Note: Any and all typing errors are mine. I hope all have been caught and corrected, but if not, they are my errors.
I’m a HUGE fan of historical fiction. It always excites me when I find a new-to-me author who writes great historical fiction. Such was the case in 2015 when I found The Midwife’s Revolt by Jodi Daynard. I didn’t immediately get the other two books in the series, but I did get them for myself for my birthday this year…and I’m glad I did.
Long story shortened: Jodi has graciously agreed to answer some of my questions for us.
As in life, it gets confusing when one Jody is asking another Jodi questions. I hope it’s clear which of us is speaking. Hint: the one that makes sense is Jodi Daynard. 🙂
Jody P: I tend to read a lot more fiction that is historical in nature than current day fiction. What I noticed in all three of your books, not once did anything sound like it came from the 20th or 21st century. All through the novels, everything felt 18th century to me. The language used in conversation, thoughts, descriptions. Everything. My first question: Did you read a lot of journals from that time frame to get the language and vocabulary so perfect? If so, would you mind sharing some of what you read to get your 21st century mind back to the 18th century?
Jodi D: Haha. I’m not sure my mind is ever fully in the 21st century, though it seems to get closer with each novel! You’re right: I have high standards for authenticity, not only in the factual material I rely on but also for the dialogue and overall narrative “voice.” Of course, this begs the question, What is an authentic voice for the time period? My philosophy runs something like this: the characters need to speak in the language of the era, but obviously, since there are no movies from 1794, we can only make educated guesses! My best guess is derived from reading memoirs. It’s good to read ones as close in time and place to your characters as possible. I relied a good deal on the letters between John and Abigail Adams, and also on John Adam’s diaries. These both provide an excellent source of relaxed, intimate speech. Obviously, the language of something like the Declaration of Independence is going to be a different diction level altogether. But even intimate letters are not speech, and so one needs to extrapolate a bit from there as well. For example, while written documents of the period contain almost no contractions, quotations of actual speech do. I’m convinced they used contractions much as we do in everyday speech.
Now, the issue of the overall narrative voice is a slightly different one. My first two novels are told from the first person point of view, and I must admit that for both, I imagined my heroines looking back after many years. So their voices would have aged, their diction changed with time and experience. The narrative voice is not the same as the young character’s voice.
The discussion gets more thorny when we talk about my third novel, A More Perfect Union. This novel is in the third person limited point of view, meaning we mainly get Johnny’s thoughts. But we also get his actions and the actions of other characters as well. So, who is telling this story, and when? I chose to stay close to Johnny’s thoughts and voice, but at times I do pull back to an omniscient voice that, like the first two, is being told from a slight distance—maybe a decade or so beyond the events. Now, to have told the story in a 21st century voice would have been really terrible—the reader would have been constantly pulled out of the story. I wanted the narrative voice to be strong, and present, but not distracting. Not breaking the illusion.
What do I read to come back to my own world? Well, I love mysteries. I’m on a Louise Penny tear at the moment. Before that, it was Henning Mankell, a Swedish crime writer and one of my favorites. But I will often read a good biography or a literary novel. I don’t like reading current fiction while I’m writing because it can be confusing. I begin to doubt my own narrative choice or to compare myself to whatever I’m reading. Plus, while I’m happy to read “trashy crime novels,” I’m not willing to read a novel that purports to be literary unless it is Charlotte Bronte literary. If a writer writes, “He ate a couple pears” and leaves out the “of,” I’m done.
Jody P: You’ve mentioned in several interviews and on your Facebook Page that you write your first draft with pen and paper. Do you outline before starting, or do you let the story grow organically?
Jodi D: I have a process that is definitely organic, in the sense that I don’t consciously drive it. Something pre-conscious is definitely going on, and I’ve learned to trust it, to listen to it. Once I’m into a project, and the characters have come alive, I’m one of those writers who really does “hear voices.” This can be really annoying when I’m driving and suddenly whole sentences come to me. I wind up writing on the back of a napkin on the steering wheel. At sixty miles per hour. Eek. (I’ve put a recording device in my car now!).
