Teri M. Brown ~
As the debut author of Sunflowers Beneath the Snow, a historical fiction novel about three generations of Ukrainian women, I am often asked two questions. The first is why I decided to write about Ukraine. That’s easy to answer; a Ukrainian friend told me a tiny story about her life that needed to be told, so I created 80,000 words of fiction to expose that ending to anyone who cared to read the book.
The second question is about craft – how did I learn what I needed to learn to write a historical fiction novel about Ukraine?
Write What You Know?
I was recently featured on an episode of the New Books Network podcast and the host, G.P. Gottlieb, asked me a series of questions. Was I of Ukrainian descent? No. Had I ever been to Ukraine? No. Did I speak Ukrainian? No. With each “no,” the host grew more awe-struck. Then she declared, “I was always told to write about what you know, and here you are, a North Carolina author writing about Ukraine!”
Although the advice to write what you know is meant to help authors, it would certainly limit the types of books written and by whom they would be written. Women would only write stories about women. Stories that touched on abuse would only be written by those who are abused. Stories with multiple characters with different talents and abilities would not exist unless the book was written by a group of authors.
And what of genres? Fantasy would not exist because those worlds do not exist and are, therefore, unknowable. Historical fiction would not exist because the author would not have lived in the past, just as science fiction would not exist because the author cannot live in the future. Many romances would not exist because, let’s face it, few people experience relationships the way they are portrayed in romance novels. But these books do exist, and more importantly, they should exist.
In a Way, Yes!
I pondered on that comment, trying to determine if I had broken a huge writing rule by writing about a country I knew little about. But the truth is that Ukraine and the time between 1973 and 2016 is only the backdrop for my story. Instead of writing about Ukraine, I wrote about people. And I know people.
I can write about people’s emotional responses to life’s events because I know how I feel about life’s events. I know the kinds of things I do and say, or that my husband and children do or say. I often reflect on neighbors, friends, people on the sidewalk or on the news. So, I took what I knew, and I wrote about it, albeit in a setting that was not familiar to me.
The same is true for any writer. Fantasy, science fiction, romance, comedy – the writer takes something they know, either from experience or their own creative imagination, and puts it on paper. And if they are good at what they do, these authors transport their readers to another place and time, introducing them to people they might not otherwise meet.
The Nuts and Bolts of Research
That said, if an author is writing historical fiction, then they need to be historically accurate. Since they didn’t live then and/or there, that means research. I can’t speak to how others do research, but I can speak to how I did mine for Sunflowers Beneath the Snow and my next novel, due out sometime in the next year, An Enemy Like Me.
- Start Large: I try to get a broad overview of the time and/or the place. For Sunflowers Beneath the Snow, I did general research on Ukraine. Although my book starts in 1973, I went back 100 years before my book started. I wanted to understand what Ukraine was like before the Soviet takeover. This was key for my story since I would have characters who longed to go back to a sovereign Ukraine. I did the same thing for the Soviet-era time, early independence, later independence, and the Russian takeover of the Crimean Peninsula.
- Create a Timeline: As I did my overview research, I created a timeline with major events. If the major event corresponded to a specific location or specific date, I listed them. If it was an “era,” I made a bracket that covered the years of the event. This visual helped me to understand where my characters were in relation to what was happening during any given portion of the book.
- Getting the Details: As I started writing, I would find my characters living life at different points along the timeline. For instance, when my main character, Ivanna, was in a bread line in 1991, I wondered if there were any tidbits of information that would be useful to my story. As it turns out, that year was one of the coldest winters on record – and it happened during a time when fuel and food were even scarcer than normal. I made sure to show this in Chapter 7 as Ivanna “shivered uncontrollably, her teeth clanking together creating an uneven, fast-tempo beat a percussionist would have trouble replicating.”
Finally, I would like to talk about resources. At the overview stage, just about any reliable source will do. A good encyclopedia-type article can help an author understand the general happenings of a given time and place. I found lots of information simply by Googling Ukraine, soviet Ukraine, Ukraine history, and Ukraine independence. Other sources are historical fiction novels written about the same time and place, memoirs, biographies, and journal entries.
If the time and place is recent enough, you can even talk to people who experienced it. I was able to reach out to people via message boards, asking for their thoughts and experiences while living in a Soviet Bloc country during the 1970s and 1980s. What I heard helped me form the experiences of my characters.
—Teri M. Brown
Born in Athens, Greece as an Air Force brat, Teri M. Brown graduated from UNC Greensboro. She began her writing career helping small businesses with content creation and published five nonfiction self-help books dealing with real estate and finance, receiving “First Runner Up” in the Eric Hoffman Book Awards for 301 Simple Things You Can Do To Sell Your Home Now, finalist in the USA Best Books Awards for How To Open and Operate a Financially Successful Redesign, Redecorate, and Real Estate Staging Business and for 301 Simple Things You Can Do To Sell Your Home Now, and Honorable Mention in Foreword Magazine’s Book of the Year Award for Private Mortgage Investing. In 2017, after winning the First Annual Anita Bloom Ornoff Award for Inspirational Short Story, she began writing fiction in earnest, and recently published Sunflowers Beneath the Snow, a historical fiction set in Ukraine. Learn more at www.terimbrown.com.