About Writing

Background in Historical Fiction

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One of the hardest things in writing historical fiction is to describe the world fully enough for the modern reader to imagine it while at the same time not having the character exclaim over, or even notice, items that are common to them.

In our everyday lives, for example, we pass by buildings in our neighborhood without noticing them, to the point that when one of them is demolished, we say, “I remember something was there, but what was it?” In my current work in progress, Aloha Spirit, I need to describe Honolulu as it was in territorial Hawaii. My protagonist never had to even notice buildings along the route from her home to the downtown shopping district. As an author telling her story, though, I need to describe it to provide historical context.

Another place authors of historical fiction have to pull back is when characters are doing normal household tasks. These tasks need to be described so the reader understands what is going on, and the process must be historically accurate. In Aloha Spirit, my character does the laundry, a task we all know well. But what did it look like in 1925? What type of machine was used? What brand of soap? These details give the story a historical accuracy and flavor, but it’s important to remember that the character isn’t going to notice the washing machine any more than you notice your coffee pot. Joan Blos wrote an article in the School Library Journal. She included the passage “Mother stood in front of the white box and carefully adjusted the black dial” to illustrate the awkwardness of this type of description. A modern writer surely wouldn’t describe cooking as Blos did in the above passage, so why should a historical fiction writer do so?

Personally, I prefer a little more detail about the setting in historical fiction because it helps me envision the era. I can honestly say I have never felt a historical fiction piece to be over-described. I appreciate the research that goes into novels of this typed, and I get tired of blow-by-blow accounts of battles and political intrigue, but the details of the furnishings, clothing and food, for example, captivate me.

 

 

About Writing, Expository, Narrative

Creative Nonfiction

writingOne of the writing genres we teach in sixth grade is personal narrative. A narrative is a story, or fiction, but a personal narrative is based on a real event. The struggle is getting students to write good stories about an event in their lives.

Now personal essay, or memoir, is supposedly a different genre. It is defined as an actual memory or experience that is enhanced by imagination. Sounds the same to me.

When we remember something from our past, we tend to remember the important part, the climax, the culmination. For example, we remember opening a present and getting something we wanted, or falling off our bike, or swimming in Hawaii. In order to make that a good piece of writing, you need to add details. Who else was there? What was the weather? What happened before that led up to it? What happened afterward? What did you feel before and how did this event change it? What did people say? These details, however, are what is usually forgotten. You are left with a story like this: I went swimming in Hawaii. It was cool. Bad story.

To enhance the memory of the experience, you need to add details. If you don’t remember what the weather was like, it’s safe to assume it was warm and sunny since Hawaii is usually warm and sunny (and you’d remember swimming in the rain). If you were on vacation with your family, you can safely assume they were there with you, even if you have to make up dialogue on what they most likely said.

So where is the line between fiction (personal narrative) and nonfiction (personal essay or memoir)? Nonfiction stories serve up just the facts, like a newspaper article. And many novelists  do a lot of research into facts to help make a novel believable. Remember, too, that memories are colored by our age at the time, and they fuzz a bit over time. When I compare childhood memories with my brother, we are often amazed we are talking about the same event. Our brain already adds creativity.

You may ask, why is it important to know if the story is nonfiction or fiction if it’s a good story? One of an author’s duties is to give the reader what they expect. If a book is billed as memoir, the reader expects that everything in it actually happened. If it’s sold as fiction, the reader assumes it’s all made up. Some people are using the title ‘creative nonfiction’ to bridge this gap. In creative nonfiction, a reader can assume that historical facts are checked and still accept that some of the characters or events are made up. My own book, Under the Almond Trees, I call historical fiction because most of it is fictionalized based on very little information. What about you? Do you like your nonfiction to be factual, or are you a fan of creative nonfiction?

 

About Writing

Inspired by Family

IMG_0551Throughout my life, I have listened avidly to stories of my family. It was no different when I married my husband and heard stories of his family. I turned my own stories into a novel, UNDER THE ALMOND TREES and I’m currently working on ALOHA SPIRIT a story of my husband’s grandmother. The picture at left is his grandmother, mother, and aunts in Honolulu just before World War II. When writing these stories, I can’t be completely accurate since I don’t know all the details of the person’s life. It can’t be a biography. Dialogue has to be invented, as well as what I call the filling in between known events. For this reason, I’ve stopped saying these novels are about my family and begun saying they are inspired by family.

