Writing Historical Fiction with a Friend
Writing Historical Fiction with a Friend
By Stephanie Dray and Laura Kamoie
One of the unexpected advantages of having a co-author is that you have someone to celebrate with who is every bit as excited as you are when the book releases. And today we’re both very excited to share America’s First Daughter with the world. This novel, which explores the life and times of Martha “Patsy” Jefferson Randolph, the eldest daughter of our third president, was years in the making. And it started one night when we were having dinner together and discovered a mutual interest in American history. Over burgers at a writing conference, we wondered what Jefferson was like as a father, not just a founding father.
At the time, Laura was a history of professor by day and a romance author by night, whereas Stephanie split her writing time between romance and historical fiction. We got the crazy brainchild to combine our experiences in co-authoring a book about Jefferson’s eldest daughter, and raced back to the hotel room to research. Frankly, we had no idea the journey we were about to embark upon. We didn’t know that it would take five years, three agents, eighteen thousand letters and a road trip to get this book out.
But we did know, right from that very first night, that we had stumbled upon a great untold American story. One that shed light on the women of the early Republic, the sacrifices they made, the lies they told, and the legacy they left to us. We understood from the beginning that our heroine wouldn’t always be lovable--she was as complicated and morally flawed as her father--but that her grit, determination, and resilience would fascinate, captivate and inspire. We shared a vision from that first crazy night of research into the wee hours to the days we would later squeeze writing together into our busy schedules.
We knew what we wanted to do. But we didn’t know if we could do it.
That is to say, having never worked together before, we were taking an enormous leap of faith. And that’s one of the reasons that we dedicated the book to perseverance and friendship, because everything could have gone disastrously wrong.
Both of us have our own writing voices; we have strong opinions and we are both used to having creative control. We also have vastly different working styles. Laura is a pantser; she doesn’t normally plot her books in advance, but lets the muse take her. Stephanie is a plotter who comes to every novel armed with Scrivener and a host of color-coded story structure notes. Add to that our busy schedules writing our own individual books and it didn’t look like a match made in heaven.
But we had a few things going for us. The first, and most important, was profound mutual respect. We didn’t often disagree on the crafting of the book, but when we did, we would explain our positions, and ultimately come up with a third solution that was better than anything either of us could come up with on our own. We could’ve gotten defensive over our own work, but instead we both worked hard to understand the each other’s reasons and concerns. It also helped that we are both big picture thinkers; very rarely were we attached to a specific wording of a paragraph--we were more concerned about communicating an idea. In the picky little edits that passed back and forth between us, we often just pressed ‘Accept All Changes.’
The second thing that made our partnership work was that we both have a healthy ego and complementary strengths; by healthy ego, we mean, we both had confidence in our writing, but not arrogance. If a scene had to be cut for the good of the whole, we let it go. As for complementary strengths, Laura’s perspective as a historian brought an in-depth knowledge of the period and scholarship on Jefferson; her ability to make mortals of monumental men and explore deep emotions helped connect readers to the story. The author of multiple award-winning works of historical fiction, Stephanie brought her fantastic understanding of character and story structure, and came up with the use of letters to frame the book and each chapter within it. Her ability to make the political personal brought the period to life and helped show Patsy off to be the fascinating historical actor she truly was.
The third thing we had going for us was what we can only describe as a magical creative chemistry. Brainstorming together we could almost always build upon one another’s ideas in such a way that it was a pure joy. There were many times one or the other of us would say, “Wait, wait, what about this!” And then we’d both gasp. There was a particular day when the writing had been a hard slog for weeks and Stephanie was struggling with how to portray the events in revolutionary France alongside Patsy’s personal romantic devastation. We’d met up to write together that day, and Laura suggested somehow combining the scenes so as to cut down on words. And in a flash, Stephanie realized that the struggles of Lafayette and the French Revolution were a parallel to Patsy’s internal struggles. We started typing frantically, and by the time we were done, we were both teary and moved by the scene. (There was crying at Panera!)
It wasn’t always magic, of course. We had scheduling conflicts. We had to jump through hoops to figure out how to write collaboratively when our book became too big for Google Docs and Laura wondered why Stephanie couldn’t just use Word like a normal person, and Stephanie wondered why Laura couldn’t give Scrivener a shot! This is where it comes in handy to really like your co-author, so you can tease each other good-naturedly, and room together on road trips.
For us, writing fiction together--sharing the research, hashing out the historical controversies and interpretations, choosing a cohesive point of view--has been a challenging but rewarding experience unlike any other. We loved it so much that we decided to do it again with our forthcoming MY DEAR HAMILTON about Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton the wife of Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander.
Meanwhile, do you have any questions for us about the mechanics of writing a book together?
Stephanie Dray and Laura Kamoie
In a compelling, richly researched novel that draws from thousands of letters and original sources, bestselling authors Stephanie Dray and Laura Kamoie tell the fascinating, untold story of Thomas Jefferson’s eldest daughter, Martha “Patsy” Jefferson Randolph—a woman who kept the secrets of our most enigmatic founding father and shaped an American legacy.
From her earliest days, Patsy Jefferson knows that though her father loves his family dearly, his devotion to his country runs deeper still. As Thomas Jefferson’s oldest daughter, she becomes his helpmate, protector, and constant companion in the wake of her mother’s death, traveling with him when he becomes American minister to France.
It is in Paris, at the glittering court and among the first tumultuous days of revolution, that fifteen-year-old Patsy learns about her father’s troubling liaison with Sally Hemings, a slave girl her own age. Meanwhile, Patsy has fallen in love—with her father’s protégé William Short, a staunch abolitionist and ambitious diplomat. Torn between love, principles, and the bonds of family, Patsy questions whether she can choose a life as William’s wife and still be a devoted daughter.
Her choice will follow her in the years to come, to Virginia farmland, Monticello, and even the White House. And as scandal, tragedy, and poverty threaten her family, Patsy must decide how much she will sacrifice to protect her father's reputation, in the process defining not just his political legacy, but that of the nation he founded.