I met Jessica McCann through WFW and through Twitter – and I’m thrilled to have her here today. Jessica’s novel, All Different Kinds of Free, intrigued me because it’s based on fact, but not a true story. Oh, the literary webs we weave!
Please welcome Jessica McCann to Women’s Fiction Writers!
(Just a note: I am experiencing the loss of internet service, so if your comments needs moderation, I’ll get to it as soon as possible. Thank goodness for cell phones with 3G!)
Author Jessica McCann Says Women’s Fiction Falls Within Many Genres, Including Historical Fiction
ASN: ALL DIFFERENT KINDS OF FREE is a historical novel based on real-life events. We talk often on WFW about the line between fact and fiction. Can you expound on how you developed the idea for your novel — and how much of it is factual as opposed to fictional (and are you tired of that question yet)?
JM: I actually love this question, because I love how my novel came to life. In many ways, it parallels how my writing career came to life. I started out in journalism. My training and opinions regarding fact and fiction in writing were pretty much black and white for the first decade or so. As I got a bit more life experience under my belt (as I ventured into public relations, communications, marketing and, finally, fiction writing), I began to understand just how fuzzy the line between fact and fiction truly is in all writing. Frankly, some works of fiction contain more “truth” than similar works of nonfiction or journalism.
All Different Kinds of Free started off as a biography of Margaret Morgan, a free woman of color in 1830s America. A bounty hunter from the South had kidnapped Margaret and her children, alleging that they were escaped slaves. He had no proof of ownership and was convicted of the crime in the free state of Pennsylvania. The case was appealed all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, and the controversial verdict became an early spark igniting the Civil War.
My curiosity was piqued because the official record only mentioned Margaret briefly. That struck me as so odd, since the whole ordeal began with her kidnapping. I wanted to know how her story ended. So I dug around a bit. But the more I looked, the less I found — some obscure footnotes in law journals, conflicting news accounts from the time. It really bothered me that her part of the story was little more than a footnote in history.
When I realized I didn’t have enough facts to write a biography, I was devastated and grudgingly packed away my research. Then my mother-in-law loaned me a book, a fictional biography about George Washington, by Mary Higgins Clark. It was a fun read, and it gave me the idea that a fictional biography might be the only way I could tell Margaret’s story and really do it justice.
So tons of secondary research went into the book. I devoured reference books, diaries, slave testimonials, newspaper archives — anything I could get my hands on to help me better understand what the average person experienced on any given day in that era. That research provided the factual framework of the novel, and I filled in the blanks based on what my mind, my heart and my gut were telling me as each scene unfolded.
What really happed to Margaret Morgan? The fact is, no one knows. What I do know is that she suffered a great injustice. And it was a similar injustice suffered by thousands of other women just like her — wives, mothers, daughters — during that dark period in our nation’s history. That is a fact; and that is the truth that propelled the fictional story I ultimately wrote.
ASN: What is your definition of women’s fiction?
JM: I have a hard time defining women’s fiction, because so many of the books I read seem to fit into multiple literary categories. I gravitate to historicals, which I enjoy for the escape to a different place and time. Yet many could easily be dubbed women’s fiction, as well, because they possess strong female characters, emotional struggles and character-driven plots. I suppose if the subject matter of a book strikes a chord for me on a deep personal level as a woman, then I consider it be women’s fiction, regardless of its genre subsets. A few strong examples of this cross-over include THE INVISIBLE MOUNTAIN by Carolina De Robertis, ALICE I HAVE BEEN by Melanie Benjamin, and THE PERSONAL HISTORY OF RACHEL DUPREE by Ann Weisgarber (all highly recommended).
ASN: What is your best advice to aspiring authors of women’s fiction specifically — and/or — any fiction?
JM: Ask yourself why you are “aspiring.” That may sound flip, but it’s a different answer for everyone. Is it because you haven‘t yet finished your novel? Have you completed a novel (or two or three), but you worry the work isn’t good enough to share? Do you think your writing is stellar, but you don’t know how to break in?
These are tough questions all writers must ask themselves if they truly want to be published. Once you know the current hurdle you face — whether it’s some lack of knowledge or just a plain old fear of rejection — then you can put together a plan for getting over it.
There will always be another hurdle down the road, of course (and another, and another), even after you’ve been published. And fear. And rejection. Lots of it. But if you keep asking yourself the tough questions and pushing yourself, you’ll get better and better at mowing down those hurdles.
Jessica McCann, a professional freelance writer and novelist, lives with her family in Phoenix, Arizona. Her nonfiction work has been published in Business Week, The Writer and Phoenix magazines, among others. All Different Kinds of Free (Bell Bridge Books, April 2011) is her award-winning debut novel. She welcomes interaction with readers and writers at her website (www.jessicamccann.com) and on Twitter (@JMcCannWriter).