Alina Adams, author of My Mother’s Secret, claims that historical fiction is the easiest genre to write. Alina captured my attention with the question: What was the earliest Jewish state of the 20th century? And the answer isn’t Israel.
Now, let’s hear from Alina.
Whenever I do book club talks around my historical fiction novels, “The Nesting Dolls” and “My Mother’s Secret: A Novel of the Jewish Autonomous Region,” one question keeps coming up again and again: Where do you get your ideas?
Dare I reveal my secret?
Historical fiction writers know the truth. Historical fiction is the easiest genre to write in. You never have to make up what happened. Because history has already done the job for you!
It doesn’t matter what sort of dramatic event you’re looking for. War? Famine? Exploration? Expulsion? Inflation? Repression? Depression? Plague? Revolution? Miracles? It’s all already happened somewhere at some time. All we writers have to do is take advantage of it!
There is nothing any writer can conjure up out of thin air which would be more dramatic than real life. In fact, real life often has twists and turns that, if you were to make them up, would draw cries of “Ridiculous! Contrived! Unrealistic!” General fiction writers have to turn handsprings to prove that what they say happened could have happened. Historical fiction writers just get to point to when it actually did happen.
All historical fiction writers have to do is find a time and a place that feature elements of the story they want to tell, and then plop some made up people in it.
“Ah,” I can hear you saying, “but making up people is hard!”
No! Not in historical fiction! In historical fiction, you can take real-life people who lived through real-life things, keep the parts of their real life that you like, and jettison the parts you don’t! So easy!
For my November 2022 historical fiction, “My Mother’s Secret: A Novel of the Jewish Autonomous Region,” I set it in a real-life place, Birobidzhan, the first Jewish state of the 20th century, located on the border between Russia and China, and established over twenty years before the state of Israel.
To research my setting, I read non-fiction books like “Where the Jewish Aren’t,” by Masha Gessen, clicked through the digital archives of Swarthmore College, and watched a Soviet-made propaganda film.
When it came to creating my heroine, Regina, I made her, Frankenstein-like, out of real-life people who had been supporters of USSR despot, Josef Stalin, only to find themselves the targets of one of his many Great Purges. I took pieces of Regina from a cross-section of immigrants who made the trek out to Birobidzhan, expecting to find a promised land where Jews could finally live free of persecution, only to be trapped in a cycle of lies, hunger, exploitation, and political intrigue.
But I didn’t want Regina to be just a carbon copy of a real-life person. I wanted her to be a unique individual.
“Ah,” I can hear you saying, “but making up unique individuals is hard!”
I’ve got another secret to share with you: Making up unique individuals in historical fiction is easy… if you can draw on your own personal background.
Just like Regina, I was born in the former Soviet Union. (Albeit about 50 years later.) But I know lots of people who were born during her era. Who lived through what she lived through. As a result, I know what those people felt, how they thought, and why they did the things they did. I cobbled Regina together out of real-life people, out of people I read about, and out of people I knew. Some of the things she says come directly out of the mouths of my grandparents, of my parents, of their friends.
The same goes for my July 2020 historical, “The Nesting Dolls.” It’s set in Odessa, USSR of the 1930s, in Odessa, USSR of the 1970s, and in present-day Brighton Beach, Brooklyn. My grandparents lived in Odessa in the 1930s. My parents lived in Odessa in the 1970s. My parents currently live in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn. I lifted descriptions of the city and the fashions from their photographs. I described streets my characters walked on and landmarks they saw based on my family’s descriptions of them. I even used some of my own memories from when I was a child! (I was particularly proud to remember how, in public parks, there used to be a machine from which if you inserted one kopek, you would get a serving of seltzer water, and if you inserted three kopeks, you would get it with a shpritz of syrup. It was available to everyone. And everyone drank from the same glass….)
That’s cheating, I know.
But, at the top of this post, I promised I’d explain why historical fiction is the easiest genre to write in. You don’t have to make up what happens. You don’t have to make up where it happens. You barely have to make up who it happens to.
All you have to do is decide how the people that it happens to will react. And that’s where the real freedom comes in.
Your characters can react the way people in real-life did. Your characters can react in ways real-life people might have – if they had the advantage of hindsight. The real-life people didn’t. You, as an author, do.
You can write happy endings for people who, in real-life, never had the chance to get one. You can write about the world as you would like it to be, rather than how it is. You can give people hope for the future, by doing a rewrite of the past.
Many thanks, Alina. Yours is definitely a novel take on writing historical fiction! I suspect you will find many HF authors with a different opinion. In fact I wrote a post some time ago about the productivity burden of writing historical fiction – the premise being that you can’t write historical as readily as you do contemporary fiction because of all the research required to get the history right and create an authentic experience for readers.
With his dying breath, Lena’s father asks his family a cryptic question: “You couldn’t tell, could you?” After his passing, Lena stumbles upon the answer that changes her life forever.
As her revolutionary neighbor mysteriously disappears during Josef Stalin’s Great Terror purges, 18-year-old Regina suspects that she’s the Kremlin’s next target. Under cover of the night, she flees from her parents’ communal apartment in 1930s Moscow to the 20th century’s first Jewish Autonomous Region, Birobidzhan, on the border between Russia and China. Once there, Regina has to grapple with her preconceived notions of socialism and Judaism while asking herself the eternal question: What do we owe each other? How can we best help one another? While she contends with these queries and struggles to help Birobidzhan establish itself, love and war are on the horizon.
New York Times Bestselling author Alina Adams draws on her own experiences as a Jewish refugee from Odessa, USSR as she provides readers a rare glimpse into the world’s first Jewish Autonomous Region. My Mother’s Secret is rooted in detailed research about a little known chapter of Soviet and Jewish history while exploring universal themes of identity, love, loss, war, and parenthood. Readers can expect a whirlwind journey as Regina finds herself and her courage within one of the century’s most tumultuous eras.
FOR MORE ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION FOLLOW A WRITER OF HISTORY
M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel is THE ADMIRAL’S WIFE, a dual timeline set in Hong Kong. Mary’s other novels, PARIS IN RUINS, TIME AND REGRET, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, Nook, Kobo, Google Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.