How can we understand the world today unless we explore the past? I write historical fiction to try to understand why things happened. Lucky for me, I love doing research, though it’s a lot like eating potato chips. Once you start, it’s hard to stop.
The prevailing wisdom is you have to follow productive leads, while avoiding those roads that lead too far astray. But what is “astray?” During my historical digging for Find Me Again, my second book, a serendipitous discovery changed the direction of the story. I had gathered together some Polish history books to understand the background of several important Polish characters. But it was summer and we were at our cottage, so I began my reading with James Michener’s historical novel called Poland, which covers a thousand years of that history painlessly (if you overlook the melodrama).
I still remember sitting on the beach when I read about a young Polish count embarking on an affair with a married German noblewoman who later became Catherine the Great. Long after the affair was over, she ascended the throne and made him King of Poland for her own political reasons. In biographies of Catherine I discovered they had had a child together. Eureka! This material fit in surprisingly well with the theme of my book, lost children.
Delving more into the history, I became entranced with the Catherine story. She had kept detailed journals her whole life so there was no shortage of resource material. The lives of other notable figures in Catherine’s sphere, including Frederick the Great, enticed me. What to do with all this irresistible information? It became a story within the main story of the novel. After one of the 20th century characters is murdered, my protagonist, Rebecca Temple, finds a manuscript he had written about his family’s history. This book won the Edgar.
Part of my third Rebecca Temple book, Season of Iron, is set in 1930s Berlin during the Nazi era. It turned out that memoirs were the best source of the information I needed because they contained details of daily life not found in history books. A surprisingly large amount of memoirs were written by German Jews who had escaped from Germany on the Kindertransport as children. They were often the only members of their family who survived and felt they had to tell their story. During my reading on the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, I came across a young high jumper named Gretel Bergmann, who would have won the gold medal for Germany if they hadn’t excluded her because she was Jewish. I based one of my characters on her, because, in this case, truth made the best fiction.
My fourth book, The Queen of Unforgetting, came about because I was so captivated by the history of Georgian Bay where we vacation. I have a small library on the subject, including archaeological finds. In the 1600s, Jesuits travelled here from France to convert the Huron to Christianity. Tragically they also brought with them European diseases. Those Huron who didn’t die from infection were massacred by their cousins, the Iroquois. For their efforts, the Jesuits were tortured and killed.
In the 1990s, I wrote a disjointed manuscript on the topic, then in frustration, put it away to write the Rebecca Temple books. After learning about plot structure from writing mystery, I returned to the Brébeuf novel and was able to sort it out. Again I structured my novel with a story within the main story. My protagonist, Mel Montrose, a beautiful grad student in 1972, writes a fictionalized account of historical events from the point of view of the enigmatic Jesuit, Jean de Brébeuf.
I have been collecting research for my latest project, The Book of Samuel, for several years because the setting and time period are unfamiliar to me: Washington, DC and a Virginia plantation in the 1840s. It has been a steep learning curve, which I have cheerfully climbed, but have paid for my pleasure with time.
Her historical novel, The Queen of Unforgetting, published in 2010, was chosen for a plaque by Project Bookmark Canada.
Best Girl, a Rapid Reads book, came out in 2012.
She lives in Toronto where she teaches writing to seniors.