Historical Fiction Déjà vu By Janis Robinson Daly
In a recent webinar sponsored by the Historical Novel Society, author Susan Meissner advised writers of historical fiction to construct their writing with relevancy for today’s readers. By pulling upon the emotional impact of current events to illustrate and illuminate the past, readers develop stronger connections to the novel and its characters for closer, successful reads. Yet, how can an author employ current events when their novel may not be published until years or decades later? They can’t. Sometimes it’s pure luck that history repeated itself at the moment of publication to drive relevancy.
Did happenstance play into the success of two recent historical fictions? Or would those titles have still appeared on best-seller lists based on the strength of the prose, the story and character development, and the authors’ names tied to prior success? First, consider Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell. Released in the United Kingdom on March 31, 2020, it’s a safe bet O’Farrell finished her manuscript in 2019, if not earlier. Think back to 2019. Terms like global pandemic, contagion, plague, and debilitating pulmonary disease rested secure in the pages of history books about the Black Death and the Spanish Flu. Books which O’Farrell most likely used for her research. But, by March 2020, and July 2020, when Hamnet released in the United States, those pages came to life. We lived and battled the same threats as the Shakespeare family in Elizabethan England. Their terror was our terror. Their grief was our grief. Did feeling a connection to the vulnerability in others from centuries ago propel sales of Hamnet? Or did we seek solace from the horrors unfolding around us through the beautiful prose of O’Farrell’s words?
Jump forward two years. Now, the battles surrounding us aren’t just against a contagion, but the ravages of war in a country which has strived to define itself for generations. In The Diamond Eye, Kate Quinn fictionalizes the story of Mila Pavlichenko, a Ukrainian sniper in the Russian army during World War II. Mila’s story hit bookshelves in March 2022, a short four weeks after Putin’s troops crossed the border into the Ukraine. According to Writer’s Digest, a rough guideline from time of manuscript completion and signed contract to publication date ranges from nine months to two years. As an established author, Quinn may have pitched her idea for The Diamond Eye to William Morrow back in 2020. Mila’s story presented her claiming proud allegiance to the Soviet Union as she defended her homeland against Hitler. Today, as a Ukrainian, her tune may be vastly different. One constant, however, remains. In an interview with Book Club Chat, when asked about what she learned about Ukraine and its people, Quinn noted, “Never underestimate the toughness and grit of Ukrainians, especially Ukrainian women…Reading about the resourcefulness and courage of Ukraine’s defenders in modern headlines has not surprised me one bit.” Did we purchase The Diamond Eye to cheer for Mila a tad bit more as we watched Ukrainian grandmothers stare down Russian tanks while a former Miss Grand Ukraine posed holding a rifle in hand?
Writing about the past in the present to foreshadow the future. Will it help or hurt a novel, especially a debut novelist?
I typed THE END for my debut historical fiction, The Unlocked Path, in December 2019. Spanning the period of 1897-1920 about a young woman who attends the Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania (WMC) and becomes a doctor, to be authentic to the times, I needed to address relevant issues and events. While I thought THE END truly meant THE END, after two and a half years of writing and revising, by April 2020, I returned to my keyboard for another editing session. I could tighten the chapters which cover the Spanish Flu and draw upon the raw, emotive depths of despair I saw on television news reports as dedicated medical professionals returned home to sleep in a basement or garage rather than chance infecting their loved ones with COVID-19. My main character could experience the same sense of solitary helplessness, hopelessness, and fear. I believe the revision strengthened the story.
By the fall of 2021, I inked a contract with Black Rose Writing. The final, final edits on The Unlocked Path ensued until the day in December when I hit SEND on my manuscript to begin the pre-production process ahead of an August 25, 2022 release. Like Kate Quinn with The Diamond Eye, I never heard or saw the rumblings of a Russian invasion of Ukraine. But a sense of déjà vu slammed me in my chair when I watched a March segment on a Boston news report. Dr. Erica Nelson, deputy medical director of the disaster response group, Team Rubicon, would head to Poland and Ukraine. In the segment, Dr. Nelson told WCVB-TV, “… you have a duty to care, and you have some capacity to ease suffering, and so you look past that fear.” Her words replicate the same drive exhibited by the women doctors, many of them graduates of WMC, who were eager to serve as the U.S. entered WWI in 1917. From an exhibit about these doctors curated by the American Medical Women’s Association, “Perhaps Dr. Olga Stastny summed it up best, ‘I want to get to France, even if I have to scrub floors.’”
One hundred and five years ago, however, women doctors were not tapped as deputy directors like Dr. Nelson. They were flat-out refused when they offered their service, despite protesting and petitioning the Army Medical Reserve. Instead, a group of about sixty women doctors formed the American Women’s Hospital Service (AWH). They traveled to France and set-up posts to treat civilians. As casualties mounted, the Army relented and sent a few troops to the AWH tents in Luzancy for treatment. In The Unlocked Path, one of my characters, Charlotte Fairbanks, M.D. joins the AWH, eventually serving as chief surgeon. Charlotte is based on the real-life Charlotte Fairbanks, a 1901 graduate of WMC who received a medal of gratitude from France at the end of the war for her service to the French people.
On June 24, 2022, as pre-orders began for The Unlocked Path, another unforeseen event unfolded into reality despite leaks weeks earlier from Capitol Hill. The Supreme Court overturned Roe vs. Wade. Nearly half the country, twenty-three states, would restrict access to safe healthcare, which gives women choices for their pregnancy decisions. Women in those states could face conditions similar to ones which patients of my main character, a woman doctor caring for women, face in 1908. I hope readers will agree with one of my ARC reviewers of The Unlocked Path: “This book is relevant to today’s news. It takes place over 100 years ago, yet it resonates with women’s rights at this time.” And perhaps some will learn from this instance of history repeating itself. It’s all we can ask for them to consider, and re-consider the decisions made on June 24th.
If history repeats itself, and the unexpected always happens, how incapable must Man be of learning from experience. George Bernard Shaw.
For further reading:
- Maggie O’Farrell on writing her prescient novel Hamnet | EW.com
- Boston emergency room doctor traveling to Ukraine (wcvb.com)
- Q&A with Kate Quinn, Author of The Diamond Eye – Book Club Chat
- American Women Physicians in World War I Exhibition – American Medical Women’s Association (amwa-doc.org)
After a career in sales and marketing, I asked the age-old question, Now what? I didn’t spend long looking for my answer. I found it within the return hits from a genealogy search on my great-great-grandfather, William S. Peirce, Esquire. From FamousAmericans.net: He took an active part in founding the Woman’s Medical College in Philadelphia.
The Unlocked Path from indie press, Black Rose Writing, is my debut novel. I grew up outside of Boston and graduated with a B.A. in Psychology from Wheaton College MA, at the time, an all-women’s college. Splitting my time between Cape Cod, New Hampshire, Florida and hotels along Route 95, a tablet became my Kindle library and desk, packed into a travel bag for reading and writing wherever I might land. More adventures beckon me to document other women in history whose stories need to be discovered.
Book Clubs: Participant in a local women’s group, advisor to several Facebook groups, guest facilitator for a library group, and resource for many with recommendations, tips, and ideas.
Professional Associations: Women’s Fiction Writers Association, Historical Novel Society, Cape Cod Writers Center