Sunday, August 18, 2013

The Treasure Box of History

They say that truth is stranger than fiction. I’m here to testify to this. A lot of ideas for my novels come from real life. And this includes plots and characters. Not only do I recycle information that my family and friends (or even strangers) share with me, but I also look for inspiration in history. In fact, I sometimes wonder if I’m cheating. (And if everyone else can see it!)

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.)

But back to the treasure box. Just this summer, after I handed over my third novel to my beta readers (a contemporary one, for a change), I found myself in a restless state. I didn’t want to sit around and wait for their feedback or for news from my agent regarding The Black Letter. I wanted to write again. I started my restless search for ideas, and I looked at the history of my country one more time. This time, it took me to another little-known, but fascinating fact about Ecuador. It took me to the world of chocolate, of cacao plantations and of women inventors.

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? 


  1. Fascinating post, Lorena! I've written some alt-history, but never true historical fiction. But I couldn't twist and warp history if I weren't interested in how it works, how it's transmitted, etc.

    1. I find alt-history, dystopias or fantasy much more difficult to write. I guess it's easier for me to create something from an existing world rather than come up with one entirely. Thanks for stopping by!

  2. No, of course it's not cheating using history for your story ideas. I am already fascinated by your novel idea and hope you flesh it out and bring it to fruition. It is the perfect time to start a new novel when your other is being critiqued. I like to have some snatch of history in my novels but haven't attempted a fully historical novel yet, but my next novel idea will be set in Australia about a century ago, Just starting my research now. I LOVE this stage.

    1. It seems like a lot of people (especially Americans) are fascinated with your country, Denise, so you've picked a great setting! Good luck with this new project. Can't wait to read more about it. :)

  3. So THAT is what that box looks like! :)

    I did set one novel in 19th-Century England, but it wasn't based on historical events, I just wanted the historical backdrop. Nonetheless, I had to do tons and tons of research, and that in itself can be problem ... when to stop researching and start writing? I went down so many rabbit holes that my momentum suffered.

    I think the idea of taking an historical event and bringing it to life through fiction is a great one, for all the reasons you list. The plot is already there for you, your job is to breathe life into the characters and setting. (Which you did!)

    I can't wait to hear more about your fourth novel! And I really want to be on that beach right now.

    Great post!

    1. "So THAT is what that box looks like!"

      Yes!! Ha, ha. Maybe I should include the picture in the book. ;)

      I still want to read your historical novel, Steph. Even if it's not complete. What happens with me is I get so impatient in the research stage that I start writing anyway and I have to continue my investigation as I go along. (That's why it took me so long to write TBL).

  4. Funny that you use the word “cheating” in reference to historical fiction. It´s almost like calling autobiographical works “cheating”. Mixing facts and fiction is so tricky that I tip my hat to all those who dare to do it. You have mentioned the hazards and sorrows of researching, but what about working with historical characters? When does historical fiction clash with alternative history and become an ucronia? Dabbling in historical novels can be very difficult.
    Sister Lorena, it´s admirable that you have gone that way and survived to tell the tale. I adore customers and period pieces, but hate when the piece is not well researched, so there is a lot of admiration from my part to those who do their homework and come up with great stories set in impeccably researched historical background. (as her Beta Reader, I can vouch that The Black Letter is a fine example of historical fiction)

    1. Dear Malena, I've heard readers refer to novelists as "cheaters" when they get inspiration from real people and real events! (I even defended the writer-in-question!) Ideas have to come from somewhere, right? Especially for historical fiction.

      I also adore period pieces, but it was a nice break to write a contemporary novel this year. However, I am ready to go back to corsets, hats and long dresses!! (Thanks for the compliment!)

  5. I really love this post, Lorena, mainly because I walk in your shoes when it comes to writing historical novels. I'm always amazed at how a story immediately takes shape in my mind when I come upon some fascinating fact in history. My mind can't seem to stop! I mentioned once before that I watched a documentary on Ellis Island and instantly I started seeing a new story come to shape in my mind. Writing what I write, I never suffer from writer's block. And, no, using history is not cheating! It's bringing some fascinating aspect from the past to life and, in my personal opinion, the more obscure that fact in history, the more fun it is to write!

    1. "The more obscure that fact in history, the more fun it is to write!"

      I absolutely agree!

      I did suffer from writer's block for a little bit last year. Probably because I knew I didn't want to write a historical novel after all the work it took to write TBL and get an agent. :) But fortunately, this doesn't happen to me very often.

  6. P.S. I can't wait to see what you come up with in this new novel!

  7. I don't think it's cheating. Creativity doesn't happen in a vacuum. In a sense, everything is based on inspired by real life events.

    1. Hey MP! So nice to see you here!

      You're right. Life inspires fiction. I just feel a little guilty for tweaking history in benefit of my plot. ;)

  8. That's it! Just that tiny little clue of the next project?!? :) :)

    I have to say I love this: 'Just this summer, after I handed over my third novel to my beta readers (a contemporary one, for a change), I found myself in a restless state. I didn’t want to sit around and wait for their feedback or for news from my agent regarding The Black Letter. I wanted to write again.'

    There's something about that passage which just strikes me as so pure.


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