Our guest today is Sharon Short, author of MY ONE SQUARE INCH OF ALASKA, a coming-of-age novel (with a mystery subplot!) set in 1953 Ohio and the Alaskan Territory. This novel, released earlier in 2013 by Penguin Plume, was a reader pick for several libraries and contests, including BookBundlz, Salt Lake City Public Library, and Virginia Beach Public Library. About a young woman who reconnects with her own dreams while helping her little brother fulfill his, this novel also earned Sharon an Ohio Arts Council Literary Artist Award, a Montgomery County (Ohio) Arts and Cultural District Literary Fellowship, and selection as a 2013 Featured Author for the Ohioana Book Festival. Sharon is also the author of two mystery series, the Josie Toadfern humorous mystery series (Avon Books) and the Patricia Delaney PI series (Fawcett Books), both of which are currently being re-issued in e-book format.
Sharon is now hard at work on a literary suspense novel, combining the techniques she learned from writing ALASKA and her mystery series into a compelling tale set in rural Ohio in 1925, so I just had to ask her how she managed the transition from writing contemporary mysteries to an historical coming-of-age tale (with a mystery subplot!)… especially when she didn’t (until recently) think of herself as loving history?
Over to you, Sharon.
For too long, I thought of history (particularly the study of it) in the same way that many people automatically think of it: dry, dull, tedious, and fact after fact after fact. I believe this is because in high school and college, the required history courses focused only on specific wars… what led to them, battles during them, and political decisions made after them. Nothing about the daily lives of people, or social context, or domestic realities. And definitely no specific stories of everyday people for me to relate to. How would, for example, a young woman living in, say, rural Virginia have had her life shaken up by the Civil War? What about a young man in New Orleans?
Story is my way of understanding human experience and heart: a story well told—one that touches my heart, helps me understand human nature, and catches my attention in a fresh way—has my enthusiastic appreciation, no matter the time or place or genre.
But because my particular experience in formally learning history was to memorize fact after fact, outside of any context of story—or how these facts would have impacted everyday people and their choices, freedoms, and prospects—I thought I didn’t like history.
Looking back, I realize that’s not true. I’ve always loved history… even as a kid. I just didn’t think of it as “learning history” when I read books published long before me, or read novels set in past times. Or when I spent many study hall breaks in Junior High pouring over the school library’s collection of Time Life books about history, the photos and stories about fascinating individuals catching my imagination. Or when on holiday visits, I wasn’t interested in playing outside because I was busy interviewing my grandmothers and my great-grandmother about what it was like for them in their childhood years and as young women.
Later, at Wright State University, I majored in English literature, and loved those classes. Each term, my professors started the course with lectures on the social, domestic, and political events that took place at the time the writers created the novels, poems, stories and plays that we were reading and analyzing decades—or centuries—later. My professors thought it was important that we understand the context in which the literature was created; because I could imagine the impact on the author of these historical influences, I often found studying them as fascinating as the literature itself. Of course, my English professors didn’t call this “studying history.” If they had…
Not only that, but as an adult I quickly became a woman who always asks people about the history of their house or place of business—who owned it before? When was it built? Who was the builder? What brought people to settle a particular neighborhood or area? I constantly grill people with these questions about their homes… and can tell you the history of our neighborhood and house.
And as a mom, I took our children when they were younger on many a trip to living history museums (Sunwatch Indians and settlers in our area) as well as to homes of and museums about important regional and state inventors and literary figures (Paul Laurence Dunbar, the Wright Brothers, Thomas Edison…) I was always excited and eager to visit, not just for the edification of our daughters, but to satisfy my own curiosity. Our daughters are grown up now, but I still love to visit Carillon Historical Park all on my own… just for fun.
However, I never envisioned myself writing historical novels. But one day, I learned of a tiny bit of historical trivia: in the 1950s, a rather Mad Man-esque advertising fellow came up with a promotional campaign to include deeds to one square inch of the Yukon territory in boxes of Quaker Puffed Rice to both promote the cereal and the radio (and later TV) show, “Sergeant Preston of the Yukon,” which featured the brave sergeant and his Alaskan husky, Yukon King. However, everyone from that era remembered the promotion and deeds as being for one square inch of Alaska.
The moment I heard this trivia, I was fascinated about what one tiny square inch in a vast territory like Alaska could represent to young people. And then the characters Donna and Will showed up in my imagination, begging: please tell OUR story of our one square inch of Alaska…
Well, how could I turn down a plea like that? Especially since I was a writer in search of a new story (my Josie series had wrapped up the year before)? Especially since one of the final scenes ‘downloaded’ itself in my imagination with such force that I was impelled to write it in my journal? (That scene, nearly exactly as I wrote it, remains intact in the novel.)
Thus began my quest to figure out and write Donna’s and Will’s story.
I admit, the idea of “researching history” threw me off course for a little while. And then I started thinking about all the ways in which I really always have loved learning about history. Those Time-Life books. Stories from people (or from their diaries from long ago.) Visiting museums. Looking at vintage ads. Looking at paintings and sculptures. Visiting old houses. Looking at old post cards. Watching vintage movies or TV shows and studying what people wore. Going to antique shops and poking around, not because I’m an antiques collector or expert. I just love to look at and (when appropriate) touch artifacts from times gone by.
At long last, I realized that it wasn’t that I didn’t love history. I just didn’t love memorizing historical facts focused on one aspect of history—battles and wars--without a social or personal context. With that epiphany, I finally got it—researching the social and political context for my characters, as well as understanding the news events of their time would be anything but dry. I thought it would be exciting, my own version of sleuthing and digging up the past (just like my previous detective heroines, Josie and Patricia.)
And… it was! I started by getting copies of, yes, those old Time Life books about the 1940s and 1950s. I interviewed a doctor who’d practiced medicine in the 1950s. I interviewed my dad about union practices. I lurked on eBay until I could purchase a vintage 1953 road atlas that was exactly like one Donna would have easily gotten at a gas station. I looked up vintage ads and found sewing pattern books and went to open houses for homes (albeit modernized) similar to the one I envisioned for Donna. I researched music (and listened to it) that would have been popular with teens of the era; likewise I found (and watched) movies from the time period.
I researched everything I could about tear-drop campers; I watched videos and read books about the Alaskan Territory in the 1950s (everyone called it Alaska although it wasn’t a state until 1959.) I found vintage cookbooks and comic books. I went to vintage clothing shops to look at items from the era.
My goal was to bring the era to life as a natural part of the story, to weave fibers of history into the story fabric, without lecturing. I also wanted to be as accurate as possible. The 1950s were not the “Happy Days” of the 1970s sitcom. I wanted to understand how people then saw things, not judge them through the lens of how we see things now.
So much so, that when the inspiration came along for my current work-in-progress, a literary suspense novel set in rural Ohio in 1925, I didn’t hesitate for a moment about embracing it. Will the project have challenges? Of course!
But at least this time around I know that I love researching and learning history, and letting what I learn become a part of the story’s fabric.
After all, when experienced as a story, history is delicious, juicy, quirky, funny, touching and scandalous!
Learn more about Sharon and her work at www.sharonshort.com You can also connect with her on Facebook (www.facebook.com/SharonShortAuthor) and on Twitter (@SharonGShort) or via email, email@example.com Sharon loves to hear from and chat with readers!