After I get an initial idea, the first stage is always the research. I research for anywhere from three to six months. At this point, I may have a very broad-stroke plot in my mind, consisting of one or two sentences. Beyond that, I don’t consciously choose the story; it evolves unconsciously and is dependent to a large degree on what I find in the research. Thus, it is key for me to know, first, the time and place of the story, and then everything that actually happened in that time and place. For example, ff it snowed on May 3rd, 1870, in Nevada, and they can’t cross a certain bridge, then I know that in my story they’ll have to find another route across the river. If the newspapers that week talk about the ratification of the 14th amendment, then that’s no doubt what my characters will be talking about. Thus, my characters truly live within the reality that I discover through extensive research. All of us live within a specific time and place, and so I supposed this is my way of mimicking real life.
Like most everybody, I take long notes in a notebook. But it might be interesting to readers that I mainly fill out a weekly calendar. For Midwife, this consisted of about four years’ worth of calendar days. As I research, I fill out these weekly calendar days with everything from births, deaths, items in the news, reported weather, price of grain, the show playing at the local theatre—absolutely everything. (see picture).
Usually, by the time I’ve finished researching, characters have “sprung up,” as have many scenes, enough for me to make a long chapter outline. This outline includes the story and also all the factual details from my calendar that I want within easy reach. I can’t write without this outline. It’s my “map,” even if I veer off of it at times, and I cling to it like grim death. This outline contains, in smaller type, a very distilled summary of items I want to use from my research as well. (see picture).
Only once I have this outline do I being to write. That’s when I take out my special notebooks and special pens—always exactly the same make and model (it was difficult when I lived in England and had to make do with slightly longer sheets of paper. In the end, I couldn’t handle it and wound up ordering some good ole’ American paper!)
After I write the first draft, there comes the onerous task of typing the whole thing. I try not to edit at this time, but wait until I can print out the draft. Then I hand-edit my printout and input the corrections, also very onerous. By the time I’m on draft five, I’m pulling my hair out and generally hire an assistant to transcribe the files I dictate to a recording device.
Jody P: I know the answer to this question, but I doubt if many do, so I’m going to ask it. How many edits does it take you until you have something worthy of publication?
Jodi D: Let’s just say that I have never done fewer than fourteen drafts of a novel. Our Own Country went through twenty-four drafts. That’s about 120,000 words times twenty-four. Three million words. Lots of paper. Lots of ink. Lots of hand cramps. No social life—at least, not back when I was teaching full time and writing. I don’t’ know how I did it, frankly. Thankfully, I was able to quit my day job, and having the whole day to work feels much better. But I still need to do at least fourteen drafts. Probably closer to twenty, to be honest.
Jody P: I know that when your agent first shopped The Midwife’s Revolt the story ran into problems because at that time none of the large houses felt American Historical fiction had an audience. When you were working on The Midwife’s Revolt, I’m sure the most important aspect to you was making sure you told Lizzie’s story, but were you ever concerned if there were an audience for her story?
Jodi D: I have never worried about whether there was an “audience” in the sense of a market. I was sometimes tempted to think, “Why don’t I write a murder mystery and make a lot of money?” But I don’t write for money—it’s not the source of my motivation. Deep down my motivation is portray people and situations that are emotionally authentic. Truthful, and morally meaningful.
For sure, there were times after I’d written Midwife that I despaired, especially when agents rejected me because they either didn’t “connect” with Lizzie or believed there was no “audience” for American historical fiction. It seemed there was nothing I could do about that except prove them wrong. And I did—Midwife ended up selling well over 100,000 copies that first year. Moral of the story: If I really love a character, I have to trust that others will, too.
Jody P: I believe you have some contemporary works of fiction hidden away on a hard drive or disc. At what point did you realize you would write historical fiction?
