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  • Why She Writes Historical Fiction Part 1
Why She Writes Historical Fiction Part 1
Written by
She Writes
March 2019
Written by
She Writes
March 2019

In our Why She Writes segments we take a deep dive into particular genres and the women who write in them. In this edition, we're covering historical fiction and the authors who own this category. Learn more about their processes and the research that goes into writing historical fiction with these brilliant female writers.

Diana Gabaldon

Diana Gabaldon, the author of the bestselling Outlander series, talks about the research that goes into her historical fiction novels on her website:

Speaking just generally, I read several "overview" books or accounts covering the general period (of years) and/or particular events (like battles) that I know will be of relevance. Doing any kind of research is like grabbing the end of a long piece of yarn and pulling— you don’t know what the other end is attached to, and you may end up in convoluted tangles—but you can be sure there’s something there. I find a lot of something. There is logic to it—and sometimes I really am looking for a specific bit of information—but for the most part, the writing and the research are done concurrently; they feed off each other.

Barbara Kingsolver

When it comes to writing historical fiction, the setting possibilities are endless. When Barbara Kingsolver began writing her 2018 release, Unsheltered, she knew she had to pick a point in history that she wanted to write about. During an interview with Goodreads, Kingsolver talked about her process when it came to choosing a setting: 

There were various options: the Black Death, the Dark Ages. But I chose the 1870s because I wanted to stay in one place. Really early on, I devised this literary device of having two sets of characters living in the same house. So I had to choose another time in history that had knowable characters and a knowable place. The Dark Ages wouldn't have worked—there was no house I could really construct that could conceivably still be standing in modern times. So I settled on post-Civil War Vineland, New Jersey, and modern Vineland, New Jersey, after considering and discarding many other locations and time periods.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Award-winning novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie was candid during an interview with Image Journal, talking about why she favors writing fiction over nonfiction. Through the honesty of fiction, she finds herself able to tell a story that she otherwise wouldn't be able to:

Also, my process isn’t an entirely conscious thing. I just do. But I will say that fiction is true. This is something my friends who write nonfiction and I argue about all the time. I feel that fiction is much more honest than nonfiction. I know from my limited experience in writing nonfiction, particularly memoir, that in the process of writing I am constantly negotiating different levels of self-censorship and self-protection, and protection of people I love, and sometimes protection of people I don’t necessarily care about but I worry that the reader might have biased feelings about. When I write fiction, I don’t think about any of that. Radical honesty is possible in fiction. With fictional characters, I don’t have to think about protecting anybody.

Paula McLain

Paula McLain is well-known for her historical fiction work and while discussing her bestselling novel The Paris Wife with The Hemingway Project, she disclosed information about her research as well as the inspiration behind the novel:  

At the end of his memoir, Hemingway writes of Hadley, “I wished I had died before I loved anyone but her.” That line, and his portrayal of their marriage in his memoir—so poignant and steeped in regret—inspired me to first to read biographies of her, and then to write a novel, The Paris Wife, which tells the whole of their wildly romantic and ultimately tragic love story from her point of view. All the biographers agree that of Hemingway’s four wives and numerous conquests, Hadley’s the one who is changed for the better by knowing him. She blooms.

I read multiple biographies of both Hadley and Ernest Hemingway, and read or reread his early stories and novels, and his memoir, A Moveable Feast.

I also did research in the Hemingway Room at the John F. Kennedy Memorial Library, which was really something. It’s like the church of Hemingway there, a lovely small room with some of his furniture, an animal skin rug, some art and personal effects. And of course all of his works in manuscript form, as well as much of his correspondence. I went there expressly to read Hadley’s letters to him during their courtship, and those are amazing. Her voice is incredible–charming, candid, funny, romantic. She’s so open, and also creative. That was a surprise to me–what a good writer she is!

Min Jin Lee

National Book Award Finalist Min Jin Lee didn't know what her book Pachinko would look like when she started. Spending years on the first draft, it took her plenty of research to find the subject she wanted to write about in Pachinko. While talking with Sampsonia Way, she discusses her experience with writing a book that would later go on to be a bestseller and a crowd favorite:

Well, the first version of the book that I wrote from 1996 to 2003 didn’t have any of these characters. The book was supposed to be about Solomon, which is kind of bananas. Everyone’s like, How is that possible? He’s like 2% of the book right now. But when I lived in Japan between 2007 to 2011, I interviewed all these Solomon-type people, these Wall Street guys who are Korean-Japanese or fourth generation. And when I met them, I found they’re just not that interesting. So I figured I can’t write a novel about them. When I talked to them, they were very clear about who was interesting in their family, and it was often the first generation who did extraordinary things just to survive. For example, raising pigs. Their grandfathers would collect garbage to feed the pigs that lived in their houses. Or their great grandmothers who would make moonshine, or the equivalent, and would get arrested every week. This kind of world was very interesting and I couldn’t believe that they did that, and I decided that I would have to create those characters. Then that became a whole other book, so I threw away the first book entirely. Except for one chapter.

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