Facts vs Fiction, a guest post by L.M. Elliott
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To celebrate the release of Louisa June and the Nazis on the Waves by L.M. Elliott on March 22nd, 5 sites will be featuring exclusive guest posts from L.M. Elliott plus 5 chances to win a signed copy of Louisa June!
Facts vs Fiction
“So… tell me what’s fact and what’s made up in this novel of yours?”
There’s a question I’m asked a lot. My answer—and honest to God I don’t mean this to sound flippant—nothing is “made up.” Not per se. At least not in good historical fiction.
A good historical novel is painstakingly researched. Its plot, events, and moral challenges grow out of the time. If a real-life person enters one of my stories, he or she had to have truly been in that place at that time for my characters to spot or interact with them. If they speak, I use their own recorded statements for dialogue, or wording that closely echoes their idioms.
In good historical fiction, the setting, cultural milieu and its societal expectations and limitations, the day-to-day details in clothing, food, slang and colloquialisms, smells, even the weather must be spot-on accurate. No anachronisms, no modern wording or sensibilities, no matter how much we current day feminists won’t like a woman being pressured to defer to her husband or father.
I always read reams of biographies, newspaper articles, memoirs, and novels or plays from my novel’s historical era before I write one word of my own narrative. Then I try to be a responsible interpreter, a translator of sorts, of history. What I learn in my research informs and fuels my imagination in creating characters who I hope to be emblematic—even an everyman of that period—whose choices, conundrums, heartbreaks, and eventual victories are entirely plausible to the era and generated by its events. So, my characters are amalgamations—snippets of real-life people and real-life facts that forged and confronted them mingled together to create something new and representative of the whole.
Here’s an example from one of my biographical fictions, where these standards are particularly important.
For Hamilton and Peggy: A Revolutionary Friendship, one of the greatest sources on Peggy’s whereabouts and personality was Hamilton himself—his letters. Within days of meeting Eliza, Hamilton wrote Peggy, saying he’d already formed “a more than common partiality” for her “person and mind” because of a miniature portrait Eliza painted and carried with her. Hamilton playfully begs Peggy, as a “nymph of equal sway,” to come distract the other aides-de-camp so he can monopolize Eliza. To be his wingman, in essence!
Think through all that hints at: Eliza so loves Peggy that she has painted a little portrait of her, carried it with her, and is willing to show the image of her beautiful little sister, only fifteen months younger and “a nymph of equal sway,” to a potential suitor. “Person and mind” corroborates that Peggy is smart—something Hamilton required of a person to show any interest in him or her. Peers called Peggy “a wicked wit,” endowed with a “superior mind and rare accuracy of judgment in men and things,” as fluent in French and Dutch, and teaching herself German by reading her father’s engineering manuals. (Educators: Peggy is the perfect example of reading primary documents to find character and story. I’ve posted a lesson plan . If you have students who groan that primary documents are boring—ha!—Hamilton’s opinionated, gossipy, and flirty letters will dispel that notion.)
Upon receiving his note, Peggy seems to have ridden 150 miles to Morristown, NJ, through territory patrolled by bands of Loyalists who would have reveled in capturing one of General Schuyler’s daughters. She braved the worst winter ever recorded in American history, (28 recorded blizzards falling between Nov. 1st and April 1st ), snowdrifts six feet high, and temperatures so low that New York City’s harbor was frozen solid enough that heavy cannon were being pulled across the ice without a crack. Soldiers encamped in Morristown described roads so impassable supplies could not get through. Wild animals—squirrels, rabbits, birds— the soldiers might have hunted to feed themselves all but disappeared, frozen to death. In his diary, a young private, Joseph Plumb Martin, wrote about eating bark, roasting shoes, and killing and cooking pet dogs to survive.
