3 S.R. Johannes: Finding the Emotional Truth in Historical Fiction (Vicky Alvear Shecter)

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Finding the Emotional Truth in Historical Fiction (Vicky Alvear Shecter)

 Today, Vicky Alvear Shecter (author of Cleopatra's Moon) is here to talk about historical fiction.


“All novels are emotional autobiographies.” I can’t remember who said that, but it hit home when I heard it.

So true.
And yet, finding the emotional truth in historical fiction—in places and times very different from our own—can be a challenge. When I started on my YA historical fiction novel, Cleopatra’s Moon for example, I remember thinking, how could I possibly have anything in common with an ancient teenage princess of Egypt whose mother was Cleopatra and whose father was the famous Roman general Mark Antony?
Physically? Not a damn thing. Emotionally? To my surprise, quite a bit. Let me explain with some examples:

-       Cleopatra Selene, my main character, is ripped from everything she knows and loves when she is sent from Egypt to Rome. She never returns to Egypt (as far as we know). I evoked my own memories of displacement when my mother, for various soap opera-ish, moved us from Ecuador to Miami without any warning or preparation.  If I hadn’t experienced such a life-altering move, I would’ve called upon my reactions to moving to a new school or new neighborhood to imagine what it felt like for Selene.

-       As a result of the upheaval, Selene becomes even more fiercely attached and protective of her brothers.  My brothers and sister and I experienced an intense “closing of the ranks” during our across-the-world move, which affected how I expressed Selene’s response. Any “us versus them” childhood experience could be called upon.

-        Cleopatra Selene worries that she might not ever be as striking and charismatic as her mother (Cleopatra was no beauty but her magnetism and charm were legendary). She fears she won’t measure up and that, somehow, she’ll end up disappointing everyone.  I too had (have) a beautiful, elegant mother and when, as a teen it became clear that I would never be as tall or as thin, I had similar fears. Teens often worry that they’ll never live up to the expectations others have for them.  What were yours?

-       The first time Cleopatra Selene is taken to see her mother after learning about the death of a family member, she wants to run. It terrifies her to see her mother so wracked by grief. I drew on my memories of a similar grieving experience.  But I could’ve also recalled what it felt like to witness a grown-up expressing any strong emotion for the first time.

-       Cleopatra Selene struggles with spirituality. I imagined that she was brought up with faith in both the Greek and Egyptian gods and that she had a special affinity for Isis. When she learns about the Judeo-concept of free will, she wrestles with its implications. That struggle becomes the focal point of her emotional growth. When I was a teen, I too struggled with making sense of the different religions in my life—Catholic in Ecuador and Jewish in my grandmother’s house. Even if your faith has never wavered, you could draw upon your emotional reaction to the first time you heard something that directly contradicted everything you’d ever been taught. 

-       Cleopatra Selene falls in love with an important historical character who also happens to be a brilliant writer and scholar. This, I don’t need to explain. Haven’t most of us fallen for the hot, brooding ‘English major’ type at least once in our high school or college lives? ;-)

When you have no direct experience to draw upon for a scene, create one. For example, observing my own reactions to reading about the experiences of girls in radical Muslim countries helped me articulate Selene’s outrage to the restrictions she faces when she is forced to live in Rome.
Mining your “emotional autobiography” is important in all fiction, of course, but it’s even more so in historical. The emotional connection to the protagonist is the bridge by which we travel back in time. And, hopefully, what keeps the reader turning pages.

Vicky’s novel, Cleopatra’sMoon, won the Southern Breeze Crystal Kite award and was named to Bankstreet's list of Best Books of the Year for 2012. In the upcoming WIK conference, Vicky will share more of her secrets for transforming dry facts into juicy stories. You can find her hanging out online at her blog, Facebook, and Twitter.

 What historical character/figure do you think you connect most with?


Heather said...

This makes so much sense, and is quite inspiring. Now I've got to read Cleopatra's Moon! Thank you for a great guest post Vicky.

Vicky Alvear Shecter said...

Thanks, Heather! And thanks so much for hosting me Shelli!

Jemi Fraser said...

