Research Rapture: Writing Historical Fiction

Ruta Sepetys author challengeInspiration is kind of a crazy thing. It can come from anywhere, anything, anyone. At Figment, we love to talk with authors about where they find the inspiration for the books they write. Maybe a little of it will rub off on us.

Author Ruta Sepetys (bestselling author of Between Shades of Gray) stumbled across the idea for her new novel, Out of the Easy, when she received an unusual birthday present . . .

Check out the story behind Out of the Easy. And then stay tuned for the writing challenge below. You could see your story featured on the Figment homepage!

New Orleans is unlike any city in America. Its cultural diversity is woven into the food, the music, the architecture—even the local superstitions. It’s a sensory experience on all levels and there’s a story lurking around every corner.

My introduction to New Orleans came through a vintage pair of opera glasses I received for my birthday.

opera glasses

The glasses, still in their original case from the jeweler in New Orleans, were engraved and dated as a gift from someone named Willie. I’m crazy about history, so I hired a researcher from the New Orleans Public Library to trace the origin of the glasses. I learned that Willie was a woman in the French Quarter. I also learned that the jeweler who sold Willie the glasses was poisoned. He ate a dozen oysters in the French Quarter and kicked the bucket. My fascination with New Orleans was born.

New Orleans newspaper clipping

Then one rainy day in Los Angeles I jumped into a book store to avoid getting wet. I saw The Last Madam: A Life in the New Orleans Underworld by Christine Wiltz on display.

The Last Madam by Chris Wiltz

I snapped it up. The book chronicled the life of New Orleans madam Norma Wallace. I read it in one sitting, fascinated with every detail. Many years passed and I worked on other projects, but I was constantly haunted by the secrets of New Orleans. When I finished my first novel, Between Shades of Gray, I needed a break from the emotional subject matter of WWII, and New Orleans seemed like the perfect place to hide out.

I took several trips to Louisiana. Christine Wiltz, the author of The Last Madam connected me with people who had intimate knowledge of the underbelly of the city. The meetings were both fascinating and terrifying. Scandals, murders, crooks, and crime—all beyond your wildest imagination—and as a writer, I loved it.

While in the French Quarter, I walked Josie’s paths that I describe in the book—Jackson Square, her late-night walk to the Mississippi, the daily trek to the brothel and the bookstore, and the fateful trip to John Lockwell’s. I sat in the soda shop where the scene with Jesse takes place and visualized the characters at the counter.

Ruta Septys

When writing a historical novel, you can find yourself completely obsessed with the research. Some call it research rapture. I wanted to go a step further. I tried to include historical elements and people of New Orleans and the Quarter that aren’t featured as often, like the writer Lyle Saxon, musician Smiley Lewis (known as the unluckiest man in New Orleans), and places like Morning Call.

The most incredible part of my research was being allowed into Norma Wallace’s former brothel. I based Willie’s house on Norma’s. When I first started my research and saw the house it was in pretty rough shape.

Norma Wallace's brothel, New Orleans (pre-reno)

But as I worked on the novel, someone purchased the building and began to restore it. During my last research trip I stopped by the house and one of the residents invited me in. Standing in the house, walking upstairs to the bedrooms, I could hear the voices of the characters in my head so clearly. I could imagine it all. That house was just simmering with secrets.

Norma Wallace's brothel, New Orleans (post-reno)

Writing historical fiction is a bit like being a detective. History holds secrets and you have to dig for the truth, dig for the elusive detail. And sometimes, like in my case, the information that you unearth just might take you on a journey beyond your wildest imagination.

Writing Challenge:

Ruta found inspiration for Out of the Easy from a pair of antique opera glasses that once belonged to a New Orleans madam. Your challenge: In 250 words or fewer, choose an item from around your house (an old picture frame, a vase, a piece of jewelry that belongs to your mom, etc.) and create a fictional history for it.

Tag your story HistoricalContest. Entries are due by 11:59 p.m. ET on Tuesday, March 12. Figment editors will be reading all the entries and four stories will be featured on the Figment Homepage alongside Out of the Easy.

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