|Info (Arthur A. Levine, 2011)(F)|
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.
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.”