Jodi D: When I was younger, I never considered writing historical fiction, although I did get an advanced degree in history from Columbia University! But I am and always have been a lover of all things Early American. I have always felt a deep connection to early America. Perhaps this is because, as a second-generation immigrant to this country, I never felt that I was a “real” American. In the ‘60s, when I grew up, there was no such thing as diversity. You were either “in” or you were “out.” And, understandably, I wanted to be part of the club!
Feeling like an outsider had a profound impact on me both personally and in terms of my themes as a writer. But sticking with the question of “why historical fiction,” it occurs to me that even as a child I was beginning to create “historical fiction,” with myself as the protagonist. Fictions in which I was a “real” American. My first literary loves were Hawthorne, Poe, and Melville. My first purchases as a child collector were of American stamps and coins. And now my antique house is filled with 18th century furniture, lighting, and folk art. Once I got the idea for The Midwife’s Revolt—a young midwife unearths a murder—it was a very small leap to set it in Massachusetts during the Revolution. And who better (or more American) to have as one’s BFF than Abigail Adams?
Jody P: I’m working on an historical fiction work currently, and I have one in a dresser drawer from a decade or so ago, so I understand the massive amount of time and energy that goes into the research. For those who don’t, how much research did you do for each of your books?
I really love doing research. Not everybody does. Some writers just can’t wait to get to the story. But the time I’m doing research is also the time the story develops in me, sort of behind the scenes. So it’s not a step I can rush.
It’s so fortunate that these days we can locate a great of material directly from the internet. The archives that one used to have to travel miles to visit are now being digitized. For my last novel, I relied on a very precious diary that a Harvard student kept in 1794. But instead of having to sit in the Harvard archives all day with my white gloves and pencil, I could read the diary from the comfort of my own study.
That said, I am also ready to get up and go when I need to. And I often do need to. I simply can’t write a character if I can’t picture where they grew up, or what they experienced. I went to Barbados for Our Own Country because my character, Johnny Boylston, grew up there. I needed to see what he had seen as a child, to hear the Barbadian cadences, to walk his streets and beaches. And all this for the back story! None of the actual novel takes place in Barbados. As it turns out, though, this research was absolutely essential. No amount of reading could have given me the insight I gained by going there.
Jody P: As you know, I was hesitant to read Our Own Country because Eliza was not terribly likable in “The Midwife’s Revolt”. What would you tell your readers who might have the same concerns? And yes, I ended up loving Eliza after reading her story.
Jodi D: Hopefully, my readers will have the same questions about Eliza as I did when I finished Midwife. Eliza was never meant to be a primary character, but when she appeared later in the story, unmarried and with a—(spoiler!) baby—well, she suddenly got very interesting. For her to defy social conventions in that way, she simply had to be more complicated than she at first appears. And then I thought, What is her story? Essentially, I wrote Our Own Country because I got curious. Turns out, there are reasons for her apparent coldness. Her life was filled with hurt and tragedy. But she is likeable—loveable, really. I’m so glad I followed my curiosity about her. And, of course, without her there’d be no Johnny Boylston, her son, the wonderful protagonist of A More Perfect Union.
Okay, it’s me again, Jody P. First, I can’t think of a better BFF for Lizzie than Abigail Adams. I’ll admit, I’ve admired Abigail for a very long time, so yes, having her as a dear trusted friend of Lizzie and later Eliza was a huge bonus for me.
There are lots of things I’d like to explore more with Jodi, but we’ll let her get back to her life. The one thing I want to point out is, yes, I was hesitant to read Eliza’s story. However, from page one, I didn’t regret it. By the end of the first book, I knew there was more to her story, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to be in her head for a full book. However, I was so thrilled to be in her head from the beginning. So, if you read the first book, don’t put off the second book like I did. Trust Jodi to give us a story worth our time—and the whole series is worth our time.
Thank you so much, Jodi for not only enduring my questions, but taking the time to respond with such wonderful answers.