The beauty of writing historical fiction, in my opinion, is that you don’t always have to think of a plot. History is there to guide you. It is amazing how a story can be built from one climactic moment from the past!
For my second novel, The Black Letter, I knew I wanted to write something that took place in the Galapagos Islands. You’re probably wondering why (or maybe not, but I’m going to tell you anyway!) I was born and raised in Ecuador. Us Ecuadorians take great pride in what we call the Enchanted Islands. I mean, this is the place where Darwin came up with his Theory of Evolution and the whole Survival of the Fittest idea was born! This is a place that attracts millions of visitors from all over the world and the scrutiny of scientists for its unique flora and fauna. Yet, how much is really known about its human history? About its supposed “curse”?
Yes, you read right: curse.
See, the Galapagos were initially ignored by the Spaniards in lieu of the vast and fruitful American continent. It actually made sense. Why would they bother with these volcanic islands that sometimes disappeared from view due to their endless fog—which earned them the name of “enchanted”—when there was so much land to exploit? After all, they weren’t sure these islands were real, and those who had visited them attested that they were filled with strange creatures and not enough sources of water. Only the pirates considered them useful spots to bury their treasures.
Fortunately, this poor perception of the islands started to change after Darwin pointed out their uniqueness and the continent became more populated. The Ecuadorian government finally claimed them in the early 19th century and sent adventurers and prostitutes to populate them. Many entrepreneurs saw an opportunity for profit, but invariably, those who tried to take advantage of its resources perished. People started calling it "the curse of the turtle" due to the near-extinction of this species. This so-called curse took place for about a century—until people learned to respect and preserve the Galapagos animals.
Among the legends and mysteries I devoured in books, chronicles and web pages, I came across two interesting facts: a) there had been a tyrant who ruled San Cristobal Island for about 30 years and created a sugar cane empire with the labor of convicts sent to the islands to serve their sentences, and b) an extremely religious Ecuadorian President—both hated and beloved—had done a cleansing of sorts by sending said "undesirables" to the islands.
I knew then that my protagonist would be among the exiled prostitutes and that she would have to meet the island’s tyrannical ruler.
How easy was that. An idea, an entire plot, was born from research. I started thinking about my protagonist—about who she was and the reasons for her exile. Maybe she wasn’t a prostitute after all. Maybe she was an affluent woman, a teenager mistaken for a prostitute. She could be running away from her family, from a marriage. Eloping. Maybe she was pregnant. It was amazing how, in just a few hours, the entire novel took shape.
What a contrast with my first novel which had taken years to plan, write and rewrite.
But that was just the beginning—the skeleton of my book. A novel is not just plot design, the challenge of historical fiction is in the details. My research took a variety of forms. I read memoirs and chronicles of earlier settlers, history books about Galapagos’ most notorious visitors and its most important events. I also read about the islands’ flora and fauna and Darwin’s visit. Since my story also takes place in two other cities: my hometown Quito (the capital) and Guayaquil (the largest port in the country), I visited both and noted the smells, the quality of the air, the architecture, the people around me. (I had already visited the Galapagos three times during my teenage and college years.) And then there were other vital details every historical novelist must face: fashion, transportation, language. Not only did I have to think of how a person in the late 19th century would think, but also, how they took care of their hygiene, what they did for leisure, what they ate and what tools they used for cooking, among other things. Perhaps the hardest thing was to learn about 19th century ships—since a big chunk of my story takes place in one. Fortunately, I had the opportunity to visit a ship during my trip to Guayaquil. Other tourists must have thought I was crazy when I was taking pictures of the floor and the kitchen!
|At first glance this may look like an ordinary box, but it's actually a passage to the ship's hold|
and a very handy hiding spot for my heroine.
| The church where the first scene of my novel takes place|
(La Iglesia de La Compañía, Quito.)
And it’s starting to take shape.
|Who wouldn't find inspiration from a place like this?|
What do you use as inspiration for your own writing? What drives you to write historical fiction and how do you go about doing it? Do you think we're “cheating” by using history as our guideline?