AWP in DC! Feb 2-5, 2011 – ENTRY TWO: Historical Fiction


Pipkin - Oliveira - McNees - Keesy

The annual conference of the Association of Writers & Writing Programs, this year at the Marriott Wardman Park and Omni Shoreham Hotels in Washington, D.C.

My novel Well Considered is historical fiction wrapped in a story set in recent times, and to tell it, I had to thoroughly research life in the year 1907. So I was interested in how well known writers of this genre do their research.

In “The Craft of Historical Fiction” seminar, novelist John Pipkin ( described researching letters, journals, and other sources for his acclaimed novel Woodsburner, which tells how Henry David Thoreau burned down three hundred acres of forest in Concord a year before making his well-known journey to Walden Pond. Pipkin also emphasized the important role of imagination in historical novels to fill gaps in historical records.

Robin Oliveira ( told of her research in writing My Name Is Mary Sutter, an epic novel about Civil War nurse Mary Sutter and her desire to become a physician. She described how this war was the beginning of surgery and nursing in America. Robin said, “My history had to be absolutely accurate.” She knew she would be challenged by hordes of Civil War buffs and experts after she published it. Similarly, John Pipkin “feared” throngs of Thoreauites (or was it Thoreauvians).

Kelly O’Connor McNees ( told of her novel The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott, and Anna Keesy described her forthcoming novel, Little Century, set in central Oregon in 1900.

Dolen Perkins-Valdez (, who wrote Wench, about slave concubines at a summer resort in the free state of Ohio in the mid-1950s, was unable to come.

The authors discussed what historical fiction is, and agreed that it is fiction about people “that happen to be living long ago.” It still has story, characters and plot. But history informs the characters. It’s not just a retelling of historical events. Anna said, “Then we have to construct a historical past: that’s historical fiction.”

A second panel on historical fiction titled “Plotting the Story in History” featured three authors:

Ron Hansen

Ron Hansen (, author of seven novels, mostly set in the old west including Desperadoes (1979); The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (1983), a finalist for the PENN/Faulkner award, which was adapted for the screen in a movie starring Brad Pitt as James; and Atticus (1996), a finalist for both the Pen/Faulkner Award and the National Book Award. Hansen gave twelve good rules for writing historical fiction. His other novels include Hitler’s Niece (1999), Isn’t It Romantic? (2003), and Exiles (2008).

Debra Brenegan

Debra Brenegan (, author of the forthcoming novel, Shame the Devil, a story about nineteenth century writer Fanny Fern, “the most popular, highest paid, most published writer of her era,” told about how before 1857, the “nickel” was a “half-dime,” to exemplify the detail required with historical fiction. She discussed what language to use, whether to use vernacular, sources of research information, visiting museums, talking to curators, visiting homes, and much more.

Phil Gerard

Philip Gerard ( wrote:  Cape Fear Rising, about a race riot in Wilmington, North Carolina in 1898, in which a small minority of white citizens attack black residents and drive them out town; Hatteras Light, set in 1918, about a German U-boat prowling the coast of North Carolina; Secret Soldiers; Desert Kill; and nonfiction works. He discussed his forthcoming novel about Paul Revere.   In his article, “The Art of  Creative Research” he describes seven types of useful archives (

Ron Hanson’s list of rules he follows when writing historical fiction included:  Choose an exact period and know everything about it. Know the money, the people, styles, transportation methods. Find experts and sources like newspapers and the Sears catalog. Outline the plot. Include only information that bears on the characters; don’t litter the book with minutia. Stay as close as possible to lives of any real characters. Use the Dictionary of American Slang, the Oxford Dictionary, maps, photos. Do not insert 20th Century ideas that are anachronistic. Kerosene, for example, was a brand name of coal oil registered in 1854. Do not answer every question a reader might want answered. Pause and think about every scene. Do not distort or sentimentalize.  Calling it historical fiction does not excuse you from getting the historical information right.

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