Highlighting Historical Fiction welcomes Joan Leotta
History is not a collection of dates and lists of people. We think this is so when we are in school, but for me, history was listening to my Grandma talk about what went on in her life. What were people’s reactions when our entry into World War Two was announced? What was life like when there was no television?
Wondering about the ordinary in extraordinary times is what set me up to write historical fiction long before I set pen to paper for my Legacy of Honor series. This natural inclination, however, was not enough to put together a book. What I needed was hours of research into the daily life of people in the era I had settled upon.
For the first book in my series, Giulia Goes to War, the historic period is World War II. Armed with stories from my grandmother, I went to newspaper accounts of the period. Newspapers are a great source of information about daily life. Not only do they contain articles about everyday people as well as national news, they also have advertisements—how much was a loaf of bread?
Newspapers, interviews with people from the era and personal letters are my favorite primary sources of information about an era.
Dozens of secondary sources about life on the home front during World War Two are widely available. I located them with help from Google and my local librarian. These resources can be a trap—you can enjoy the research so much you don’t ever sit down and actually write! SO, before you delve into the sea of facts and anecdotes that research will provide, have a basic idea of where you want to go—your plot, your characters (their personalities). This will help you pick and choose from among the many facts you uncover. What you are looking for is the setting—you want to give the reader enough authentic facts and atmosphere from that era to have them “feel” the era, while still keeping their attention on your character and the plot. Character and plot are still central. In all four of my books, the main characters are strong Italian-American women who deal with personal issues as well as life in a time of war and change in American life.
While it is important to “mirror” the times in one’s story, don’t be afraid to let your character be a pioneer in attitude and/or action, but if she or he is a pioneer, be sure to note it. My editor said that my heroine in Letters from Korea would not want to study science, not at that time. I knew better –my own family had such women! But, respecting the editor’s comment, I did add in some material noting that her choice was not usual for the time. Here are some practical suggestions:
Bits and Pieces
1.I keep a notebook for the facts—a separate one for each book—that has google sites and names of books for further research and individual facts that I think might help –everything from hairstyles to movies that were popular, to incidents on the large scale.
- I seek out an informant, a person who lived through that era. For the second book, Letters from Korea, I had access to letters from a Korean soldier to his family and a gentleman in our church was a veteran of the war. He regaled me with stories of his time in Korea and showed me slides of the place where he was stationed. Some of his stories showed up as side plots and his slides allowed me to describe what the area looked like in 1951-2 when he was there. It was like traveling back in time!
- Pictures from the era are important, as are maps
- Plot pieces often come from little known facts about the time or mysteries still unsolved from the era (U-Boat coming up the Cape Fear River!)
- If you have to change a fact to fit your story, note that in the front of the book. Don’t let your readers think your research was sloppy.
Wartime work draws Giulia DeBartolo out of her close Western Pennsylvania family into a world of intrigue, spies and new friends in Wilmington, North Carolina’s shipyard building Liberty ships. Giulia soon discovers supporting the war effort can include fun evenings like dancing with young servicemen at the local USO. It is at one of these dances she meets John O’Shea, an unsuitable suitor according to her old-fashioned parents.
As they grappling with the problems of their own budding relationship, John and Giulia encounter a Nazi spy tasked with blowing up part of the Wilmington shipyard. Saving the shipyard from the spy may prove easier than convincing her parents to let her marry John. Giulia must decide what it means to be a good daughter while still following her own heart.
For as long as I can remember I have been a writer and a performer. The joy of doing what I love as a profession came to be when in 1982 I left my job at the Department of Labor to stay home with my children. At home with them I began my own business as a writer for local papers in Washington, DC , magazines, and more.
After taking Jennie and Joe to see a storytelling show at Wolf Trap I realized I wanted to do that too, so I took a course at the Kennedy Center, read all I could about story performance, joined the local and national professional groups, watched, told tales and learned. After volunteering as a teller, my son’s preschool hired me to tell and so I began my dual career of writing and telling. Each facet is still equally important to me.
In each side of my creativity I seek to serve an audience, produce and present material respectfully, entertain and edify. It is my sincere hope that my performance, whether on stage or on paper, blesses you, my audience.