Family stories may be the inspiration, but they cannot carry a novel on their own. Even so, the first source of deeper information is the family. I took the older members of my family aside and urged them to tell me the details–where they went to school, what their mother made for dinner, which was their favorite relative, and who fought with who. My sons were working on a genealogy merit badge in Boy Scouts when they interviewed their great-grandfather. He was born in Honolulu in 1918 and was a civilian ship fitter at Pearl Harbor when it was bombed in 1941. His first-person view of the event was incredible, but his personal reactions were priceless. He told how he wanted to hide during the attack, but his boss made him go out with a crew to remove scaffolding from a ship. He hid behind turrets on the ship as the Japanese planes flew over. I wish I’d had my novelist’s eye that day and asked him about how he got to work, how long a day he worked, what he’d had for breakfast, and what the family said when he got home. Those are the details that make a novel.

Grandpa’s experience is a tiny part of my novel ALOHA SPIRIT. I had to research a lot about territorial Hawaii–the years between the fall of the monarchy and statehood. I didn’t care so much about the politics of the sugar plantation owners. I wanted to know about daily life. When did they get televisions, cars, radios? When were the hotels built on Waikiki? I read historical fiction set in Hawaii to get a feel for the era, and nonfiction for accuracy. There are many details I couldn’t find or that I had to change to fit my story. I can do that, since it’s a novel and not a biography.

The hardest part is showing the finished work to living members of the family. I think they understand that I intend it to be a tribute to our ancestors, but I’m sure they have a different view of the characters and events than I do. When I exaggerate a negative trait, I’m trying for greater conflict to improve the novel’s pacing, not to ruin a person’s reputation. So when you read my novels, keep in mind that they are novels. A lot of it is made up! Enjoy them as fiction. If you absolutely must know if something really happened, send me an email. My hope is that readers will be as inspired by the characters in my novels as I was by the women who inspired them.

Authors

Author-go-Round: Me!

 

Ellen001IMG_0447Welcome to the third week of AUTHOR-GO-ROUND! This week it’s my turn.

My grandmother’s grandmother, Ellen VanValkenburgh, fascinated me from a young age. She left a tremendous legacy of strength for the women of my family, and she inspired my novel, Under the Almond Trees. On the left is a photograph taken sometime around the turn of the last century. I’m on the right, 100 years later, wearing the same brooch. Ellen died before my father was born, but here is how I imagine an interview with her might go.

Linda Ulleseit (me): Thank you for speaking with me, Grandma Van.

Ellen VanValkenburgh: What would you like to talk about today?

Me: I’ve always admired the story of you running your husband’s paper mill after he passed away. Was that hard emotionally? I mean was he the love of your life?

Ellen: (laughing) Such a modern idea! In my day we didn’t moon over our men. I did what I had to do to feed my family. I had two daughters then, you know, and a son on the way.

Me: Henry VanValkenburgh was your second marriage, though.

Ellen: That’s true. He was the father of my children, but Jacob… Jacob was my heart.

Me: The love of your life.

Ellen:If you insist. But we only had a short time together.

Me: Yes, true. Can we talk about your time in Santa Cruz? Did running the paper mill make you want to be in politics?

Ellen: Oh, I never wanted to be in politics, but when I tangled with the city over business matters it seemed foolish that women had no part in making decisions about how their city was run. Women couldn’t vote then, you know.

Me: Oh, I know. You fought hard for women to vote. I’m very proud of you for that. You even met Susan B. Anthony, is that right?

Ellen: (nodding) What an earnest face and genial smile she had!. Susan came to Santa Cruz at the request of her brother Elihu, a prominent man in Santa Cruz.

Me: And she inspired you to sue the county?

Ellen: Among others. But yes, I did sue in 1862. The law, after all, said a person born in these United States was a citizen and eligible to vote. Disappointing to learn that the law applied to Negroes but not women.

Me: But you persevered.

Ellen: Didn’t succeed until 1920. I was old by then.

Me: What a tremendous legacy to leave your children, though. What an inspiring life you’ve led.

Ellen: Well, I didn’t intend to be either a legacy or inspiring. I only wanted some say in how my city, and country, was run.

Me: Still, your niece by marriage and your granddaughter hold you in high esteem. As do I.UAT front

Ellen: That’s nice. Neither Nina or Eva were trying to be inspirational either. They just decided what they wanted and stuck to their guns until they got it.

Me: That’s admirable.

Ellen: Well, all right. I guess that’s so. (smiling) Share my story then with whomever you will. I hope they enjoy reading it.

Me: Thank you, Grandma Van. I’m sure they will.

Under the Almond Trees is available on Amazon here.

