Like many literary women, I feel I was born in the wrong era. It’s through the escape of fiction that I enjoy other times. And, as a writer of flash fiction, I can afford to be capricious. I experience disparate eras, genres, and points of view that would be difficult to commit to, for a reader or writer, in longer forms. Crafting historical fiction isn’t just writing a period piece. You can take a known event or age and craft new characters, or take persons of note and craft new situations. Then, add elements of non-fiction, memoir, or fantasy.
We all need external influences for our work, or we’ll write about the same boy who broke our heart over and over again. My stories have three elements vying for the same little space: practical matters (word count, genre, location, object); inspiration (poem, painting, etc.); and theme. I don’t hold fast to “write what you know,” only to “write what you want to know more about.” So, some of my favorite stories were inspired by news articles. The glimpse of the true story -– the exoticism of a foreign land or time gone by -– makes me want to learn more. Inevitably, in the research, I encounter new ideas that enrich the story. The language should reflect a precise era, location, and social class.
I aim for accuracy, even when the narrative veers toward the fantastical. For example, I was given the task of writing a bus stop horror story. I’d read a news item about German convalescent homes that erected fake bus shelters as a bit of therapy. Around the same time, I’d read accounts of the Lindbergh kidnapping. I pursued a historical fiction-fantasy approach to the perpetrator’s fate in "Buses and Planes." The characters and details of the Lindbergh affair are true; I’ve just imagined a different fate. There are very small things, some the reader may never know, like the smoke rings one of the characters blows that echo the rings on the real ransom envelope.
For "The Gulf of Aden," I’d read an article about the precautions some cruise lines were taking when sailing through the eponymous passage, and I wondered what would happen if they didn’t take any. It’s a contemporary story about division of wealth in which the social-climber gets what she thought she wanted and finds it’s not really wonderful at all. But, the story wouldn’t be the same having read up on
pirates or Cunard itineraries.
My two best resources are The Complete New Yorker and The New York Times archives. I love having access to a century of news, reviews, and advertising. I wrote "Phoning Arcadia" after reading a “Talk of the Town” column from 1925.
But, for any work, the truth in the details allows you to buy the lie that is the story. Whether it’s romance, suspense, political satire -– anything, actually — stories aren’t derived from nothing. It’s an interesting obituary, lip print on a shirt or aching piece of music. Then, instead of placing that object in the story, you weave in a thousand details. Lipstick on a collar is almost never from a wife –- a universal story there. But what about laundry marks, collar stays, the faint scent of sizing?