Going Back in Time with Darlene
Darlene Beck Jacobson has loved writing since she was a girl. She wrote letters to everyone she knew and made up stories in her head. Although she never wrote to a president, she sent many letters to pop stars of the day asking for photos and autographs. She loves bringing the past to life in stories such as Wheels of Change her debut novel. Darlene’s stories have appeared in Cicada, Cricket, and other magazines. When not writing, Darlene enjoys baking, sewing and tea parties. Her blog features recipes, activities, crafts and interviews with children’s book authors and illustrators. She still loves writing and receiving letters.
NJSCBWI: Congratulations on the upcoming release of Wheels of Change! Can you tell us some more about the book?
Darlene Jacobson: Racial intolerance, social change, sweeping progress. It is a turbulent time growing up in 1908. For twelve-year-old Emily Soper, life in Papa’s carriage barn is magic. Emily is more at home hearing the symphony of the blacksmith’s hammer, than trying to conform to the proper expectations of females. Many prominent people own Papa’s carriages. He even receives an order to make one for President Theodore Roosevelt. Papa’s livelihood is threatened by racist neighbors and Emily is determined to save Papa’s business even if she has to go all the way to the President.
NJSCBWI: Is historical fiction what you naturally gravitate to write? And if so, why, and where did the idea for this book come from?
DJ: I don’t intentionally set out to write historical fiction. It’s more that I enjoy finding the humanity, the unique setting and character buried in the past, that has a story to tell. Our ancestors have had extraordinary lives. Even the most mundane and humble occupations and lifestyles become fascinating details in a historical setting. It’s all the stuff you don’t read about in history textbooks that make the past come alive. Finding those details is very satisfying. The idea for Wheels of Change came about through the discovery of two things while I was researching my family tree. One was the fact that my paternal great-grandfather was a carriage maker in Washington DC in the late 1800’s through the early 1900s. The second was an invitation my grandmother received to a reception hosted by then President Theodore Roosevelt. Further research at the National Archives confirmed that she attended the reception and met him. Putting the two together became my premise: What if the livelihood of a carriage maker is threatened by progress of the modern world. To what lengths would a determined daughter who adores her papa’s way of life go to save the business? Would she indeed go all the way to the president?
NJSCBWI: When writing historical fiction, how much of your process or time is spent researching? Is it important to have as much historical accuracy in the novel?
DJ: It’s hard to quantify how much time I spend, since it’s ongoing throughout the writing process. I wrote the first draft of Wheels of Change as a picture book. When editors commented that the voice, ideas and concepts were better suited to MG, I had to go back and flesh out the story. Every time I wrote a new scene, I did more research to make sure things were accurate to time and place. It is absolutely essential to get the details accurate. Just because it’s fiction doesn’t mean you can do what you like in terms of historical references. It has to be grounded in the reality of the time period. You want readers to trust your storytelling. They can’t do that if you’re too lazy to find out if a 1908 nickel had a buffalo, or picture of Washington on it.
NJSCBWI: You signed with agent Liza Fleissig as a result of attending a New Jersey conference, that's awesome, congrats! Has having an agent changed the way you approach your writing, submissions, etc., if so, how?
DJ: Having a wonderful agent like Liza has made it possible to “skip” the step of having to send multiple queries for every project or idea that comes along. But I also want to make sure each project has had the necessary critiques, revisions and the like before I send it to her. I don’t want to waste her time with something that isn’t ready, which I might have done pre-agent. There is less of a feeling of panic that no-one will ever want my manuscript than there was before Liza came along.
Question 5: What top piece(s) of advice would you give to other members who are interested in writing historical fiction?
DJ: Find out what is unique in the story you want to tell, whether it’s time period, character, setting. Be willing to look in unlikely places to find details that will set the time and place and make the story come alive. I visited a buggy museum, the Smithsonian, and had virtual tours of the White House circa 1908. Cookbooks, old photos, maps, museums, antique shops and more can provide just what you’re looking for to make the story sing. Finally, don’t believe it when someone tells you that historical fiction doesn’t sell because it’s a niche market. Just look at all the Newbury and National Book Award finalists for Historical Fiction. Like any other genre—if the story is good, it will find a home. Dive in and don’t give up.