Finding Fiction’s Sweet Spot Between Past and Present by Jeannine Atkins

Little Woman in Blue by Jeannine AtkinsToday author Jeannine Atkins discusses her passion for historical fiction and a novel she has written based on the life of May Alcott. Jeannine likes to write about people who’ve not yet found their rightful places in history – an interesting objective. Many thanks for being on A Writer of History, Jeannine.


History has felt like home to me since I was a child playing dress-up, imagining myself as a pioneer or princess. I grew up in an old house in Massachusetts and tended to want to be the girl wearing an old long skirt who fetched water at a well or dipped a bucket in a river. Then and now I favor books set in nineteenth century New England. I recognized a part of myself in everyday events in the woods, on window seats, or in kitchens. Scenes of sisters quarreling while baking gingerbread gave me hope about what those ordinary girls seemed to become.

One of my favorite books was Little Women. I tried to get along with one sister, while Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy March managed to love three others. I tried to be good, but these four girls tried harder. I could relate to their trials and sorrows, while liking how they seemed bigger. I reread Little Women some years after becoming a parent, hoping to remember the passion Jo March had for writing. This led me to read biographies of Louisa May Alcott and to become intrigued by the similarities and differences between her and her fictional recreation. I became even more interested in the connections between the youngest Alcott sister and the one in Little Women. The novel shows Amy March as a dabbler in art with more interest in romance; in real life, May Alcott liked to flirt, but was determined not to let that deter her from her artistic goals.

May became the subject of my first novel for adults, Little Woman in Blue. Her life brought out the theme of how women balance love and creative work, which interests me whether in contemporary or historical novels. And what is the difference between those? After being a girl with a taste for reading about lives that included horses and buggies, as a college English major I read more novels with cool clothing and occasionally quirky vocabulary. Of course many of these were set in the past because they’d been written then; they weren’t composed by someone looking back. The lack of self-consciousness about what’s worn or set on tables is something I continue to admire in historical fiction.

Anytime we put an adjective in front of a novel – such as women’s, Jewish, Irish, or historical – we can make it particular, but also risk it being seen as limiting what we expect of fictional elements such as tone, style, and structure. I want to blend my present concerns with those of people gone before, drawing from history to explore themes that engage me now, though I love the way that history may offer the gift of a plot. I choose language that fits or evokes a time and place – I reread Little Women, published in 1868, writing down some words and phrases I might recycle — but I select the language for more than atmosphere. Each image should also develop characters and their actions.

Place and old objects inspire plot, but some historical aspects should fade as we engage with the story. Whenever I felt stuck in the writing, I came back to the reasons I began, connecting to the vision of sisterly love and rivalry in a big old house not unlike the one where I grew up. I returned in some sense to my childhood. Why write if we don’t get to indulge in what calls to us, perhaps since we were girls playing make-believe using the ordinary things around us?

Little Woman in Blue by Jeannine Atkins

May Alcott spends her days sewing blue shirts for Union soldiers, but she dreams of painting a masterpiece—which many say is impossible for a woman—and of finding love, too. When she reads her sister’s wildly popular novel, Little Women, she is stung by Louisa’s portrayal of her as “Amy,” the youngest of four sisters who trades her desire to succeed as an artist for the joys of hearth and home. Determined to prove her talent, May makes plans to move far from Massachusetts and make a life for herself with room for both watercolors and a wedding dress. Can she succeed? And if she does, what price will she have to pay?

Based on May Alcott’s letters and diaries, as well as memoirs written by her neighbors, Little Woman in Blue puts May at the center of the story she might have told about sisterhood and rivalry in an extraordinary family.

FOR MORE ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION follow A WRITER OF HISTORY (using the widget on the left sidebar)

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction and blogs about all aspects of the genre at A Writer of History. Her latest novel, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE is set in WWI France and is available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. Her debut novel, UNRAVELLED: Two wars. Two affairs. One marriage. is also available from these retailers.

Mary can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads.

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