Also please visit these awesome AUTHOR-GO-ROUND authors:

Tracy Lawson www.tracylawsonbooks.com

Nina Day Gerard, www.ninadaygerard.com

Miracle Austin, www.miracleaustin.com

Connie Peck, conniepeck.wordpress.com

 

 

Excerpts

Writing Craze

book_and_featherAs some of you know, I have begun taking online classes in pursuit of my MFA in Creative Writing. This endeavor has pushed me to write a LOT this summer. The summer is half gone, but I have written a chapter of Aloha Spirit, started a new flying horse book, written a short story and created four separate scenes. That doesn’t count the articles, chapters, and workshop postings I’ve had to read and thoughtfully comment on. It’s exhilarating. Required classes when I used to go to college always consisted of some really dull, or dully presented, subjects. Now, however, I am immersed in something I absolutely love to do–write! So today I thought I’d post a bit from Aloha Spirit:

On May 12, 1939, we board the Matsonia, one of Matson Lines’ finest ships. Every color is vivid, from the green rim of Punch Bowl on the hill above the city to the sapphire ocean below. On the pier, brass instruments flash in the sun as the Marine band in their white uniforms plays Aloha ‘Oe, Queen Liliʻuokalani’s beautiful song of farewell. Hawai’ian girls hula nearby, their hair twisted with white pikake that gives sweetness to the air. Family and friends wave smiling goodbyes, their clothing adding dots of color to the scene.

Behind the joyous leavetaking, green palm trees sway behind the Royal Hawai’ian Hotel, also known as the Pink Lady. Waikiki’s pale cream sand stretches toward Diamond Head, majestic as always above Honolulu. On the white ship, I am so covered in fragrant leis, orange and purple and yellow and pink, I can hardly breathe. It seems like every flower in Hawai’i has given its life to send Manley and I off in style to the World’s Fair in San Francisco.

I turn to wave toward Pearl Harbor, out of sight beyond Hickam Field, in farewell to Earl, who couldn’t get away from his new job. I imagine seeing past Hickam Field, its gray runways, planes, barracks, quonset huts, and jeeps, to Pearl Harbor with its American navy ships. Over there everything is drab and businesslike.  

The smokestacks with the big blue M belch dark clouds. The ship churns water as it pulls away from the dock. Honolulu fades until I can’t make out the Pink Lady. All eyes fasten on Diamond Head, the last view of home. In keeping with tradition, we throw leis overboard as we pass the extinct volcano as a promise that we will return to the islands. We watch until Diamond Head fades to purple distance and blends into the ocean.

Contests!

Win a Free Copy of My Book!

final coverToday UNDER THE ALMOND TREES is featured on the historical fiction blog Novel Pastimes.

There’s  an interview with yours truly then a question. Answer the question (it’s an easy one–your opinion) and you’re entered to win a free copy of the book. Pass it on!

DAY TWO interview is up on Novel Pastimes. Check it out. You know you want to.

Excerpts

Excerpt From Under the Almond Trees

From Chapter 8, Ellen 1871final cover

Yellow has always been a color that is sunny, bright, and optimistic. No coincidence then that the suffrage movement has adopted it. This afternoon the hall we rent at the new Unity Church glows yellow. Early spring roses and daffodils, from the gardens of the ladies assembled here, fill tables covered in yellow cloth. The Women’s Suffrage Association gathers in style, as they have for the past year.

Issues raise their heads and roar, each one clouding the main cause of the vote. I support temperance and abolition, but I long to vote. In Santa Cruz, my Women’s Suffrage Association works with the churches and the other ladies’ clubs to bring progress to each of our causes. There is a lot of work to do, but at least suffrage now has a face in our fair town.

“Good evening, Mrs. VanValkenburgh.” The speaker is younger than I am, but a married woman. “So glad to be a part of this fine effort.”

“Yes, Mrs. Hihn, thank you again for coming,” I tell her with a polite smile.

“She says that every month,” L’Amie, standing beside me, whispers.

“Yes, dear sister, but her husband is a member of the County Assembly and has real power to help us.” For two years L’Amie has been back at my side where she belongs.

A few men, mostly husbands of the members, sit in a row of chairs along the back wall. I wish I could measure the depth of their devotion to the cause so as to determine if and when they are willing to act. I fear most are merely waiting for their wives.

Continuing to scan the room, I spot Marion pouring tea at the refreshment table. My oldest daughter has excellent posture, poise, and erudition, and her character is above reproach. Not bad for fifteen years old. When Mama passed three years ago, she left us money that keeps us housed and fed and pays for the simple but stylish dresses we wear. It is not enough, however, to fill the space she left in my heart or to attract a suitor for Marion. My political views are even more of a detriment, and now she has allied herself with the suffragists, possibly sealing her fate as a radical spinster. Her entire life has been molded by strong women with strong ideas, though, and I am proud of the young woman she is becoming.

