Guest Post: On Accidentally Writing Historical Fiction

Today we’re welcoming debut author Robin Talley to the blog for a guest post! Her powerful debut, LIES WE TELL OURSELVES, just released yesterday. Congratulations, Robin!

robinI never set out to write historical fiction. Before LIES WE TELL OURSELVES, everything I’d written ― everything I’d even considered writing ― was set in the here and now. I’d never dreamed I’d write a story that didn’t feature high school hallways full of blue jeans, cell phones, and homework assignments cribbed from Wikipedia.

Then I had an idea I couldn’t shake ― a novel set during the school desegregation movement in Virginia, about a black girl and a white girl who fall in love ― and I realized I had no choice. I’d accidentally become a historical novelist.

In Virginia, my home state, the battle over school desegregation came to a head in early 1959. Up until then, courts had ruled that Virginia schools had to integrate, but the governor and other state officials had been fighting those rulings with everything they had, and schools had remained segregated. In January 1959, though, the courts passed their final ruling, declaring that the all-white Virginia schools that had been barred to black students would have to open their doors.

On February 2, 1959, seventeen black teenagers walked through the doors of six all-white schools in Norfolk, Virginia. The state’s problems with racial conflict and discrimination were by no means over, but it had turned a corner from which there was no going back.

liesMy book, LIES WE TELL OURSELVES, is set in a fictional Virginia town, but it’s drawn from the experiences of those first black students who integrated all-white schools in Virginia and other states across the southern U.S. So I decided my book would open on that same day ― February 2, 1959.

The problem was, I had no idea what it was like to actually be a teenager in that era. I only knew that I couldn’t rely on the nostalgic mythology of teen life in the 1950s ― innocent, wide-eyed kids listening to Buddy Holly and wearing poodle skirts dancing at sock hops during what was supposed to have been a “simpler time.”

The teenagers I was writing about were living on the front lines one of the greatest social upheavals in modern history. They were focused on trying to stay alive. There was nothing “simple” about what was happening to them.

I needed to know what it was like to live in 1959, a time when Jim Crow laws allowed stores and restaurants to ban gay customers, women weren’t allowed to open bank accounts without their husbands’ permission, and being gay was a crime in all 50 states.

So when I started doing research, I knew I needed to learn about the Civil Rights Movement and the lawsuits that brought down school segregation. But for my story about the day-to-day lives of two teenage girls to feel authentic, I also needed to know where my characters would’ve hung out after school, who would’ve sat with whom in the school cafeteria, and how a high-school senior going on a first date would’ve styled her hair.

reachSo in addition to reading a lot of research books, memoirs, articles, and oral histories about the historical events of the time, I also watched educational videos from the 1950s about everything from how to handle nuclear war to the importance of good posture. I read teen novels from the era (my favorites included REACH FOR A STAR by Florence Crannell Means, chronicling a girl’s freshman year at Fisk University in Tennessee in 1957, and MR AND MRS BO JO JONES, about a teenage pregnancy in 1963) and teen etiquette guides like Elsie Archer’s LET’S FACE IT: THE GUIDE TO GOOD GROOMING (sample tip: “Acne bumps say you’re growing up”).

I watched some of the big movies from 1959, including Some Like It Hot (which features a fake lesbian kiss that probably shocked me even more than it did audiences at the time) and Imitation of Life (critically panned when it was released, and now considered a classic).

And I spent a lot of time at the library pouring over old yearbooks. Everyone had the exact same haircut, but you could see the skirts get shorter and the knee socks get higher from year to year.

With everything I read or watched, I took all of it with a grain of salt, conscious of the censorship and morality guidelines in that conservative, post-World War II era that restricted what could be shown, said, or even hinted at. And the more I came across the same old values ― girls should be meek and not speak up; it’s the duty of all Americans to fight against Communism; a nuclear family with a stay-at-home mom is the ideal to which we should all aspire ― the more I had to remind myself that not everyone at the time actually believed that. Each time and each culture creates its own persona, but that doesn’t make it real.

the UK edition

the UK edition

By the time I sat down to write LIES WE TELL OURSELVES, I had a lot of opinions, about both the school desegregation movement and American 1950s culture in general. Once I’d begun pouring myself into the story, though, I realized my opinions didn’t really matter. All that mattered was the story I was telling.

The research I’d done had informed every word I wrote, but I wasn’t writing a treatise. I was writing a story about a girl named Sarah and a girl named Linda and what they believed about the time they were living through.

The next book I’m working on is a contemporary, but I hope to write another historical novel someday. I recently wrote a short story set in the late 1960s for the upcoming PETTICOATS AND PISTOLS historical anthology, and it reminded me how much fun it is to learn everything I can about a time and place that’s a part of our collective past. It’s so easy to get sucked in, knowing that all of this stuff really did happen ― even if the characters I’m writing about are people who exist only in my head.

Because there’s a lot to be said for learning about something that shaped who we are today. Even if it starts out as an accident.

Robin Talley grew up in Roanoke, Virginia, writing terrible teen poetry and riding a desegregation bus to the school across town. A Lambda Literary Fellow, Robin lives in Washington, D.C., with her wife, plus an antisocial cat and a goofy hound dog. When Robin’s not writing, she’s often planning communication strategies at organizations fighting for equal rights and social justice. You can find her on the web at www.robintalley.com or on Twitter at @robin_talley. And you can add LIES WE TELL OURSELVES on Goodreads here.

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One thought on “Guest Post: On Accidentally Writing Historical Fiction

  1. Research! So much fun! (Only the people here would understand that, right?). Your book sounds wonderful, insightful and deeply felt. Best of luck with your launch into the world! 🙂

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