Scott ‘O Dell award winning author A LaFaye (a.k.a. Alexandria) would prefer to time travel, but since that’s not scientifically possible (YET), she heads into the past by writing historical fiction. She’s also been known to write a little reality based fantasy and supernatural historical fiction. When she’s not writing, she loves to visit schools, speak with teachers, and attend conferences. That is when she’s not teaching in the English Department at Greenville College or the low residency MFA in writing for children and young adults at Hollins University.She can also be found at alafaye.com
1) Why do you write historical fiction?
Time travel isn’t possible. No, seriously, I once read that you should write what you know, but I figured that’d be pretty boring. Instead, I write about what I want to know. History has always fascinating me, so I often write about historical subjects. More accurately, I write about everyday people engaged in extraordinary struggles that are shaped by the fact that they are from a particular time and place. My novel WORTH wouldn’t be the same book it is if Nate Peale hadn’t been crippled in a harvesting accident on a Nebraska farm in the late 1870s. In today’s world, modern medicine could’ve repaired his leg and he couldn’t gone back to work. John Worth wouldn’t have ridden the Orphan Train to be picked out by Gabriel Peale to work on their family farm and the boys wouldn’t have been thrown into the tensions of the range war between ranchers and farmers because it would’ve been over.
2) What are some historical fiction novel for children that inspire you and why?
I love THE BALLAD OF LUCY WHIPPLE because it’s hilarious and it pulls you right into the California Gold Rush. BREAKING STALIN’S NOSE is a heartbreaking trip into the dark days of Stalinist Russia. WITNESS gives us a shocking and layered look into prohibition in Vermont. The best historical fiction transports us to the past through the lives of compelling and complex characters.
3) How you do discover what period in history to write about?
I “discover” the time period for my novels by reading a lot about the past and asking what if questions. What if a kid was paralyzed and his father is so worried about keeping their homesteaded farm that he adopts a child through the orphan train? That question lead to WORTH. What if plantation owners decided to divide their plantations up amongst the people their family had enslaved? That a question spawned STELLA STANDS ALONE and that novel inspired me to celebrate the reunification of African American families after the Civil War with WALKING HOME TO ROSIE LEE.
4) How do you do your research?
I read everything I can get my hands on–scholarly articles on farming, marriage rights, and plantations, diaries, newspapers, books on history. I also love to travel to museums, especially those inside historical landmarks. Historical photographs, societies, and libraries are also helpful.
5) How can students in the classroom use some of these techniques when researching or writing?
My best advice is to use something called “triangulation” which means that you don’t trust any one document to tell you the whole truth. To find out what it’s like to ride on the Orphan Train, you might read ORPHAN TRAIN RIDER by Andrea Warren, check out the National Orphan Train Complex which has a lot of fabulous resources, and the website of The Children’s Aid Society which started the Orphan Train. The society has a huge library of primary sources through the New York Historical Society.
6) You are well known for getting diction and voice down just right. What’s your trick?
Dyslexia. I am being serious here. As a child, I struggled greatly with reading and writing because of my dyslexia and I discovered that if I read with an accent, I could slow down and focus enough to read–that is if I covered half the book and used a bookmark to keep my place. As for picking up accents, my mother tells me I did it from the time I was an infant, imitating the sounds and voices I heard. I loved to read books from England like BLACK BEAUTY because I could practice my British accent. Once I get a sound for a voice in my head, I can translate it on the page with word choice, grammar, and the perspective of the character. For instance, a kid from the Midwest who sees a train for the first time in 1872 might say, “Ufda! That iron horse rocked the whole station, rattling the windows and shaking the boards beneath my feet.” “Ufda” is an exclamation of disbelief from Norway, so he’s the son of Norwegian immigrants. On the other hand, a child from the same time period in England might say, “It was brilliant, I tell you, just brilliant. You should’ve seen the monster of a thing, chugging into the station like furnace in the blacking factory broke free and rode down the tracks all steam and noise.” Here, we know he’s British because he is familiar with a “blacking factory” (they make shoe polish or “shoe black,” as it was called). He also says “brilliant” which has long been a colloquialism for something really good in the England. His grammar is often a bit more formal than many American children of that era would be. To be honest, I never really thought much about dialect when I started writing, it just came naturally. I’m so glad I was able to pull it off. Thank you.
Hopefully, we’ll never stop looking into our past because if we do, we will fail to appreciate all of the things our ancestors did to make our world a better place to live and we’ll be doomed to make the same makes they did. I’d love to see writers continue to write about forgotten chapters in our history (like Zeng He, the Chinese sailor who traveled farther than Christopher Columbus 50 years earlier), while including cultural depth, diversity, and accuracy in their depiction of the past.
Thank you so much for your great questions! Happy time traveling!