by Liz Tolsma, @LizTolsma
Perhaps you hear a fascinating story from a friend or family member. Maybe you read great article in the paper or online. Whatever the case, you’re eager to write the story. Since you’re a fiction writer, it will be a novel. Then you realize the amount of research involved, and your first reaction is to run to the hills screaming. You’re not up for this. But the story won’t let you go. So what do you do?
Start with your research. Even though you plan to turn history into fiction, the research must be accurate. There are readers out there who know the facts. And if you have them wrong, they’ll let you know. In Snow on the Tulips, I described a Canadian tank rolling through town. I was so proud because I didn’t have to look up what the Canadian flag looked like. My characters cheer for the white flag with the red maple leaf on it. Not too long after the release, I received a flurry of emails from Canadians. That flag wasn’t adopted until years after World War II. Pride goeth before a fall.
If possible, make sure you have three sources for each historical detail you include. Hint: Wikipedia doesn’t count as a source. You may have to scour the Internet, the library, Amazon, and every nook and cranny, but check and double check those facts. For example, you’d be surprised at how many quotes credited to Winston Churchill aren’t his words.
I’m fortunate to write World War II fiction, because some of the players in these stories are still alive. I’ve been privileged to interview some who survived these horrible events. There is nothing like a firsthand account. Of course, if you are writing anything much older than World War II, personal interviews are impossible. But if you can lay your hands on a diary or a journal written near the time of the events, it’s the second-best thing. After a while, people’s memories fade, and stories change.
Don’t forget about the little details such as the Canadian flag on the tank. When I went back and scanned pictures of Canadian tanks in the Netherlands, I discovered they didn’t fly a flag. The small facts can make or break your story. They make the words you write believable and transport your readers to that era and place. Take your time, and make the little things right.
How much of the actual events do you change? The answer varies. Is the event historically significant? You can’t change the date of the Declaration of Independence, but you could change the date of an execution, as I did in Snow on the Tulips. Can you make the story fit into your novel? In Daisies Are Forever, I started with the notion that the hero would be an American pilot held in a POW camp, and that the heroine would be fleeing from East Prussia. The problem was, there were no American POW camps in East Prussia, and I was left with no way for the hero and heroine to meet. I had to change my hero to an English pilot.
What about using recognizable, historical characters? That’s a delicate situation. If you’re writing a book in which Abraham Lincoln makes an appearance, you need to keep him true to his personality, even if you are making up the situation and the dialogue. Also, would the historical characters have been in that time and place? Abraham Lincoln never visited Paris, so you can’t have your characters meet him there. And make sure it is reasonable that the historical character would have met and interacted with your fictional characters. I’m never going to meet the president in the oval office. I’m not important enough and haven’t done anything worthy enough. But if I was a basketball player on an NBA championship team, it is reasonable to suppose I will meet the president.
There are times when research simply fails you. In both the Melody of the Soul and in my next novel, When the Heart Sings, I found that discovering the details surrounding the stories I was fictionalizing were impossible to come by because Czechoslovakia and Poland suffered under postwar communist regimes. Many of the written accounts were lost, and the events were not spoken of. I managed to finagle some of the details, because they weren’t that important to the story. With others, I was forced to create fictional places because I couldn’t find enough information to bring the true place to life. And in the end, I always beg the readers’ forgiveness, because mistakes are inevitable.
Taking real people, places, and events and turning them into novels can be a daunting task. You must love research if you want to do it right. But there is nothing more satisfying than bringing a long-forgotten story to the page and memorializing it. I love getting emails from people in the know telling me my research was spot on. What an amazing privilege to share someone’s story with the world.
Read More Writing Tips
Numbering Your Days with One Word by Beth K. Vogt
How Christian is Your Fiction? by Dan Walsh
How to Show and When to Tell by Susan May Warren
It’s 1943 and Anna Zadok, a Jewish Christian living in Prague, has lost nearly everything. Most of her family has been deported, and the Nazi occupation ended her career as a concert violinist. Now Anna is left to care for her grandmother, and she’ll do anything to keep her safe—a job that gets much harder when Nazi officer Horst Engel is quartered in the flat below them.
Though musical instruments have been declared illegal, Anna defiantly continues to play the violin. But Horst, dissatisfied with German ideology, enjoys her soothing music. When Anna and her grandmother face deportation, Horst risks everything to protect them.
Anna finds herself falling in love with the handsome officer and his brave heart. But what he reveals might stop the music forever.
Best-selling novelist Liz Tolsma is the author of several World War II novels and prairie romance novellas. She also works as a freelance editor. She lives in a semirural area of Wisconsin with her husband and two daughters. Her son serves with the US Marines. All of their chidlren came to them through international adoption. Her other passions include walking, gardening, camping, and reading. Find out more about Liz at http://www.liztolsma.com.