Welcome back for our second day with author Pamela Schoenewaldt!
Historical fiction requires a lot of research – which you’re certainly no stranger to. What are a couple of interesting (or unusual, or funny) things you’ve done in the name of research for a book?
As a historical novelist, I’ve gathered information on wildly diverse topics: 19th Century dowries of Italian shepherd girls; layout of immigrant ships; invention of Jell-o; types of embroidery stitches; Prussian food; average longevity of British pilots in the early years of World War I (four days); the creation of German Shepherds; shifts in bustle styles; appendectomies in the 1880 (not advised); how French vineyard diseases in the 1840’s changed Greek immigration patterns; and how small communities dealt with the 1919 Influenza Pandemic.
Whenever possible, I interview experts. People are astonishingly generous. In one instance, I had a young boy character I’d grown attached to. Yet I had to—well—kill him off. I had in mind a way this could happen, but wasn’t sure this incident would suffice. By chance our family doctor was at a party and I put the question to him. Let me add that he is an excellent doctor. Dr. X and I discussed options over Chardonnay. “Yes,” he concluded happily, “what you describe will kill him, and the great thing is: he can die in ten minutes or in forty minutes, whatever you like!” Unfortunately, in the heat of the moment, his voice rose over a lull in the conversation and there were a dozen people staring at us. “It’s not a real child,” I hastened to say. “It’s for my book.” Hum, yeah, right, sure. We were pretty much left alone for the rest of the party.
I think that’s one of the best research stories I’ve heard yet! Can you share a favorite story or two of fans that you’ve met?
So many people have written to me of how their grandparents’ or great-grandparents’ journeys shared some aspects of my characters’ journeys. Of course it’s gratifying to feel that you “got it right.” But what was also touching was the number of readers whose relatives didn’t tell stories. Many immigrants left difficult situations, personal, religious, or economic oppression they didn’t care to revisit. Not everybody is a born story-teller. So a fictional character can be for some readers a window into a family history that would otherwise be closed to them. “Look at these circles under my eye!” a young woman demanded at a workshop. “You did this! I had to finish your book last night! It reminded me so much of my grandmother’s story and how she must have felt.” Then you remember all the nights you stayed up to write and you think, yes, it was worth it.
Wow, what a great reminder of how your books can touch people in so many ways. What led you to begin writing? What keeps you writing novels today?
In seventh grade, my adored English teacher, Mrs. Young, assigned “an essay on an important event in your life.” I anxiously reviewed my uneventful childhood. What could possibly impress Mrs. Young? My reserved, stately grandfather had died. I brightened at this. But (darn) I was only three, he’d been sick for a long time, and I hardly remembered him. In desperation, I invented a relationship, warm and intense. Only I knew his secret, tender side. I made myself six when he died and set the scene: we are alone in the hospital at night, moonlight on the sheets, he’s telling me about Life. He wanted only me beside him. In the morning we are found together, hand in hand. He has passed. I think I actually cried at the death of this imagined grandfather. Unfortunately, so did Mrs. Young. (She was from the Ukraine and didn’t realize that in America, small children aren’t generally left alone at hospital deathbeds, with or without moonlight). She wanted to share the touching story with my parents. Of course I had to convince her not to: my parents would not have been charmed. But I still remember the chill down my spine when I finished the moonlight scene, and the intensity of tenderness, warmth, and loss I felt for the fictional grandfather, and the gift of his presence that I never, actually, knew.
That magic of fiction endures for me. Lives can be imagined, worlds populated. I love the writing process itself. It calls on so many “muscles” of your mind to weave together, character, tone, diction, dialogue, plot and pacing, dramatic development, the sound of the words, the shades of their meaning, the way scenes materialize from their first gossamer shadows to a vivid reality. I love the ache and joy you can feel for characters you have created and who robe themselves in their own reality: like a child and her grandfather in the moonlight.
Can you give us a sneak peek at whatever you’re working on now?
I hope to branch out from immigration tales. My current project, now under consideration, is set in a fictional version of Knoxville, TN, during what was known as the Red Summer of 1919, in which 84 African-Americans were lynched.
Sounds powerful. And, for those would-be authors who are reading, what’s your top advice for someone hoping to become published?
I think that my path of writing and then publishing short stories before attempting a novel was useful. Short stories must quickly create character, setting, and drama to catch an editor’s eye. And you must present very “clean” copy, without errors or pings. That’s all useful in crafting those critical first 10-15 pages that an agent wants to see. And having some publishing credits behind you is all to the good. I’d definitely join a reading group and listen intently to what sympathetic readers have to say. They probably won’t give you a “fix” but they’ll point out a problem, and often your effort (struggle) to respond will lead you to deeper levels and more elegant solutions. Write about what matters to you, and make every sentence the best you can. The rest will take care of itself.
Thanks again to Pamela for joining us this week. If you’d like to learn more about her or her books, you can connect online:
Facebook page: Pamela Schoenewaldt author
Twitter handle: Pamela Schoenewaldt
Goodreads page: Pamela Schoenewaldt
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Which caused more fatalities to Americans: World War I or the 1919 Influenza Epidemic?
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