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After reading and enjoying all three of Pam Jenoff’s novels, The Kommandant’s Girl, The Diplomat’s Wife, and most recently Almost Home (click here for my review), I am thrilled that Pam is taking over Diary of an Eccentric today.  I want to thank Pam for taking time out of her busy schedule to talk about how much truth is necessary in historical fiction.  Please welcome Pam Jenoff.

Putting the History in Historical Fiction

The nasty e-mail was not what I expected.

For months before my first novel, The Kommandant’s Girl, was released, I braced myself for the backlash that would inevitably come from writing about a Jewish woman (Emma) who becomes involved with a Nazi.  To my surprise, no one seemed bothered by that.  Instead, the irate reader wrote to angrily ask:  how could I possibly say that the Sachenhausen concentration camp was near Munich, when it was in fact near Berlin?

I paused, considering the question.  To be fair, I hadn’t depicted the camp there.  Rather, Krysia, a Polish character who had never been to the area, had simply made the comment erroneously.  But other e-mails came, too, from readers taking issue with my portrayal of various historical details:  An Orthodox Jewish family would never have named their daughter Emma, one wrote.  A secular Jew like Emma’s husband Jacob would not have worn a yarmulke, insisted another.  Thankfully, there were only a few negative e-mails, dwarfed by hundreds of positive messages.  But they were enough to make me wonder, how far are we as writers obligated to take the “history” in historical fiction?

It is an issue that I continually wrestle with as a writer.  Sometimes, I choose to stay accurate (keeping the geography of Krakow in tact was particularly important to me.)  Other times the needs of plot and narrative thrust dictate that history be bent, such as reducing the approximately eighteen months between the German invasion and the creation of the Krakow ghetto to six weeks.  (I felt better upon reading recently that the true story of the Von Trapp family was similarly cut from twelve years to a few months in The Sound of Music.)  I have found editors to be similarly sensitive to historical detail – with my second novel, The Diplomat’s Wife, we spent much time debating whether a bus would have had doors in 1946 London and would it have cost a two pence or five pence to ride.   Though my latest novel, Almost Home, is modern romantic suspense, I struggled with the same issues, both in terms of the historical back story and also with the accuracy my depiction of Jordan’s life as an intelligence officer required.

I’m mixed about the intensity readers seem to place on “real life” details.  I’m not saying that historical writers should not be diligent in their research with the goal of creating a realistic time and place.  And a historical world, like a fantasy realm, should have rules in order to be believable.  But this is fiction, not memoir.  But at the same time, there seems to be a “gotcha” mentality that can at times feel, well, a tad adversarial and perhaps take away from the author-reader connection.

On one hand, I’m glad that my readers are intelligent and pay attention.  I do think a degree of accuracy is important to create and keep the trust that is necessary between the author and reader, and I’m glad my readers care as much as I do.

Are you interested in reading Almost Home?  Well, you’re in luck!  Pam is generously offering a paperback copy to one lucky reader.  To enter, you must have a U.S. or Canada address and answer the following question(s):  How important is it to you that historical fiction is factually correct?  Do you think it’s okay for authors to “play” with events a bit, given that it’s fiction? Please include your e-mail address.

This giveaway will end Sunday, March 21, 2010, at 11:59 pm EST.

**Please note that this giveaway is now closed**

Disclosure: I am an Amazon associate.

© 2010 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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My hand rises instinctively to my waist but closes around air.  Damn, I’ve left my gun at the flat.  Despite Maureen’s warning, I didn’t think I’d need it, not here.  Hearing another crackling sound, I jump.  The noise comes from ahead of me now, but it is more muted, farther away.  Probably just a squirrel.  I shake my shoulders, trying to cast off the chill.  There’s no one here.  I am not reassured.  The instinct of knowing when I am being watched is one that I have honed well in this line of work, and I am seldom mistaken.  Casting a final glance into the thick fog in front of me, I turn and run swiftly toward home.

(from Almost Home, page 217 in the hardcover edition)

Pam Jenoff’s Almost Home follows Jordan Weiss, an American Foreign Service Officer with a lot of baggage.  She has nothing more than casual relationships with men, and the fact that she moves around a lot for work means her apartments are virtually empty.  The book opens with Jordan asking for a transfer to London — a place to which she vowed she’d never return — so she can be closer to her long-time best friend, Sarah, who is suffering from ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease.  The last time Jordan was in London, she was a carefree college student at Cambridge, a coxswain for an eight-member crew, and in love with Jared.  It was Jared’s drowning death shortly before graduation that scarred her, sent her away from the city she loved, and caused her to lock the past away forever.

Jordan is ready to take on her new post in an investigation into money laundering and the Albanian mob, and she finds herself attracted to her colleague Sebastian.  But before she can get settled, the past is pushed front and center.  Chris, a friend of both Jordan and Jared and a member of the crew, solicits her help in proving that Jared’s death may not have been an accident.  Jordan doesn’t want to revisit the painful memories, but she forces herself to consider that Jared may have been murdered — and it might have something to do with his dissertation on the escape of Nazi war criminals from Germany following World War II.

There is a lot going on in Almost Home, from the mob investigation and the suspicious circumstances surrounding Jared’s death to Jordan’s conflicted feelings for Chris and Sebastian and her worries about Sarah, but Jenoff does a great job integrating the plot lines and making the story easy to follow.  The book is told from the first person point of view of Jordan, so readers can feel her sadness, her confusion, and her fear as she realizes her life is in danger.  Though I sometimes questioned Jordan’s actions as a diplomat — mainly in the way she questions people of interest, possibly revealing too much before building trust — I felt she was a well-rounded character.  Jenoff makes Jordan come to life, and I could understand her motivations, like her despite her flaws, and even relate to her on some levels.  She also does a great job building tension and releasing the details a little at a time so I didn’t figure everything out too soon in the book.

Almost Home is a fast-paced novel with a little bit of everything — drama, history, action, romance — and I found it easy to become so absorbed in Jordan’s world that it was hard to put the book down.  I was happy to learn that a sequel will be released this summer!  In addition to Almost Home, I encourage you to check out Jenoff’s other novels, The Kommandant’s Girl and The Diplomat’s Wife — especially if you like stories with World War II connections.

Disclosure: I received a copy of Almost Home from the author for review purposes.  I am an Amazon associate.

© 2010 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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