share her thoughts on writing and researching historical fiction. She has a knack for weaving the present and past in delicious prose and surprising twists of story and character. Without further ado…
FROM SURPRISING PLACES
I was one of those kids who always wrote stories. Ideas would come to me and I would hide away in my room for a few days at a time, writing until my hand cramped up. My teachers and my mother, I think, were the only people who ever read them, and they encouraged me to keep writing. Alas, life took me in a different direction and I got into physical therapy, where for a long time all of my reading and writing was research-based. When I began writing creatively again in the late 1990s, I had no intention of writing historical novels. I just had some ideas floating around in my head – memories, images, things that sparked the creation of stories. I missed writing for fun.
Of my six published novels to date, two have been historical in nature. My first historical novel, Miserere, won the 2013 Rainbow Award for LGBT Historical Fiction. It’s set primarily in the summer of 1968 – a pivotal year in U.S. history with the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy. I’m of Irish descent, and have always been fascinated by the various influences that led so many Irish to immigrate to the United States. The Potato Famine, of course, was a huge factor for thousands. I decided to tie those eras in history together with a tale of two Irish teenage girls sold into service, basically slavery, at a plantation in Virginia in the 1850s near the end of the famine years. The story goes back and forth through time between the Faolain girls’ story and their descendent, Connemara, a hundred years later as she tries to end a family curse that began with one of the sisters.
This book is the most local I’ve written, as I live in Virginia and have lived in West Virginia. Much of the history of this novel is all around me – Civil War battlefields, iron furnaces, huge plantation houses, land grants originally surveyed by a sixteen-year-old George Washington.
A lot of research went into trying to get the details right enough to lend an air of authenticity to the story. What would the passage from Ireland have been like for the two sisters? I knew that the Irish “coffin ships” usually arrived with less than half of their human cargo still alive. How did people travel into the interior of Virginia in the 1850s? I didn’t know that the James River had a canal project. What kind of tobacco grew in Virginia? I had no idea that only bright tobacco could grow well this far north, unlike the types that grow well in the Carolinas or Georgia.
From the feedback I’ve received from readers, I think I got it right. They’re able to feel the anguish of the girls and their mother at being torn apart, never to see one another again. My main character in 1968, Connemara, is only ten, but she has more insight than many of the adults around her. I loved writing her. She’s brave and intelligent and she knows she’s different – that last part is very much drawn from my memories of being young but knowing it was girls I liked and wanted to like me back, not boys.
As the story unfolds, it ties together other social issues that plagued both eras – racism and prejudice, intolerance. Though it is set in the past, I think the story is still relevant to people today.
My other historical novel, Neither Present Time, also placed in the 2013 Rainbow Awards – second place in Lesbian Contemporary Romance and fourth place overall for Best Lesbian Novel. How did an “historical novel” place in a contemporary Romance category? Largely, because it was inspired by an inscription I found in a Rumer Godden novel many years ago.
That inscription lit up my imagination, and my version of Corinne and Helen’s love story was the result. So much was happening around the world in the 1940s. Through some common friends, I had met a woman who is now in her 90s. She came to Washington, D.C. from New York City to work the 1940 census. She graciously granted me an interview and talked about what Washington was like at the time, how Southern and small-town and anti-Semitic it was. No one would rent a room to a New York Jew! She was able to find lodging with another young woman. I didn’t model Corinne’s character on her, but she helped tremendously to give me a feel for what DC was like in 1940. I had to do a lot more research to find out about the Navy Yard, how long the munitions buildings stayed on the mall after the war was over, when exactly the cherry trees were planted, all kinds of things.
The house in this story is based on one I was acquainted with. When I was in my twenties, I helped at an estate auction for a huge mansion that was being sold off by the family. The old uncle who had lived there had no children of his own, and none of the nieces or nephews wanted the place. It had been in the family for well over a hundred years. Late in the day, after the auction was done and people had carted off most of the furniture and books and silver and lamps and art, the house looked so forlorn. It had been a showcase of wealth at one time, the home place of a prosperous family. Generations of people had lived and laughed and loved within those walls. I’ve written before about how old houses speak to me, all the life they’ve seen and all the secrets they hold. This one definitely did, and I was able to use it as a character in this novel.
There are many different ways of doing research. If the history is recent enough, then talking to someone who lived it can give you all kinds of information you can’t find in any research articles or the Internet. Journals and letters can be a marvelous source of information. Ultimately, the more we can make readers feel like they’re there with us, the less it feels like history and more like “it could have been my story”.
Visit Caren at http://cjwerlinger.wordpress.com/