Several years ago, I reviewed Genius of Place: The Life of Frederick Law Olmstead. Now Gail Olmstead has written a novel based on the life of Law and his wife, Mary. Gail has graciously agreed to tell us a bit about what writing such a book entails.
By way of introduction, I am a writer of contemporary fiction with a new book in the historical genre. In thinking about how I made the ‘switch’, I would like to share a few thoughts with you.
First and foremost- in my experience, writing a novel set 150 years ago is not all that different from writing one based in modern times. In my first four contemporary novels, my main characters were women on a journey in search of more meaning in their lives, a happy ever after if you will. My latest- Landscape of a Marriage is the story of Mary’s journey- from lonely widow with three small children to wife and partner of renowned landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted as he strives to transform the American landscape forever. Despite the vastly different time period, the challenges Mary faced are remarkably similar to what she might have dealt with today- how to balance her needs with those of her family? How to pursue what she values in order to be fulfilled- as a mother, a wife and a woman? The importance she places on friendships to keep her grounded and feeling treasured? In my mind, these themes are universal, timeless.
Next, all good stories require good characters- well developed, flawed, lovable and fully formed. Before I even begin to write, I dig deep in order to understand who my main characters are- their physical appearance, their manner of speech, of dress. Their fears, hopes, dreams, goals, likes and dislikes. I often found myself thinking- ‘no, Mary would never do that’… or ‘how is Mary feeling right now’ or ‘how would Mary respond to whatever was going on?’ Getting into your character’s head is key, whether they write with a quill pen or send text messages, the work has to be done in order to get a true sense of your characters.
Finally, a plot that keeps readers interested; one that tells an interesting story, reveals the goals and motivations of the characters and presents a realistic backdrop from which to tell the tale is critical. Landscape is set in the second half of the 19th century in the United States. The country was at war, the nation was divided and women were fighting for their rights. Was what they faced really all that different from what we are experiencing today?
I will say that writing a novel set in an earlier time period did require much more research than one of my contemporary works. Although it is fiction, authenticity is critical in order to tell a story properly. Everything from what Mary would wear- a taffeta gown with a fitted bodice and a floor-skimming skirt worn over a chemise, drawers, and a corset; what she would serve for dinner- a joint of beef, a platter of roasted vegetables and a berry trifle; and what book she might be reading- Little Women or Around the World in Eighty Days when reading to her children had to be carefully researched. I admit that prior to working on Landscape, I was never much of a history buff. All I recall of classes that I was required to take while growing up was the need to memorize dates and the names of key battles in the Civil War. I literally don’t remember a thing from all that cramming and memorization. I grew to enjoy history more recently as I researched the lifestyles of my characters and how the events of the day impacted their thoughts, choices and lives. You could say that history came more alive for me and I hope for my readers as well.
Overall, creating characters who are interesting and memorable should be the focus when writing in any genre. One phrase I do recall from my high school French classes seems appropriate here.
Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose, or
The more things change, the more they stay the same.
About the Author
Gail Ward Olmsted was a marketing executive and a college professor before she began writing fiction on a fulltime basis. A trip to Sedona, AZ inspired her first novel Jeep Tour. Three more novels followed before she began Landscape of a Marriage, a biographical work of fiction featuring landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, a distant cousin of her husband’s, and his wife Mary.
For more information, please visit her on Facebook and at GailOlmsted.com.