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May Alcott spends her days sewing blue shirts for Union soldiers, but she dreams of painting a masterpiece—which many say is impossible for a woman—and of finding love. When she reads her sister’s wildly popular novel, Little Women, she is stung by Louisa’s portrayal of her as “Amy,” the youngest of four sisters who trades her desire to succeed as an artist for the joys of hearth and home. Determined to prove her talent, May makes plans to move far from Massachusetts and make a life for herself with room for both watercolors and a wedding dress. Can she succeed? And if she does, what price will she have to pay?
Based on May Alcott’s letters and diaries, as well as memoirs written by her neighbors, Little Woman in Blue puts May at the center of the story she might have told about sisterhood and rivalry in an extraordinary family.
Besides a fascination with what remains from the past, or what’s hidden, I write historical fiction because I get to read a lot. I like ferreting out details and weighing various points of views to decide who’s telling what kind of truth. Historical fiction begins with research, though it doesn’t stay there. We may be given a plot, place, and characters, but it’s what we do with them that make a novel come alive.
One intriguing person may introduce us to another. After writing about American author Louisa May Alcott, I wanted to know more about her youngest sister. Louisa’s most famous novel, Little Women, was loosely based on her family. The fictional younger sister was cast as shallow, selfish, and not particularly talented. In real life, May Alcott was ahead of her time, struggling to have it all: love and watercolors, too. I wondered why Louisa would diminish a sister she also clearly loved, and wanted to give May a voice.
I began reading about the Alcott family and the art, literature, fashion, gossip, and politics of mid-nineteenth century New England and Europe. There were a lot of books. Even poorly documented lives can have long trails. I was careful, as like many writers, I’m tempted to seek one more letter to decipher or yet another person to interview. These can be both crucial and a form of procrastination, since for many of us, talking, visiting sites, hunkering between library shelves, and reading on the sofa can be more seductive than wrangling a life onto paper.
To keep myself from hiding in the research, I assign it to myself after three in the afternoon. I began this routine back when my daughter was young and she got home from school, for books were something I could pick up and put down. I often read when slightly sleepy, letting the best details about art exhibits or tea parties float to the surface, or perhaps unfurl into longer stories. It’s good to read, pause, and return to see what settled. What remains after some time away is often what matters most.
Facts I find in the evening can provide fresh inspiration come morning.
Just as I might move from a middle chapter to jot down ideas for the novel’s end, research is woven throughout the writing process. I need to start with a solid sense of the people and place, but do more research when I’m in the middle of a draft, and read and look up from the pages, letting fact nudge me toward daydreams.
Of course research isn’t just reading, perhaps done with a high quotient of skimming. We get to know people not just through the words they speak, but what they look like and look at, the scents, sounds and textures of places where they lived.
Writing Little Woman in Blue: A Novel of May Alcott, took me to Orchard House, (see http://www.louisamayalcott.org/ ) where May lived as a young woman. I could see her bedroom walls, which she used like a big sketchbook, and an owl she painted over the hearth in her sister’s bedroom. I listened to the Concord River where May rowed and sketched, and when the water froze, I heard ice crackle as it had when she skated.
I went to Walden Pond, but didn’t wind a sheet around trees to make a private place to put on a flannel bathing gown: styles have evolved, and there are now rooms where people can change into bathing suits. I looked past the big parking lot to listen to the birds and smell blueberry shrubs growing along the shore.
Finding inspiration in books and landscapes, historical fiction writers take what’s old to make something entirely new. Research is just the beginning, even when it never entirely stops.
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About the Author
Jeannine Atkins’s most recent books are Little Woman in Blue: A Novel of May Alcott, published by She Writes Press and Views from a Window Seat: Thoughts on Writing and Life. She also writes books for children and teens, including Mary Anning and the Sea Dragon and Borrowed Names: Poems about Laura Ingalls Wilder, Madam C. J. Walker, Marie Curie and Their Daughters. She teaches as an adjunct at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst and Simmons College. Find out more at Jeannine’s website www.Jeannineatkins.com and follow her on Twitter @jeannineatkins.