“All novels are emotional autobiographies.” I can’t remember who said that, but it hit home when I heard it.
And yet, finding the emotional truth in historical fiction—in places and times very different from our own—can be a challenge. When I started on my YA historical fiction novel, Cleopatra’s Moon for example, I remember thinking, how could I possibly have anything in common with an ancient teenage princess of Egypt whose mother was Cleopatra and whose father was the famous Roman general Mark Antony?
Physically? Not a damn thing. Emotionally? To my surprise, quite a bit. Let me explain with some examples:
- Cleopatra Selene, my main character, is ripped from everything she knows and loves when she is sent from Egypt to Rome. She never returns to Egypt (as far as we know). I evoked my own memories of displacement when my mother, for various soap opera-ish, moved us from Ecuador to Miami without any warning or preparation. If I hadn’t experienced such a life-altering move, I would’ve called upon my reactions to moving to a new school or new neighborhood to imagine what it felt like for Selene.
- As a result of the upheaval, Selene becomes even more fiercely attached and protective of her brothers. My brothers and sister and I experienced an intense “closing of the ranks” during our across-the-world move, which affected how I expressed Selene’s response. Any “us versus them” childhood experience could be called upon.
- Cleopatra Selene worries that she might not ever be as striking and charismatic as her mother (Cleopatra was no beauty but her magnetism and charm were legendary). She fears she won’t measure up and that, somehow, she’ll end up disappointing everyone. I too had (have) a beautiful, elegant mother and when, as a teen it became clear that I would never be as tall or as thin, I had similar fears. Teens often worry that they’ll never live up to the expectations others have for them. What were yours?
- The first time Cleopatra Selene is taken to see her mother after learning about the death of a family member, she wants to run. It terrifies her to see her mother so wracked by grief. I drew on my memories of a similar grieving experience. But I could’ve also recalled what it felt like to witness a grown-up expressing any strong emotion for the first time.
- Cleopatra Selene struggles with spirituality. I imagined that she was brought up with faith in both the Greek and Egyptian gods and that she had a special affinity for Isis. When she learns about the Judeo-concept of free will, she wrestles with its implications. That struggle becomes the focal point of her emotional growth. When I was a teen, I too struggled with making sense of the different religions in my life—Catholic in Ecuador and Jewish in my grandmother’s house. Even if your faith has never wavered, you could draw upon your emotional reaction to the first time you heard something that directly contradicted everything you’d ever been taught.
- Cleopatra Selene falls in love with an important historical character who also happens to be a brilliant writer and scholar. This, I don’t need to explain. Haven’t most of us fallen for the hot, brooding ‘English major’ type at least once in our high school or college lives? ;-)
When you have no direct experience to draw upon for a scene, create one. For example, observing my own reactions to reading about the experiences of girls in radical Muslim countries helped me articulate Selene’s outrage to the restrictions she faces when she is forced to live in Rome.
Mining your “emotional autobiography” is important in all fiction, of course, but it’s even more so in historical. The emotional connection to the protagonist is the bridge by which we travel back in time. And, hopefully, what keeps the reader turning pages.
Vicky’s novel, Cleopatra’sMoon, won the Southern Breeze Crystal Kite award and was named to Bankstreet's list of Best Books of the Year for 2012. In the upcoming WIK conference, Vicky will share more of her secrets for transforming dry facts into juicy stories. You can find her hanging out online at her blog, Facebook, and Twitter.
What historical character/figure do you think you connect most with?