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From Family History to Historical Fiction

From Family History to Historical Fiction
 

An immediate caveat: Historical fiction is not my forte. My current WIP will be entered as contemporary Women’s Fiction in the Genesis contest. But, I was handed a treasure several years ago that has sparked my imagination. During her hometown’s centennial celebration,a relative of mine wrote an account of the first of our ancestors to come to America. Their story, like so many others, is fascinating, and seems to beg to be shared.

The piece itself is rather short, and sparked a lot of questions in my mind. What happened next? How did the main character- my great, great grandmother really feel about all of the happenings it described? So, I set about expanding it.

A visit to  the cemetary gave me a real feel for these people. I noticed the names of folks that were buried nearby, and began to see extended family connections. Also, one very intriguing thing that no-one had ever brought to my attention. A little girl named Mary had died at age 5. A few years later, another daughter was born, and also named Mary. Did she feel like a replacement for the lost child? Did that make her sad? Now, I was hooked for good.

As I began to expand the stories I was given, I felt constricted because I was filling in facts that may or may not have been true. What if one of my distant relatives who are still alive read this tale, and said “You’ve got it all wrong. How dare you take liberties with my great-grandpa’s story!” I was stumped for awhile. Then, an author of historical fiction gave me a suggestion that freed me- “Change their last name.” Eureka!

My imagination went into overdrive, and I began to create secondary characters who might have touched my family’s lives. The doctor and his wife who cared for the aunt who was seriously burned in a house fire. A love interest for this teenager who would be embarassed about the scars she retained from that injury. A family who arrived from the “old country” and struggled to fit in to their new home.

So, as one who usually writes contemporaries, how did I get into historical mode? I’ve always loved history, and looking at old houses, old pictures, etc. so it wasn’t a huge stretch. Then, my main inspiration came from a copy of a newspaper from the exact county I was writing about, at the exact time of the setting of my book. I arranged for a micro-filmed copy  to be sent to my local library on loan, and they kept it there for several weeks so that I could come in to pore over the stories, the ads, the pictures. It was a great way to immerse myself in the day to day lives of my family’s contemporaries. I never saw any of their names in the paper, but I still had the feeling of stepping back in time for a visit.

Stay tuned. After I’ve established my brand in Women’s Fiction, you may see the following announcement- “You’ve loved her contemporary books, now give her first historical a try.” My motto- Dream Big!

Good luck to all in the Genesis contest. See you at the Awards ceremony!

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