Those startling facts suggest Peggy having a daring, independent, and rather determined personality to ride out into such truly life-threatening dangers. Hamilton’s letter also established for me Peggy’s tight-knit relationship with Eliza—making it likely that she’d brave that ride to check out this flirtatious, silver-penned aide-de-camp to ensure he wasn’t just dallying with her sweet-natured middle sister. After a harrowing 3-day journey, Peggy arrived in Morristown in time for the Winter’s Ball, Feb. 23rd, 1780. According to George Washington’s weather journal, roads were “so shocking,” the snowfall so heavy, only sixteen women made it through to dance with 65 officers that night. With a ratio of 4 men to one lady, I could plausibly describe Peggy (called by one peer “a favourite at dinner tables and balls”) dancing quite a lot that evening.
With Louisa June and the Nazis in the Waves, the plot events are all factual or based on true ones: A German U-boat sinking a small tugboat, the Menominee, in March 1942—a month in which five German subs were managing to sink on average one unsuspecting cargo ship or tanker a night along our East Coast. Unseen Nazi mines, left in the waters just off Norfolk, exploding freighters in plain and horrified view of Virginia Beach sunbathers. Our Air Force using Plum Island, not far from waters fished by locals, to train green pilots how to drop bombs. Crusty merchant mariners in their 70s volunteering to head out to sea again.
This time my main characters are all fictional. Even so they are portraits put together with jigsaw pieces of people who lived the times. Like so many along the East Coast, Louisa June must search for healing and help her grieving parents after the terrible, out-of-the-blue loss of her beloved brother, all while desperate to find some way to combat the Nazis herself.
I internalized watermen’s matter-of-fact grit and tightknit sense of family by reading William Geroux’s beautifully done The Matthews Men. I found my narrative’s most heartbreaking ironies—like the fact U-754 might have located the Menominee tug in the vast expanse of the Atlantic Coastline because of a ship-to-shore call its captain made home to assure his family that all was well— in papers filed for a civil suit against the shipping company that owned the tug and poorly equipped its lifeboats.
Sticking to facts and what is logical and plausible does make my job harder sometimes! For instance, in the novel’s climax—those terrible and terrifying explosions off Virginia Beach on June 15, 1942—Tidewater geography and its maze of watery inlets and rivers were a problem in terms of my family being in place to witness it. I had to find somewhere on the Hampton Roads side of the Bay for them to be, where they could still see far enough across the waves to where the Chesapeake Bay opens to the Atlantic. After a lot of digging and staring at maps, I put Louisa June and Cousin Belle at what was once the palatial Chamberlin-Vanderbilt Hotel.
Every choice in writing carries a domino-effect. Placing them at that resort-like setting offered me a sharp contrast between the haves and have-nots of the time, and a few moments of humor to tuck in as a momentary breather before the pathos of the mayhem they’ll witness in the next pages. (The delightfully blunt and slightly eccentric Cousin Belle comes out, clad in her old turn-of-the-century bathing dress, to join a crowd of monied sunbathers sporting Hollywood glamour suits—causing preteen Louisa June considerable embarrassment. “Do you think you’d prefer seeing this old body in a two-piece?” Cousin Belle asks with a smile.)
Speaking of Cousin Belle, I’ll end with her and the old journalism term of “saving string.” A writer should always have her proverbial antenna up, watching, listening, absorbing. If you’re paying attention, life will drop amazing stories right at your feet. Or characters. Or scenes filled with import. “Saving string” means noticing and collecting little strands of ideas, personalities, phrasings, or moments when life shifts, and tucking those “strings” into your creative pocket. Eventually, there will be a ball of twine to knit a character or story.
Cousin Belle was based on reading I did about women in the first world war, Congresswoman Edith Rogers and our first female diplomat Lucile Atcherson Curtis (see the book’s Afterward for more about them), but mostly on my surrogate grandmother, Helene. I was blessed to grow up loved by an ancient, strong-willed, audacious intellect who read two newspapers a day, front to back, through her 90s. She was an attorney with the State Department in the 1930s and ’40s, when few women dared study the law, much less practice. When we talked, Helene always opened the chat with “What’s up, darling?” She wanted to know what I was doing, what I was thinking, what I knew. She brooked no nonsense or wishy-washiness. And she adored cats. Hers received a small bowl of cream and three fresh shrimps each dinner.
