Writing Pocahontas – a guest post by Paula Margulies

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Paula MarguliesToday I’m welcoming Paula Margulies to the blog. She’s written Favorite Daughter, Part One, a story based on the life of Pocahontas. Thanks for sharing your story, Paula.

What was your original inspiration for Favorite Daughter, Part One?    After finishing my first novel, Coyote Heart, a contemporary love story set on the Pala Indian Reservation here in San Diego, I was trying to decide what to write next. At that time, I happened to purchase a copy of Sena Jeter Naslund’s historical novel, Abundance, which is a fictional retelling of the life of Marie Antoinette. I was dazzled at both the story and the way Naslund used first person to allow the main character to tell the reader her version of what happened (rather than the fairly judgmental history we all know). I was so captivated with the first-person narrative and the voice in Naslund’s book, that I decided I would like to attempt something similar. Since my first novel had a Native American setting, I decided that I would choose a heroine who was from a Native American tribe. I’ve always been fascinated with the story of Pocahontas, and since so much of her history has been told to us by the English explorer John Smith, I decided that retelling her story, from her perspective, might make for an interesting read.

What, if any, are the challenges for you as a fiction writer in depicting a historical figure as well-known as Pocahontas? How do you overcome these challenges?    One of the biggest challenges for me in while writing Favorite Daughter, Part One, was doing the research. I had a good sense of Pocahontas’ voice and could imagine the setting easily, but I’m not an early American history scholar, so it took some time to read through all of the information out there on Pocahontas. I also wanted to use more of a Native American perspective in this version, so I had to find documents that covered that aspect of the history.

Another challenge in writing this story was finding information on the Powhatan language. To help the story sound more authentic, I wanted to use some of the native words from Pocahontas’ time, but finding translations was oftentimes difficult. Another difficulty was writing a story that takes place pretty much in one setting. When we write contemporary fiction, our characters can drive or fly just about anywhere, so we authors can mix it up a little more. In Favorite Daughter, Part One most of the action takes place at Pocahontas’ home village of Werowocomoco, so coming up with places for different scenes was a challenge (this isn’t the case with Part Two, because the majority of that story occurs in a number of different locations).

As far as how to overcome these challenges, I basically decided to take my time writing the book. In a way, I was forced to do this – it’s a slower process when you have to keep checking the historical timeline and look up facts as you’re writing. But I think the end result is very satisfying – readers can really get a sense of another time, place, and history if a historical novel has been well-researched.

When it comes to researching the period, what are your main sources? Do you have any sources that might be considered unusual or surprising?    There are many differing versions of the history of Pocahontas, and much of what we know of her comes from the writing of the original colonists, including John Smith. Historians such as Helen Rountree and Frances Mossiker provide much of the more traditional historical background that is known about Pocahontas, and I have used the work of these nonfiction authors, along with publications by tribal experts like Dr. Linwood “Little Bear” Custalow and Angela L. “Silver Star” Daniel, and novelists like Joseph Bruchac, to try to come up with a sense of what Pocahantas’ life was like. I tried to stay as close to historical facts as possible when developing the timeline for this novel, but as far as the actual events that happened, I let my own intuition and imagination, along with the work of Smith, Rountree, Mossiker, Bruchac, Custalow, and others, be my guide.

As far as what sources might be considered unusual or surprising, the book that I found most instrumental to the telling of Pocahontas’ story is The True Story of Pocahontas: The Other Side of History by Dr. Linwood “Little Bear” Custalow and Angela L. Daniel “Silver Star.” In this nonfiction book, Custalow and Daniel tell a tale of Pocahontas and John Smith that they claim is based on a 400-year oral tradition handed down by generations of Mattaponi tribal members. Custalow claims that his account of Pocahontas’ life is the “true” version and presents a very different (and much darker picture) of the relationships among John Smith, Powhatan, and Pocahontas.

