Over the years, I’ve written historical novels featuring Beatrix Potter, Rose Wilder Lane, Jennie Churchill, Lily Langtry, Rudyard Kipling, and many others. All of these books have required an enormous amount of research to recreate the political, historical, economic, and cultural contexts within which the fictional story unfolds. Biographical fiction, which toes a delicate line between acknowledged fact and imagined truth, creates its own special research demands. And biographical fiction about a well-known, much-admired woman like Eleanor Roosevelt is extraordinarily challenging.
For Loving Eleanor—the story of Eleanor and her friend, Lorena Hickok (coming February 1)—I started in the usual place: by reading everything there is to read, and making notes, pages and pages of notes. There isn’t much published material about Hick, except for brief introductions to her Depression-era investigative reports to Harry Hopkins and a regrettably inadequate biography published in 1980 by Doris Faber. But the Roosevelts are the subject of dozens of books, so I ended up with a full bookcase. (You can check out the bibliography here. There's also a list at the end of the novel.)
In addition to the research in print and online sources, I visit key locations. When Bill and I were researching our British historicals, we spent lovely weeks in England, doing field research for all twelve books in the series. For Loving Eleanor, I visited Val-Kill, Springwood (FDR's family estate), the village of Hyde Park, and the FDR Presidential Library. My job was to learn all I could from the landscape, the local history, even the weather--and to take lots of notes and photographs.
Back home, I build the story out of what I've learned, working on a need-to-know basis that (I hope) keeps the reader from getting lost in a morass of historical fact. That said, when you’re writing about the First Lady of the World (as Harry Truman called ER), you simply have to get the facts right. The fiction must fit within the boundaries of what’s real: what people know, or think they know, about Mrs. Roosevelt.
But the real story, the private story of the friendship of Eleanor and Hick challenges what most people think they know about Mrs. Roosevelt. And since I’m interested in women’s hidden stories, what I’m chiefly after are unpublished documents. It is our great good fortune that Hick, who clearly wanted the story to be told, donated her collection of letters and other documents to the FDR Presidential Library: the letters tell the story. The experience of reading them is very much like listening to hundreds of hours of private, intimate conversation. I found myself pulled deeply into the worlds that Hick and Eleanor shared.
And for me, that’s when the real questions begin to arise. Who are these women, behind the personas they have created for themselves--or that family, friends, and historians have created for them? What do they want, what do they need? What are they afraid of? What is it they have to learn? Where is the real story, the hidden story? These are the questions that take us deep into the imaginative heart of fiction, but keep us within the boundaries established by the biographical and historical facts that research can discover.
Reading note: The thing that most attracts me to historical fiction is taking the factual record as far as it is known, using that as scaffolding, and then letting imagination build the structure that fills in those things we can never find out for sure.--Geraldine Brooks