Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Guest Post: Vicky Alvear Shecter on Cleopatra's Moon & Tips for Writing Historical Fiction

Info (Arthur A. Levine, 2011)(F)
By Vicky Alvear Shecter

I started out writing middle grade nonfiction, specifically biographies of Alexander the Great and Cleopatra.

It never occurred to me to write fiction until I came across a fact that grabbed me by the throat and wouldn’t let go. And it was this: Cleopatra was the mother of four children (one with Julius Caesar and three with Mark Antony). The only one to survive to adulthood was her daughter, Cleopatra Selene.

My initial response was: Wait, Cleopatra had a daughter?

I was floored. How come nobody ever talked about her? What, I wondered, must it have been like to have Cleopatra as a mother?

I mean, talk about mother issues!

Sadly, we have little information about Cleopatra’s daughter, which made it nearly impossible to tell her story with nonfiction. Knowing her date of birth, her parents, where she lived after her parent’s died, and who she married may be interesting, but it would make for a pretty short bio.

But oh, the opportunities with fiction! As long as I worked within the facts we knew, I could imagine what her life was like. So I went for it.

Along the way, I learned some things about writing historical fiction:

1. Never assume.

Info (Darby Creek, 2006)(NF)
No detail could be inserted without making sure that it was consistent with what we knew of the period. So, for example, in one scene, I had my characters sitting under an orange tree in a garden in Rome. And then it occurred to me—wait, did Rome have orange trees then?

After checking it out, I discovered they did not (they were introduced from China in the Middle Ages). So I had to change the tree.

2. Beware of modern words or phrases that will pop your reader out of the history.

For example, I had a character grab the side of a Roman ship in one scene. My first instinct was to call it a gunwale (the proper term). But there were no guns in the ancient world! That’s not what they would have called it. I deleted it.

3. Make sure it could've happened that way.

The fiction in historical fiction does not mean you have license to mess with the facts. You can’t make up a scene that contradicts the facts we do know.

Info (Boyds Mills, 2010)(NF)
Still don’t avoid being true to your character. Even though feminist ideals are a modern invention, it made sense to me that the daughter of the most powerful woman in the world—who saw great men bow at her mother’s feet—would have a sense that she was “equal to” or “better than” the men surrounding her. It might not have been true for the average ancient girl, but it certainly could’ve been true of Cleopatra’s daughter.

4. Get the sensory details right.

One of the best ways to capture this “other” world/other time is to thoroughly research the sensory details that will make the world come alive.

For example, what did Cleopatra Selene’s palace in Alexandria smell like? (Of ocean breezes mixed with the heavy sent of blooming lotuses.) What did the port in Roman Ostia smell like? (Of vats of rotting fish innards left to melt in the sun.) What did the Roman streets sound like? (Cacophony of accents and the constant thudding of hammers as construction flourished.) What did the Temple of Isis in Egypt sound like? (Jangling bells and low chanting.)

Learn how your characters experience the sounds, sights, tastes, smells and feelings of their world to make it come alive for your reader.

Having made the leap from nonfiction to fiction, I’m sure that if I can do it, you can too!

Vicky’s editor at Arthur A. Levine Books/Scholastic, Cheryl Klein, sent her an adjustable snake necklace.
Vicky promptly tried it on everything (arms, neck, wrists, ankles; cat; dog). Peanut liked the look very much.
Cheryl Klein also sent Vicky a Cleopatra action figure.
Vicky calls her “Drag Queen Cleo” "because of the GI-Joe face."
DQC often makes appearances on her blog, History with a Twist
Vicky says: "This includes just one my many bookcases.
"Check out the museum replica Spartan helmet.
"It’s usually not on my desk, but I wanted it in the shot.”

12 comments:

Jessilyn (YA Book Haven) said...

I can't wait to read this one, very good tips. ;)

Christina said...

Great post -- I adore historical fiction and can't wait to read this book.

I am wondering, Vicky, what are your favorite sources for uncovering the details about life in ancient (or any other) times?

Thanks, Vicky and Cyn!

All best,
Chris

Kristin Lenz said...

Yay Vicky! Cleopatra's Moon is a stunning novel - thanks for the peek behind the scenes.

LinWash said...

Great interview! I'm totally guilty of allowing modern phrasings to creep into my medieval fantasy. I need to watch that.

Sarah Campbell said...

Thanks, Vikcy! It's great to learn more about the switch from nonfiction to fiction.

Vicky Alvear Shecter said...

Thanks for having me here, Cynthia! Thanks too for the comments.

Christina, I like reading Plutarch and Herodotus because he is so accessible. To get a sense of their daily lives, the ancient poets are the best. BUT, I also read the works of respected scholars who interpret these primary sources.

I do recommend finding the scholars doing the latest research because I think the new generation of scholars have unprecedented access to multiple resources at once, thanks to the Internet and global communications.

Sorry to go on so long, but I think that formula--primary sources then reliable analyses of the sources-- can work well for research on any time period!

Robyn Hood Black said...

Thanks to both of you for a great post! Cleopatra's Moon is a terrific book, and it's fun learning some of the ways it came to be that way. The reader feels he or she is RIGHT THERE.

Tracy Barrett said...

Wonderful book, and a great post. Nothing makes me toss a book away more quickly than a glaring anachronism!

sally apokedak said...

Hmm. I think Peanut looks a little embarrassed, to tell you the truth. :) I'm glad to see, though, that your bookcase looks something like mine. I think a well-stuffed and somewhat disorganized bookcase must be a sign that the owner of the office has a brilliant and creative mind. Or so I keep telling myself.

Cynthia Leitich Smith said...

Jessilyn, I'm sure you'll enjoy the novel!

Great question, Christina!

Kristin, Tracy and Robyn, thanks for the endorsement!

Good luck with your writing, LinWash!

Sally, I'm right there with you on the bookcase. And table tops... Really, any surface filled with books.

Vicky, thanks again for sharing your thoughts--in the post and comments--and congratulations on your success!

Readers, please feel free to keep chatting, and I'll check back to reply!

Elizabeth O. Dulemba said...

It's a wonderful book! And now I'm listening to the audio too when I drive. I keep having to turn the air conditioner up because I get so many chill bumps! :) e

Cynthia Leitich Smith said...

Elizabeth, thanks for the heads-up and endorsement of the audio edition; sounds perfect for drive time...or any time!

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