I confess. I LOVE historical epistolary novels. I have had a lifelong obsession with letter writing (I’ve had a pen pal overseas since I was nine). I love to experience a story unfolding through documents and correspondence. It also seems like one of the most creative ways to bring history to life. I’m in awe of historical fiction authors. Research for my novels consists of interviews, reading articles, and Google searches. Ooh, and Google Earth. I definitely can’t imagine pouring over documents and books, remembering dates and facts and names and places. Let alone putting it all into letters.
And that’s what we have with LETTERS FROM SKYE by Jessica Brockmole.
Jessica’s got not only a great book but a great attitude and heartfelt, on-target advice for other writers.
Please welcome Jessica Brockmole to Women’s Fiction Writers!
Debut Historical Fiction Author Jessica Brockmole Isn’t Limited By Labels
Amy: Letters From Skye is an epistolary novel. I have to admit, I LOVE novels in letters. Maybe it’s because I’ve had a pen pal overseas since I was nine and just love letter writing in general and have a novel based on our friendship tucked into my “one-day” mental filing cabinet. Do you have a pen pal? If not, what prompted Letters From Skye? And can you tell us a bit about the story?
Jessica: How wonderful that you’ve had a pen pal for all of those years! Around the time that I wrote Letters from Skye, I had just moved to Scotland. Suddenly I was an ocean and several time zones apart from friends and family. We could no longer pick up the phone just to say hi. Many of my relationships changed as we, of necessity, had to begin writing. I found this fascinating, how relationships could be held together with nothing but words, and I wanted to explore this in a book.
In Letters from Skye, an American college student impulsively sends a fan letter to a reclusive Scottish poet in 1912. Intrigued, she replies. Their exchange blossoms into a friendship and, as World War One begins, a tentative love. A generation and another war later, the poet’s daughter discovers a hidden cache of letters in her Edinburgh flat, letters that seem to mirror her own warming relationship with her best friend in the RAF. With her discovery, she sets off to piece together the story of her mother’s, and her own, past.
Amy: Historical novels require a lot of research. Do you have a background in research or this era? Or did you just become a research junkie for the book?
Jessica: I don’t have a background in history, but I come from a family very interested in it. I grew up in museums and archives and living history sites, breathing in the littlest details about life way back when. So, although I have no formal training in historical research, I came into historical fiction with a healthy respect for accuracy and for learning through primary sources and artifacts.
Amy: As a writer of contemporary fiction who loves reading historical fiction, I’m always impressed and baffled. How to organize and use your research to fuel and inform your fiction?
Jessica: Organize? Oh, goodness, that sounds like work!
When I first began to write historical fiction (a ponderous novel that is now, thankfully, trunked), I was extremely organized. I spent a good long time researching before I wrote the first word, and I kept all of that arranged in detailed pages of notes collated into a series of folders, prefaced by an annotated bibliography. I meant business.
I learned, though, that this didn’t work for me. Researching in this manner actually bogged me down. I had the facts, in excess, but not the story to support them. I began to experiment with other methods of writing and researching and discovered that I work best when I don’t plan so much out. I write and, as I get to know my story, I research. Both are so much more free-form than what I used to do before.
I’ve also learned that I have a good memory for what I read and where I’ve read it. I do print out and highlight articles, and I do tab pages and underline in books, but I no longer take pages of notes. I bring those facts right away into my writing and, if I need them again later, can generally put my finger on them quickly.
Amy: Are you an outliner (I always think historical novelists must be)? Do you have any tips for keeping notes and ideas organized?
Jessica: This is a great question to follow the previous. As I mentioned, I’m definitely not an outliner. Apart from the happy endings that I can’t seem to resist, I usually have no idea what will happen in my story (apart from the initial seed of character or premise) before I start to write. I always go into it with a basic historical background of time, place, and event, but the rest I research as I write. After all, without an outline, I can’t anticipate my research questions.
Ideas are different, though. I keep stacks of blank index cards tucked all over my house and, whenever I uncover a fascinating little tidbit or character or little-known historical event, I jot it down. I toss all of the penciled cards in a desk drawer and, when I’m ready to start a new project, I pull them all out and scatter them on the floor. Like tea leaves, I look to see what falls together. Sometimes seeing two cards nestled up next to each other suggests a novel that I never would’ve thought of.
Amy: What are your thoughts on the label Women’s Fiction? (Obviously it doesn’t bother me!)
Jessica: Labels like “women’s fiction” don’t bother me. I’m a woman and a reader, but I don’t let the former limit the latter. I choose books based on description and recommendation and excellent writing, rather than on how they are categorized, and I know I’m not alone in this. I feel that readers will always seek out the kinds of books that resonate with them, regardless of the label.
Amy: Would you share your best advice for aspiring authors of all types of women’s fiction?
Jessica: Write the books that you yourself want to read.
Jessica Brockmole spent several years living in Scotland, where she knew too well the challenges in maintaining relationships from a distance. She plotted her first novel on a long drive from the Isle of Skye to Edinburgh. She now lives in Indiana with her husband and two children.