Friday, May 22, 2015

On Writing and Researching (Alternate) History by AshleyRose Sullivan

Please join me in welcoming AshleyRose Sullivan to the blog today. Her new YA novel, Silver Tongue, features historical figures set in an alternate world, showcasing just how fragile history can be. I find the plot to be fascinating and asked her to write a bit about her writing and research.

On Writing and Researching (Alternate) History
by AshleyRose Sullivan

Mark Twain said something like, “Get your facts first, then you can distort them as much as you please.” Granted, I’m getting this quote from the notoriously unreliable internet and I doubt that when he (maybe) said these words he was envisioning a woman in the 2010s writing a book about monsters and murder on an alternate version of the Mississippi River but, I mean, I think it still applies.

My second novel, Silver Tongue, began as an idea about history itself–about how fragile it seems. I think we all ask ourselves, when learning about some big event long ago, how it might have been different but for one small thing. In my case, I thought about what might’ve happened if George Washington had drowned in the Delaware River. What would America have looked like twenty or thirty years after the Revolutionary War had been lost? Would America even exist?

This is where research comes in. I had decided George Washington never made it to the other side but I needed to know what actually happened before I went around making a fruit salad of history. I created a long list of questions and set about answering them. I got the bare facts pretty easily. Wikipedia is endlessly useful for things like the dates of famous water crossings. I made a timeline. Silver Tongue takes place in 1839–sixty-three years after The (Failed) Crossing of the Delaware. So, what really happened in those sixty-three years? How about the years that followed? What was just around the bend and might’ve changed if only a little thing here or there had been shifted around? I made a list of interesting events from all those years and let that feed into the atmosphere of the novel. The daguerreotype was introduced in 1839, for instance, but not until after the novel takes place–I bumped it up a little and the ability to see a photograph became part of the story.

The little things, though, that’s where the fun is. What kind of food does Claire eat? What might her best friend, a fashion-forward and wealthy Nouvelle French guy choose to wear to a big outdoor festival? What kind of games might these friends have played together? In other words, what does a regular day look like? For this, there are TONS of history books and blogs out there. There are lengthy posts about smocking fabric in the Regency Era and riding habits throughout history. And books like What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew, by Daniel Pool and Georgette Heyer’s Regency World are phenomenal resources when it comes to the mundane details of life in fancy pants olden days. Of course, when you’re writing an alternate history (with obvious and very dramatic emphasis on the alternate) you take liberties.

Claire exists in a culture that never was–a French/Indian mixed society that only might’ve been. The food she ate would be a blend of both culinary traditions–using ingredients that would’ve been available in the Americas. Substitutions occur. The writer takes over. New recipes are formed along with new history. At this point, you’re molding the world around the story but everything is always informed by the facts. In the end, you simply take charge. Decide what never was, what might’ve been, and let the ghost of our real history haunt the narrative.

One last thing: Read yourself some real, actual books from whatever time/place you’re writing about. People were writing the heck out of some books in old timey days! Netflix was not a thing yet! So get those books. Most of them are free or very cheap what with their authors being super dead. Silver Tongue is heavily informed by Gothic Fiction. I wanted to write a classic, gothic monster story so, in many ways, the best research I did was to just read a lot of classic, gothic monster stories: Frankenstein, The Portrait of Dorian Gray, Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. But it isn’t just a monster story, it’s also an American story. So I read stuff by some big deal Americans: PT Barnum, Mark Twain, Edgar Allen Poe. Unsurprisingly, the works of the time are like treasure chests full of little details. We tend to not think of these books as research because they were written as entertainment but, when you let the fiction of the times sink into your brain, you gain a deeper understanding of the life lived by the characters, the authors, and the regular people of that time.

Silver Tongue

AshleyRose Sullivan

YA Alternate History
April 2015
Seventh Star Press

Amazon | B&N | Kobo

The Colonies lost the Revolutionary War. Now it's 1839 and the North American continent is divided into three territories: New Britannia, Nueva Espana, and Nouvelle France where seventeen-year-old Claire Poissant lives. 

Claire has a magical way with words—literally. But a mystical power of persuasion isn't the only thing that makes her different. Half-French and half-Indian, Claire doesn't feel at home in either world. Maybe that's why she's bonded so tightly with her fellow outcasts and best friends: Phileas, a young man whose towering intellect and sexuality have always made him the target of bullies, and Sam, a descendant of George Washington who shares the disgraced general's terrible, secret curse.

But when Sam's family is murdered, these bonds are tested and Claire's special ability is strained to its limits as the three hunt the men responsible into dangerous lands. Along the way they cross paths with P.T. Barnum, William Frankenstein and other characters from both history and fantasy as they learn the hard way that man is often the most horrific monster and that growing up sometimes means learning to let go of the things you hold most dear. 

About the Author

AshleyRose Sullivan: Born and raised in Appalachia, AshleyRose Sullivan now lives, writes, and paints in Los Angeles. She has an MFA in Creative Writing from Spalding University and her first novel, Awesome Jones: A Superhero Fairy Tale is available from Seventh Star Press. She can be found at her website or her blog, My Year Of Star Trek.


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