Last week, I gave a friend a copy of Antonius: Son of Rome. She's a rather new acquaintance, and I think she was skeptical of whether or not she'd like a story based on Roman history. This morning, I awakened to a lovely text from her. She'd taken my book with her on a beach trip and was already on pg. 200+ , loving it! It warmed my heart and once again I knew was doing what I was meant to do: WRITE.
So this week, I'm addressing a question I'm asked often and truly speaking from my own, personal experience and journey as a writer. Please let me know if you like this blog, as I may occasionally share more personal author-stories along these lines, if my readers enjoy it.
Write from the Heart
Once upon a time, a teen-age girl wanted to be a writer. She considered journalism as an entryway, but her dream was to write novels and be successful at it. Then life happened and she became a teacher instead, to pay the bills, to make a living.
Friends, that teen-age girl was me. This week, I am writing from the heart, because one of the most frequent questions I get as an author is “why do you want to write?”
I write because something inside compels me to do it and I want to leave something behind after I’m gone. My geeky hunger for history, for sharing that interest in a unique way has morphed into telling stories through historical fiction. I seriously believe that there are lots of people out there who don’t think they like history. Well, just give me ten pages to change your mind—that’s all what I want to do. There are few things I’d rather be doing than sitting at my laptop, tapping away at the keyboard to create a new story—a new world, to teach about history.
So, I guess I’ll always be teaching.
When I write historical fiction, I’m not just writing fiction, but history, too. The research behind each of my novels is REAL, and I take it very seriously. I’ve written entire blogs about my research, and there’s research aside from just the bookish kind that’s found in library stacks and online. Field research on actual historical sites or at special research hubs like courthouse records rooms or historical research centers provide incredible opportunities for insight into characters and plot. Case in point: this summer, while at the Missouri Historical Society Research Center, I was reading a letter written by Meriwether Lewis. I’d read it before, but it had been printed in a book. Now, I was actually holding his letter, reading straight from Lewis’s hand. That day I’d read lots of letters by Lewis—in his own handwriting. But this particular one was Lewis’s last prior to his death. In fact, it’s a letter to President James Madison, and in reading it, I noticed how messy his writing was in comparison to other letters he’d written, how his handwriting trailed off and at times, he’d scribble through a phrase as though confused, then start over again or leave a word out completely. Why did he send such a letter to the President, of all people? Clearly, he wasn’t at his best. It opened my eyes to his character and what he was going through when he wrote the letter. The man was suffering—mentally, physically. . . You can’t get that sort of insight from reading the same letter in just a printed book. That experience helped me really fill out the character of Meriwether Lewis in my own account.
The word “Fiction” in the genre of historical fiction centers upon dialogues and relationships between some of the characters, as well as occasional plot changes, pacing changes in plot and/or chronology. However, whenever anything deviates from the historical record, I notate it in my author’s notes at the end of the book. That being said, I also try to minimize changes I make in the historical record or in dealing with characters. To me, treating a character honestly will make him or her stand out and hopefully, the reader will come to realize how beliefs, politics, cultural tradition, and mind-set through history has developed a person’s character. My portrayal of Marc Antony was a daunting task, since none of us know what an ancient Roman was like to speak with, personally. As I delved deeper and deeper into Roman history and culture, it became clear to me that though their cultural traditions and mind-sets may have been foreign to ours, certain things were the same: courage, hypocrisy, love for one’s family… need I go on?
The intricacies of writing a novel fascinate and challenge me. It’s such an honor to enter the personal lives of Julia and William Clark, of Antony and Cleopatra; to strive to cross-reference dates and journeys, separate folk-lore or propaganda from truth, and finally edit through my own mistakes, whether they be historical or grammatical.
With my fabulous editor, Jenny Q.
I’m now sixty years old and I’m not slowing this writing thing down. Being an author has been humbling, exciting, disappointing at times, but ALWAYS exhilarating, because the experience doesn’t end. Once you’re an writer, you always are and you have a story to tell. So it’s important to write from the heart.
Read on, everybody!
*Reference: Lewis’s letter to James Madison can be found in Donald Jackson’s Letters of the Lewis & Clark Expedition (Second edition), University of Illinois Press, 1978.