Becoming a Writer of History

Lauren Speeth has shared her stories in film and print over the years with audiences around the world. In her first novel, Thread For Pearls, she shares what she has come to understand as the fundamental human experience of resiliency and hope. I’m delighted to have her visit today.


The Lived Experience – Conveying the ‘60s and ‘70s in Thread for Pearls

I never imagined I’d become a “writer of history.” My “Aha!” moment, though, came when I visited a favorite antique store and saw something from my childhood labeled “mid-century vintage.” A lightbulb went off in my mind: I’m mid-century vintage, and that means I can write about it with authority. And so, I did. Meet Fiona Sprechelbach, a young girl I imagined growing up in mid-century America.

Putting pen to paper, it quickly became obvious that my fading childhood memories wouldn’t help me write more than a very few pages. I had to become a researcher to really get it right and then let my imagination soar.

Here’s how I made the process work: I sketched out the events that I felt were important to history. From the start of the book in 1962, I traced out historical landmarks in a sequence, from the Cold War to the Kennedy assassination, the Beatles, the Summer of Love, Earth Day, the Nixon impeachment hearings, Carter’s election, and so on. I then superimposed those historical events with moments from Fiona’s childhood that would make the history come to life: running from tear gas at a Vietnam War rally, learning side-by-side India’s “untouchables,” the highs and lows of living on a rural Pennsylvania commune…

A curious thing happened when I started sketching out Fiona’s world. I began noticing how her times and our times held some remarkable similarities. Back then, we were ducking and covering for a possible nuclear explosion. Today, the drills are for fear of gun violence. I realized that my work of fiction could ring true today and offer some help for coping in today’s world, and it could be a story of resilient hope.

I worked hard to transport the reader back to important moments in American history. For example, for the lunar landing, I had families gathered around the television set, as happened across the country.

The room was abuzz. Everyone huddled around the television, their plates laden with Jiffy Pop and other treats, and their free hands holding mixed drinks or Tang, the beverage of choice of astronauts, in honor of the occasion. Yet, when the big moment came, the room was so quiet, you could hear, well, a lunar landing…

The Vietnam War helped define the era. Addressing that fraught subject, I paint a picture of a family divided about the war. I included the terror of running from tear gas at a protest and juxtaposed that moment against stories from the soldiers’ perspectives. I needed those perspectives to ring true. The march scenes are conjured from watching my uncle’s documentary films featuring protest marches. I also talked to friends who’d served in the war, so the war memories in the book are true to the lived experience of a number of veteran soldiers. Here’s Fiona’s Uncle Bob, talking about his assignment to Da Nang:

“We’d just landed. I was looking out over the runway area, and all I could see were rows and rows and rows of gray boxes. I had no idea what they were and asked one of the crew members what was inside—freight? supplies? The crew member turned ashen and told me they were our boys, waiting to go home. There were thousands of them, Fiona. Uncountable thousands. Endless caskets.”

As Fiona grows up, her perspective on the war grows more nuanced. Because she loves her father, she takes in his anti-war rhetoric. Later, as she’s interviewing her veteran uncles—people she also loves and whose viewpoints she also trusts—about their war experiences for a school assignment, her thinking shifts. There’s a lesson in there somewhere, about staying open to perspectives other than your own. That’s one of the most enjoyable things about historical fiction. Your eyes are often opened to new ways of thinking. I know mine were during the crafting of this book.

We have a tendency to believe that times were simpler in the past—we search for those mythical, easier times of yore by tinting our rear-view mirrors in a subtle shade of rose. I wanted Fiona to have that wistful “life was easier in the past,” idea in her head, so I chose the Victorian era for her rose-tinted era. To evoke those times, I chose a Victorian doll that was being advertised to children in the 1970s. Thanks to eBay, I was not only able to see the contents of the dollhouse, but also verify the exact price.

The doll came with a dainty parlor that included a grandfather clock, player piano, purple sofa, rocking chair, telephone, and miniature tea set. Jody’s pet dog, painted on the outside of her parlor, was forever caught in the act of jumping after a butterfly. The J.C. Penney ad promised an old-fashioned experience, “just like it was when grandma was a girl.” It had been years since Fiona had played with dolls, but this one awakened an old dream. Looking at Jody made her yearn to touch her dreams, to imagine them with skin and pantaloons and a fabulous hat.

Another plot device I used to carry the story along and make it personal, to help bring the reader into the room with Fiona, is the music. It is so iconic that I expect you to hear it as you’re reading. The music invites you to experience another level of nuance that cannot be conveyed by words alone. And to submerse yourself more fully, try the stereoscopic promo ad we created for the book:

What’s next after Thread for Pearls? I would like to tackle the 1980s and ‘90s. I’ve seen the very computers I worked on when I was a systems engineer in the 1980s on display at the Computer History Museum, lovingly placed behind red velvet cords. This next novel will be about an entirely new character. I want to leave Fiona free with a rosy, open future, able to move in whatever direction my readers’ imaginations wish her to move. Anything else I would write about her would just fence her in—not a nice thing to do to a character, once you’ve brought her to life and given her resilient hope. Wouldn’t you agree?

Hard for me to think of the 80s and 90s as historical fiction, Lauren! But nonetheless, bringing those times to life will be an intriguing challenge. Many thanks for being here today.

Thread For Pearls by Lauren Speeth

A near-death experience in a car with her Mother; running from tear gas at a Vietnam War rally hand-in-hand with her Pop; a year in India learning side-by-side the country’s ‘untouchables;’ the highs and lows of living on a rural Pennsylvania commune…and all before Fiona Sprechelbach’s thirteenth birthday.

Set during one of the most politically divisive eras in American history, Thread for Pearls is a coming-of-age tale that takes us on a young heroine’s journey to faith and freedom amidst a turbulent family dynamic. It’s a story of resilient hope that questions whether it’s the events of our lives that define us, or the thread on which we choose to string them.


M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website

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