'emotional biography' makes so much sense! Our memories and our empathy are so important for us as writers. Great post :)

Anonymous said...

I think we tend to look for grand emotions to connect with, but as you said, you don't have to have an Ecuador to Miami move. Any little move will do to get to that emotion of upheaval.

Great post, Vicky!

LTM said...

Awesome, helpful post, Vicky! I'll be diving into the sequel to my first historical book soon,and these are great tips to keep in mind! As for characters I connect with most... hmmm... I guess I never really thought about it. It'd have to be a writer. Now you've stumped me.

All best w/Cleopatra's Moon. It looks and sounds gorgeous~ <3

Kimberley Griffiths Little said...

It was so weird to see/read this blog post, Shelli and Vicky - I *just* started reading CLEOPATRA'S MOON yesterday! I love it already! I adore ancient Egypt and have a manuscript of Egypt of my own I hope to sell one day.

Your post is spot-on with how we can put ourselves into our character's hearts and minds to bring out the emotional truth. Of course, I think this works whether you're writing historical, fantasy or contemporary. We have to draw on our own experiences. :-)

Vicky, you may get a kick out of knowing that my editor at Harpercollins suggested I read your book. I've got a historical *epic* (that's what she calls it) YA coming out Fall 2013. They're calling it a cross between THE RED TENT (the adult novel) and CLEOPATRA'S MOON.

Pretty cool to me!

Do you have something else in the works for Levine/Scholastic?

(I also publish MG with Scholastic, 2 books so far, with another in 2013 and 2014.) Good to meet you!

Vicky Alvear Shecter said...

Thanks, Jamie--I wish I could remember where I first heard the phrase, "emotional biography!"

Vicky Alvear Shecter said...

Cathy, I'm glad it was clear that you don't have to have had major emotional turmoil to tap into it. For a kid, ANY emotional turmoil will do! '-)

LTM, thanks so much. Good luck with your historical fiction book!

Vicky Alvear Shecter said...

Kimberley, I agree, bringing out the emotional truth is important in whatever genre you write!

Also, you have MADE MY DAY! To have Cleo's Moon included in the same sentence as The Red Tent makes my head explode!!!!

I am working on something else for Levine/Scholastic, but can't talk about it yet. Can't wait to hear more about your historical!

tkread said...

Thanks Shelli and Vicky for the great interview! I love Cleopatra's Moon and it was interesting to hear how you mined your personal history to make this historical novel fresh and relevant for today's teens. See you both at WIK! TK

Irene Latham said...

Vicky, I can't think of anything more important in a novel than finding that emotional truth. I'm excited for your workshop... and for future books!

Barker said...

Terrific advice! And I wanted to tell you, when I was in our library this week, getting some books on CDs for a trip, I saw they had Cleopatra's Moon as an audio book. How Cool!!!


Vicky Alvear Shecter said...

@TK and Irene--thanks, guys. Can't wait to see y'all at WIK!

@Barker--I still squee whenever I see my book in the library, though I haven't seen the audiobook out yet. Very cool!

Robyn Hood Black said...

Great post, Shelli and Vicky - thanks for sharing!

I LOVE Cleopatra's Moon; couldn't put it down. Vicky, it was a treat reading some specifics of how you emotionally connected with your characters.

Can't wait to see everyone in Birmingham!

Gail Langer Karwoski said...

Such an intriguing topic, Vicky! I want to sit down (with a hot cup of tea) and explore this further. Some emotional responses - presumably - are universal. But others might be shaped/transformed by another worldview, another time. How to decide which emotions to connect directly to what we feel as modern readers and which to separate in order to reveal (and validate) a culturally different setting? ... this is a topic that fascinates me.

Thanks for posting this meaty blog!

Elizabeth O. Dulemba said...

I enjoyed the read! :)

Vicky Alvear Shecter said...

@Shelli--thanks, Shelli! And thanks for hosting me too.

@Gail--I would love to discuss over tea, because I've got some ideas on that too!


Tracy Barrett said...

Beautifully expressed, Vicky! No wonder Cleopatra's Moon rings so true!