Have you ever thought about the process of writing books featuring historical figures? How do you dive beyond the information about leaders like the Romanov’s that everyone already knows?
Award winning author Candace Fleming has offered a behind-the-scenes look at how she prepares her material. Read her blog below and personally ask her any questions you may have starting 2/23 here!
I only write about people who mystify and intrigue me. I have to be brimming with questions. I have to be eager for answers. I’m drawn to famous historical figures—Abraham Lincoln, Amelia Earhart, the Romanovs—people we think we already know. That’s because I love teasing something out of the historical record that no one has focused on before, shining a light on a side of a subject’s personality that has gone overlooked. It’s music to my ears when a reader says, “I thought I knew everything about that person, but your book gave me a brand-new perspective.” I confess I’m not interested in heroes, but I’m very interested in people. I thrill to uncovering intimate details: Abraham Lincoln shuffling around the White House in slippers because his feet were always sore; Nicholas Romanov chain-smoking Benson & Hedges cigarettes made especially for him, each stamped in gold with the imperial insignia. It’s those details that break down the marble pedestals upon which we so often place our heroes. It’s the small moments that make them human again.
Those moments and details are found in research. I think of research as having two interwoven paths. The first is, of course, archival. What has already been written and collected? I focus on direct sources—letters, diaries, memoirs, interviews. This is where defining, intimate details are found. For example, while researching The Family Romanov, I uncovered an affidavit from one of the family’s former chambermaids, whose job it was to change the empress’s sheets daily. Why? Because the empress had a “fondness for English biscuits . . . consumed [in bed] while reading her books.” Ah, crumbs in the bed! Now, that’s great detail. In a separate memoir, the children’s nurse recalled how Alexandra’s shaggy terrier, Eira, lay on the imperial bed each night receiving “tastes of the empress’s favored English biscuits.” Isn’t that fabulous? Details from two different sources—uncovered months apart—when put together build a tiny yet oh-so-intimate glimpse of Alexandra. Suddenly, I can see her lying beside a snoring Nicholas, feeding bits of cookie to Eira, wiping her sticky fingers on satin sheets before turning the pages of her book.
It’s a jigsaw puzzle, you see. I dig through mountains of historical documents—memories, really—left behind by tutors and priests; generals and diplomats; factory workers, family members, cleaning women, politicians. The details mount. The pieces of the puzzle begin fitting together. And a picture slowly emerges.
The second path is real-world research. For me, it’s imperative to visit the places where my story happened. Landscapes speak. Houses hold memories and secrets. When I traveled to Russia, I followed in the Romanovs’ footsteps, visiting Rasputin’s apartment and exploring workers’ neighborhoods, Lenin’s headquarters, and the dark, dank jail cells of the Peter and Paul Fortress. At Tsarskoe Selo, I wandered down shaded lanes and through lush gardens, discovering the fragrance of the lilacs after a rain shower, the creaking of the ornamental bridge when you cross it, the cool darkness of the imperial woods. No historical document could have provided such vivid, sensual details. I had to see them, hear them, smell them, feel them on my skin for myself.
What makes you fall in love with a story? What makes you feel you are living at the moment the words enter you from the page?
For me, it’s all in the details.
CANDACE FLEMING is the prolific and highly acclaimed author of numerous books for young adults and children, including the nonfiction titles The Lincolns: A Scrapbook Look at Abraham and Mary, winner of the Boston Globe–Horn Book Award for Nonfiction; Amelia Lost: The Life and Disappearance of Amelia Earhart, a New York Times Notable Children’s Book of the Year; and The Great and Only Barnum: The Tremendous, Stupendous Life of Showman P. T. Barnum, an ALA-YALSA Best Book for Young Adults. She lives in Oak Park, Illinois. Visit her at candacefleming.com.