Joanne Dahme talks historical fiction, Holden Caulfield, and why she likes plagues

Joanne Dahme is the author of Contagion (Running Press 2010), a novel about a young woman living in the 19th century who works to solve a murder and keep Philadelphia’s water system safe. Joanne has first-hand knowledge about the rivers and streams in the Philadelphia area, because she works for the Philadelphia Water Department as its Watersheds Programs Manager. We like Joanne’s feisty characters and their forward-thinking dedication to environmental awareness. This week, we asked Joanne about her writing life, mysteries, and more…

1) Why must you write? What would you do if you weren’t a writer? (Or, what was the best job you had before becoming an author?)

I write because I love to read. And when I read great books, they start me thinking about my own ideas. And then the power of writing kicks in. The thought that you can create a great story that can take countless readers to other worlds, times, people just as the same transforming story that you read – is irresistible.

I am also an environmental engineer working on watershed restoration projects.  I love that too. I just wish I had way more time to write.

2) What two books do you find indispensable? Who has given you the greatest experience of the essence of creativity, its depths and eternity?

Wow that’s a hard one. So many fantastic books. I think it has much to do with the age you are when you read them. When I was around 13, I was enthralled by Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked this Way Comes and the Once and Future King by T.H. White. The first was supernatural and fantastical around the story of an otherworldly carnival. The second took you hundreds of years back in time when life was brutal yet focused. Both stories were filled with fascinating characters that you loved for the strengths and weaknesses. These books kind of gave me the itch to create something of my own.

3) Where is the place in which you most love to write?

In the summer, when the weather is nice, I like to write outside on the desk, daytime or nighttime. During the cooler months, I have a desk nestled in the corner of a big room that no one spends much time in.

4) If you could not send a reader all of your books, which one would you recommend first?

I think I would check first to see what the reader in most interested in. Two of my books – Creepers and Tombstone Tea – have supernatural themes. My other two – Plague and Contagion – are historical fictions. I would start with Creepers for those who love ghosts and Plague for those who prefer historical fiction.

5) What book, story or poem brought you greatest comfort as a teen?

The Catcher in the Rye was my perennial fall back when I wanted to read about a kid who was a misfit but still had a great sense of humor and despite himself, actually liked people. Holden Caulfield was my hero.

6) How many hours do you spend researching when writing historical fiction?

When the hours are all added up, I probably spent about two weeks reading books or online articles, or checking libraries for old newspaper clippings, maps, advertisements of the time. But I love the research part. Sometimes I’m tempted to just keep researching because learning about people in the past is so fascinating.

7) What time period is the most fun to write about?

Well, so far I’ve only written about the Middle Ages in Plague (1348) and the Victorian Era in Contagion (1895). I’ve always loved movies that took place during these eras, so the time period was easy to dive into. In the end, you need to remind yourself that people are the same no matter the date they lived. But their perspectives would certainly be different based on their beliefs and culture that formed them.

8) Is historical fiction easier to write when it’s also a mystery?

I think so, partly because the fact that you are writing about a different time period is mysterious in itself. The “alien” world brings along its own mysterious. So it feels like a natural thing to layer the story with the mysteries that your characters create.

9) What is the best thing/worst thing about writing historical fiction?

I think the best thing is that it requires a lot of fascinating research that opens your eyes to totally different ways of life that are often hard for us to imagine. The worst thing is that you can get so totally immersed in the research that you lose your writing – you almost get so enamored by the history that your writing suddenly becomes much more work.

10) In closing, what single best piece of advice would you give to a hopeful young writer, in a sentence?

To read as much as you can and to write in a voice and the stories that come naturally to you.

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