Guest Post: Sharon Biggs Waller on Writing Real People into Historical Fiction

Today I'm very happy to have Sharon Biggs Waller on the blog. I absolutely adored her debut from earlier this year, A Mad, Wicked Folly (my review), so I'm always excited when she takes the time to stop by. Today she's chatting about incorporating real people from history into her historical fiction novel and I want to say a big thank you to her for stopping by! So without further ado, welcome, Sharon!

I’m so thrilled that Jessica is celebrating historical fiction this month. Historical fiction doesn’t always get the attention it deserves, which is sad because there is so much story to be found in the past (not to mention really amazing clothes. I mean, those hats!). I think hist fic falls flat sometimes because the name is a little off-putting. The word history often conjures up memories of boring classes spent reciting the Preamble and memorizing dates to foreign wars. Imagine having a genre called geometrical fiction or social studies fiction? I think science fiction gets away with it because science class had its drawbacks (breeding fruit flies and dissecting frogs, for example) but lab days were often fraught with drama. I remember our freshman class clown nearly burning the classroom down because he mixed the wrong chemicals together. I mean, that’s a fabulous scene, right? Not at the time for our chem teacher, Mr. Huntsberger, who had to evacuate the classroom, but later on it must have made a good story.

When Jessica asked me to appear on the blog today, we had a long think about topics, and I have to say that she came up with some fabulous ideas. One I honed in right away: writing real people in historical fiction. This topic is especially dear to me because I included the Pankhurst family in my debut novel, A MAD, WICKED FOLLY. If you’re not familiar with them, the Pankhursts were an Edwardian British family who were on the vanguard of women’s suffrage. Emmeline Pankhurst was the matriarch, followed by daughters Christabel, Sylvia, and the lesser known daughter, Adela, and son, Harry. Suffragettes feature heavily in my story so I knew I wanted the Pankhursts to appear, but I wasn’t sure how much. There are decedents of the Pankhurst family living and I really wanted to be respectful and accurate when portraying their relatives. Also, a writer has to have a solid reason for incorporating real people into the story. Having your character run into historic people left and right can feel a bit deliberate and phony and cause a reader roll their eyes. The inclusion of tons of historic characters worked for Forrest Gump, but they were an important part of that story, and really added to its charm.

So I chose to keep the other Pankhursts in the background, using them in actual historic events, such as the riot in front of Parliament, and include only Sylvia Pankhurst. Sylvia was a beautiful artist, and she was responsible for providing much of the illustration of the Women’s Social and Political Union, which was the organized arm of the suffrage movement. Because my protagonist, Vicky, is trying to apply for art school, she learns about Sylvia’s studio and her mural project and goes there to help in hopes to gain a reference from Sylvia. It made sense for Sylvia to be part of the story.

I wanted to make sure that Sylvia’s dialogue and personality were accurate. Of course I had to fictionalize the dialogue between her and Vicky, but I knew what she would have said and how she would have reacted to Vicky’s request based on her experience at art school and how she felt about her own art ambitions, which was written about in her biography, SYLVIA PANKHURST: A MAVERICK LIFE by Shirley Harrison.

But nothing would have freaked me out more if Sylvia’s living family disapproved of what I wrote. So I went in search of her family. Good old Facebook. A few clicks of the mouse and I found Dr. Helen Pankhurst’s Facebook page. Helen is Sylvia Pankhurst’s granddaughter. (You may have caught a glimpse of her at the London Olympics open ceremonies. She was in the group of suffragettes.) I contacted Helen and she very kindly looked over my author’s notes. She even had her father, Sylvia’s son, look at the notes, too. I’m happy to say that she also loved the book. Phew.

I also included King Edward VII in the story and had a little scene with him and Vicky. Edward wasn’t as fussy and proper as his mother, Victoria, so I took a little license and figured he would probably speak to Vicky and laugh at something she did. He also loved a pretty girl (the old letch). I did not, however, contact Edward’s descendants. Not sure Queen Elizabeth would have been as accommodating as Dr. Pankhurst. However, I did (sort of) meet the queen once and she was very nice, so you never know.

About her book:
Published January 23, 2014
Published by Viking Juvenile

Welcome to the world of the fabulously wealthy in London, 1909, where dresses and houses are overwhelmingly opulent, social class means everything, and women are taught to be nothing more than wives and mothers. Into this world comes seventeen-year-old Victoria Darling, who wants only to be an artist—a nearly impossible dream for a girl.
After Vicky poses nude for her illicit art class, she is expelled from her French finishing school. Shamed and scandalized, her parents try to marry her off to the wealthy Edmund Carrick-Humphrey. But Vicky has other things on her mind: her clandestine application to the Royal College of Art; her participation in the suffragette movement; and her growing attraction to a working-class boy who may be her muse—or may be the love of her life. As the world of debutante balls, corsets, and high society obligations closes in around her, Vicky must figure out: just how much is she willing to sacrifice to pursue her dreams?

"At equal turns humorous and heartbreaking" ~ School Library Journal starred review. 
"A new YA voice to watch." ~ Booklist starred review 
"An enjoyable historical romp." ~ Kirkus Reviews 
"A compelling coming-of-age tale" ~ Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books 
Nominated for the ALA Amelia Bloomer Project, recommended feminist literature 
Booklist Top Ten Historical Fiction for Youth

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