Do you do the bulk of your research before you begin writing the story or do you research as you go along?    I did some initial research when I was first imagining the story, and then went back to my sources to keep on track as I wrote the first draft. I also did some research as I came to places in the story where I needed to look up how the Powhatan tribe performed certain activities. For example, there is an early scene in the book where Pocahontas has her huskanasqua, or coming out ceremony. While writing this part of the story, I researched the traditional dress, food, dances, songs, etc., to give the scene as much authenticity as I could.

What authors inspire you, in terms of genre, craft or both?    So many authors inspire me that it’s hard to choose! I’ve always been a huge fan of the Southern gothic – William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor are my all-time favorite writers. As a graduate student in English Literature, I studied Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Bellow, Doctorow, Didion, Heller, and Pynchon. Recent authors whose stories have haunted me, stunned me, or made me weep: Sherman Alexie, Ha Jin, Vikram Seth, David Mitchell, Barbara Kingsolver, Louise Erdrich, Jane Smiley, Jane Hamilton, Anna Quindlen, and Elizabeth Berg.

What was your path to publication?    I wrote my first novel, Coyote Heart in 2003, and landed an agent in 2005. The book was accepted by a small press, and the first years of being traditionally published were good ones. I traveled to four different states promoting the book at bookstores, libraries, festivals, fairs, writing conferences (where I spoke, on occasion) and, since the book had a Native American theme, at local pow wows and regional gatherings.

After a few years, since I was busy with my book publicity business and college teaching (along with helping both of my kids with applications, recruiting, and move-ins at their respective colleges), I left more of the marketing to the publisher and focused on writing Part One of Favorite Daughter.

Flash forward nine years later, and the publishing world had shifted its focus. Many brick-and-mortar bookstores closed their doors, the publishing giants capitulated and stuck their toes in the ebook waters, and a number of authors, including me, decided that being traditionally published was no longer the only way to go.

In 2013, I hired an attorney and was able to obtain the rights back to my first novel. Since then, I self-published a second edition of Coyote Heart, along with a collection of short stories that I had written many years ago called Favorite Daughter: Collected Stories. I published Favorite Daughter, Part One, on July 21st of this year, and Part Two will be out in 2016.

Are there other historical periods that you want to write about someday?    Yes, I’m very interested in the Hawaiian native cultures and am doing some early research for a book that will be set on the island of Molokai in the late 1800’s, during the time of Father Damien.

Where and when do you write?    In my home office mostly, although I try to sneak away to artist residencies whenever my teaching and client work schedule will allow. I usually write on Sundays, but that all depends on how much life intrudes (and it does that often, believe me!).

Thanks for the great list of questions, Mary! And many thanks, also, for hosting me on your blog.

Your novel and the background to getting it written sound fascinating, Paula. Pocahontas is one of the famous legends from history we have all heard about – I’m looking forward to reading a story from her point of view. P.S. Great cover!

Favorite Daughter, Part One by Paula MarguliesFavorite Daughter, Part One by Paula Margulies

Set in the time of the Jamestown settlement and the English explorer John Smith, Favorite Daughter, Part One recounts the story of Chief Powhatan’s daughter, Pocahontas, as she prepares to take her place as one of America’s earliest leading women. Pocahontas invites readers to experience her native world when strangers appear on the shores near her village. From forging a relationship with the charismatic Smith, to experiencing love for the first time and creating a role for herself in her father’s plans for peace, this young princess takes us on a poignant and harrowing journey through the turbulent events of her life. Eventually betrayed by all of the men she loves, Pocahontas matures into a heroine of tremendous nobility, courage, and heart.

Paula’s other published works have achieved significant recognition: Coyote Heart was a finalist in the Romance Writers of America Spring into Romance Contest and the Santa Fe Writer’s Project Literary Awards Program, and Face Value: Collected Stories was a finalist in this year’s Next Generation Indie Book Awards and National Indie Excellence Book Awards.