Recently a good friend of mine said to me “I didn’t know I liked historical fiction until I read Louise’s War.” Fans of my earlier series, about amateur sleuth and historian Simon Shaw, often said much the same thing. They were surprised that history, at least history as the background for a mystery, could be so interesting. And I’m often asked why everything I write, even short stories, contains a historical element.
I’m a right brained person. I don’t find it easy to analyze, I rely on intuition to find my way, and that applies to my writing, too. I can’t answer easily why I am so drawn to the past. I read my first historical novel when I was about ten years old. The Count of Monte Cristo, Alexandre Dumas’ best in my opinion, drew me right in to the fantastic adventures of Edmund Dantes in a way I’d never experienced. I followed it with the Hornblower series of Napoleonic sea-faring tales and the early American historicals of Kenneth Roberts, books I found on my parents’ bookshelves. To me the way people lived in the past is absolutely fascinating.
But I’m not much interested in famous historical figures, or big battles, or massive events, as much as I am in the lives of ordinary people. Louise Pearlie, the heroine of Louise’s War, is “just” a file clerk, one of thousands of young women who live in Washington DC during World War II, working for the federal government. When I created her I wanted to know all about her, why she was widowed, what her life was like, what she liked to cook and eat, what shampoo she used, what she thought about dating and men, and how she adjusted to big city life and work in an office after years of thinking it was a woman’s job to keep house. Her life is even more fun, of course, because she works for the Office of Strategic Services, the first American spy agency, and runs into all kinds of dangerous situations! Louise becomes one of an entire generation of women who learn to be independent during a critical and volatile time. What could be scarier than growing up during the Great Depression, then facing a huge world war that could end with fascism controlling most of the planet?
To understand what everyday people were like in the past, say during Louise’s time, World War II, I read what every day people read themselves during that time. I’ve written elsewhere about shopping Ebay for magazines, books, maps, pamphlets and postcards. Most important, though, is the daily newspaper. When I decide on a time frame for a Louise Pearlie novel, which usually runs over about two weeks, I read every Washington Post from cover to cover published during that time. I skim the headlines and focus on the comics, advice columns, radio schedules, supermarket sales, and classified ads.
Then I move on from the Post to the women’s magazines, a fount of information about women’s issues. I learned in one that the most effective form of birth control for a woman who was either unmarried or couldn’t afford a doctor was a sponge soaked with vinegar! Who wouldn’t want to know that? So much more interesting than the Potsdam Conference!