The president’s gavel brings the meeting to order, and I see Mrs. Hihn hurry to sit with Mrs. Kirby and Mrs. Blackburn and Mrs. Manor. They are the elite of Santa Cruz society, leaders of every civic group that supports the arts and the downtrodden. Their presence is a benediction, but I need warriors. They’ve not yet proven themselves as such.

“Hundreds of those freed negroes have arrived in Santa Cruz County,” our president, Mrs. Howay, declares with just the right mix of pride and horror.

Having yielded my year-long presidency to the pretty woman with more vision than action, I stifle a groan. Abolition of slavery is a victory, even if it means former slaves will be our neighbors. The women here don’t all agree. Heads nod, but are accompanied by nervous titters. I am tired of nervous titters. I am tired of head nods, too. We must do something to make our struggle visible to the community.

“Actually, the group was not that large.” Marion’s interruption draws attention, and a roomful of skirts rustle as everyone turns toward her. “They joined a negro group already in Watsonville. That is not the issue.”

“She’s magnificent, Ellen,” L’Amie whispers.

I agree. Marion is afire with youthful passion, idealism at its best, clad in one of her first grown-up floor-length skirts.

“What, pray tell, is the issue?” Mrs. Howay’s tone is frostier than it should be. I frown in her direction. All other eyes are on my daughter, who reminds me of L’Amie at the same age.

“The Fifteenth Amendment has been ratified. Those negroes will be voting on our new trustee.” Silence follows her words, and I know Marion has captured them. Everyone’s face reflects outraged horror at the idea of negro men being able to vote but not fine upstanding female citizens. The trustee election will put a new member on the board that runs our county and our town.

“Whatever will we do?” A theatrical gasp punctuates Mrs. Howay’s words. It’s a blatant attempt to retake control of the meeting. It doesn’t work.

Marion is young. She has made her observation, but has no idea what to do now. She looks to me, panic starting to show on her face. Last year, when I started this organization, I was proud to serve as its first president. The ladies are eager to attend the meetings, but they dither about like a flock of chickens with a dog in the pen—lots of noise and motion, but no progress. They read the newspapers from New York and San Francisco. They held a grand party when Wyoming women won the vote in 1867, and they elected Mrs. Howay for our second president. Clearly they are lost. They need a leader. I step forward.

“The Fourteenth Amendment clearly states that all persons born in the United States are citizens. The Fifteenth Amendment prohibits the government from denying citizens the right to vote.” At my words Marion smiles with relief, and the others are listening. “I think we should take advantage of that and register to vote in the next election.”

A cacophony of clucking erupts.

“But those amendments were meant for the negroes!”

“Can we do that?”

“The Sentinel would support us.”

“The Surf would ridicule us!”

“My husband would not approve.”

That last comment deadens the room. More than one of the ladies present agrees, or suspects it’s true. I’m not sure how many will risk disapproval that will rock their homes, but I must continue. “We can sit here and sip tea, whining about what we want, or we can go get it. Some of our opponents say that women wouldn’t vote if they had the right. We can refute that. The election is in April. That gives us a month.”

Mrs. Howay proves she has worth. “An excellent idea, Mrs. VanValkenburgh. Shall we vote on the idea?”

A motion is quickly made and seconded. It passes. We’ll be showing up to vote at the trustee election. Somber faces look at me.

“All of us?” I ask.

“I don’t think that will happen,” a reluctant voice near Marion says.

“Maybe we can elect a representative,” suggests Mrs. Howay.

Everyone’s already looking at me. They continue to do so as my name is suggested, a motion made and seconded, and the vote taken. Not long ago, L’Amie would have been included, but she is to be married later this week. She will be on her wedding trip during my attempt to register for the vote.

“Mrs. Ellen VanValkenburgh will be our representative. She will present herself to the registrar’s office for the next election.” I can’t decide if Mrs. Howay is proud of me or relieved they didn’t ask this of her.

A wail from the back corner announces that my younger children are bored with the proceedings and beginning to bicker. At nine, Henry’s main source of amusement seems to be eliciting a shriek from his twelve-year-old sister, usually with a pinch. Ellie obliges, her blue eyes outraged. Marion hurries over to chastise her brother and soothe her sister, but the mood is broken and the meeting adjourns.

 

About Writing

Historical Fiction

rdgpastToday Sarah Johnson’s blog, Reading the Past features an article I wrote. It details the preparation and writing of Under the Almond Trees. It explores the question all historical fiction writers face–how much fact and how much fiction do I include? Click on the picture to the right to read my article. Please leave a comment!

Uncategorized

Edible Bookshelf Reviews Under the Almond Trees

Click on edible bookshelfover to DelSheree Gladden’s blog for a page of easy links to my newest book, Under the Almond Trees. She also has a blurb to entice you to read. Go on, you know you want to.