Plundering Back Cupboards
The warmth and grit between May and Louisa became the core of Little Woman in Blue: A Novel of May Alcott (She Writes Press, Sept. 2015). For me, writing historical fiction means spending years researching and imagining, so these had better be people that, like family members, you may not always approve of, but feel bound to by love, with all its highs and lows. Writers let that first flicker of “here’s a story” deepen into obsession as we follow clues around detours and past walls.
All the Alcott family members kept journals and wrote letters, many of which were saved. Some have been published, while others are in archives. It’s great to swap pens for pencils and touch fragile paper in quiet rooms, but it’s not a moment-by-moment a thrill. Eventually that first hold-your-breath intimacy bumps into the realization that there’s more humdrum than drama. Like attics, diaries often are full of stuff that seems useless, but a dim corner may hold just what we need. My eyes glaze at accounts of vague miseries but light up when I find out exactly how long a game of whist lasted or the shape of shoe’s heel. I borrow these real things in hope they’ll make my fiction seem thoroughly real to readers.
Writing based on real people means we’re given a shape, but to bring someone back to life, we must draw from a richness of stuff, plundering untidy closets and cupboards. Maybe an apple core or an old paint box will bring a story to life. Always, mystery abounds.
In addition to her newest release, Little Woman in Blue, Jeannine Atkins is the acclaimed author of twelve books for young readers featuring women in history, including Borrowed Names: Poems about Laura Ingalls Wilder, Madam C. J. Walker, and Marie Curie and their Daughters. She is an adjunct professor at Simmons College and the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. Visit her website at www.jeannineatkins.com.