Despite her slightly intimidating mind, Helene gave affectionate nicknames to those she cared about. Mine: Laura-belle. And as I type this blog, I am only now recognizing that my subconscious rose up and named that character.
Helene didn’t have a bathing dress that I know of, but after she died, my sister and I did discover in her closet, next to her multiple wigs, an authentic, thick grass skirt that I assume she brought home from a long-ago State Department-junket to Hawaii. (It must have carried some special memories because she took it with her from her large, life-long home to a retirement facility apartment.) I still have her cane, with its dented silver monogrammed cap, and leave daffodils from my yard on her grave as she requested, every Easter, nearly forty years after she left us.
For more about Louisa June visit my webpage.
“Evocatively threaded with the scents and sounds of Tidewater Virginia coastal communities, this story presents a fascinating, lesser-known aspect of the war told from a young girl’s perspective. Successfully tackling the devastation of depression on family relationships, the bitter cost of war, and the uplifting strength of no-nonsense friendship, this story has impressive depth. Superb.”
—Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
“Middle grade lovers of World War II historical fiction will find this title engrossing. Elliot’s story delivers facts and a thoughtful approach to characters experiencing grief and depression, while adding some maritime adventure. VERDICT A must-have for all middle grade historical fiction collections. Recommend to those who enjoyed Kimberly Brubaker Bradley’s The War That Saved My Life and Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch’s Making Bombs for Hitler.”
—School Library Journal (starred review)
“Elliott weaves a deeply moving historical tale, including small but significant details that flesh out the situations and characters, even the secondary ones. The extensive and fact-filled backstory in the author’s note gives readers even more context. An excellent middle-grade read that balances adventure, emotions, and family.”
—Booklist (starred review)
“An infrequently explored aspect of WWII history—German submarines torpedoing U.S. cargo ships along America’s East Coast—underpins Elliott’s (Walls) well-crafted novel. Evocative descriptions of the region’s natural life ground this realistic depiction of one family’s efforts to withstand depression and personal tragedy during wartime.”
—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
About Louisa June and the Nazis in the Waves
In this moving and timeless story, award-winning author L. M. Elliott captures life on the U.S. homefront during World War II, weaving a rich portrait of a family reeling from loss and the chilling yet hopeful voyage of fighting for what matters, perfect for fans of The War That Saved My Life.
Days after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, Hitler declared war on the U.S., unleashing U-boat submarines to attack American ships. Suddenly, the waves outside Louisa June’s farm aren’t for eel-fishing or marveling at wild swans or learning to skull her family’s boat—they’re dangerous, swarming with hidden enemies.
Her oldest brothers’ ships risk coming face-to-face with U-boats. Her sister leaves home to weld Liberty Boat hulls. And then her daddy, a tugboat captain, and her dearest brother, Butler, are caught in the crossfire.
Her mama has always swum in a sea of melancholy, but now she really needs Louisa June to find moments of beauty or inspiration to buoy her. Like sunshine-yellow daffodils, good books, or news accounts of daring rescues of torpedoed passengers.
Determined to help her Mama and aching to combat Nazis herself, Louisa June turns to her quirky friend Emmett and the indomitable Cousin Belle, who has her own war stories—and a herd of cats—to share. In the end, after a perilous sail, Louisa June learns the greatest lifeline is love.
Meet the author
L. M. Elliott was a magazine journalist covering women’s issues, mental health, and the performing arts for twenty years before becoming a New York Times best-selling author of historical and biographical fiction. Her twelfth and latest, Louisa June and the Nazis in the Waves, is set in Tidewater Virginia during the deadly U-boat attacks on our coast in 1942. Her novels explore a variety of eras (the Italian Renaissance, the American Revolutionary War, WWII, and the Cold War), and are written for a variety of ages. Her works have been named NCSS/CBC Notables, Bank Street College Best Books, Jefferson Cup Honor Books, Kirkus Bests, and Grateful American Book Prize winners. Learn more at www.lmelliott.com and Twitter or Instagram @L_M_Elliott.
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About Amanda MacGregor
Amanda MacGregor works in an elementary library, loves dogs, and can be found on Twitter @CiteSomething.
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