L.M. Elliott is the prolific author of numerous historical fiction books spanning the centuries. Her newest novel, Walls, covers the 12 months leading to the building of the Berlin Wall. Elliott spoke with PW about how her earlier career as a journalist informs her fiction writing, and how the interplay of photo essays and text helps immerse readers in a historical era.
Most of your books take place in much earlier times. Why did you choose to move into the second half of the 20th century with Suspect Red, which takes place in the United States in 1953–54, during the era of McCarthyism, and now with Walls, which is set in Berlin in 1960–61?
When visiting high schools, I noticed that English teachers were often assigning students to read The Crucible about the Salem Witch Trials. Sometimes I would mention that Arthur Miller wrote it during the era of McCarthyism, as a parable for the Red Scare, and many teachers didn’t know that. God bless our history teachers—they have so much to cover in a year that they often don’t get to McCarthyism or the Cold War. So Suspect Red came out of wanting to fill that hole.
Walls began as a topic I wanted to explore, just like Suspect Red had. When the former president undercut NATO, I wondered if people remembered the frightening reasons NATO formed: Russia’s brutal annexation of Eastern Europe after World War II to create a Soviet Bloc of puppet states, and the Berlin Wall, which caged millions. Beyond knowing that the Alliance and the Wall existed, teens I asked knew little else. I found several wonderful novels about life behind the Wall in later years, but nothing about the tense leadup to its raising or what it was like being an American military kid stationed in a place where fathers could be mobilized at any moment against a nuclear-armed foe.
What could be a more dramatic, show-rather-than-tell story humanizing the Cold War standoff between Western democracies and authoritarian communist regimes? Especially because the Berlin Wall was raised literally overnight after methodical, secret plotting by East Germany and Soviet Russia. And what could be more poignant than personifying this through two teen cousins on opposite sides of that stand-off? I hope this book gives kids the context of what our relationship with Russia has been like and helps them make informed decisions about how to analyze current events to form their own opinions.
And personally speaking, I grew up in northern Virginia, near the Pentagon, and my dad was in the Reserves for 27 years. I knew a lot of his compatriots and lots of my friends were military kids. The young characters in Walls are archetypal military kids—some are natural charismatic leaders like Joyce, some swagger like Bob, some are shy like Linda.
In both Suspect Red and Walls, each chapter opens with a photo essay by your daughter, Megan Behm, documenting news events of the time. Why did you decide to add this element to these two books?
One of the hardest parts of historical fiction is “tucking in” information. When I’m writing about tough political eras like these, I don’t want to slow down the story arc with information. Years of writing lengthy human-interest stories for the Washingtonian that were accompanied by compelling, illustrative photos taught me to trust a medley of text and images to tell a complete story. I discovered that format worked really well in distilling complicated political eras when I wrote Suspect Red.
As in Suspect Red, each chapter in Walls covers one month, and opens with news headlines, photo and quotes from those real-life four weeks. Adding a factual photo essay creates a powerful backdrop of historical context that punctuates without interrupting a fast-paced plot and the harrowing conundrums facing my teenage characters. It really works to give readers access to these primary documents, too.
What first led you to writing children’s books?
The way I came to writing my first novel, Under a War-Torn Sky, is emblematic of being a storyteller: I was following a story. I was a senior writer at Washingtonian magazine—I had been hired there after getting a master’s degree in journalism from the University of North Carolina. None of the other writers were writing about what were then called “women’s issues.” So I started writing those stories. I wrote about tough topics: domestic violence, sexual assault, child abuse, mental health—including in homes where people didn’t expect these issues to exist. I had the good fortune in those days to be able to follow a subject for months at a time.
Then I was asked to write what we thought of as the “dreaded holiday story”—a human-interest story for a December issue. I ended up writing about my dad’s homecoming from World War II. He had been a copilot in the Air Force and was missing for months when he suddenly showed up in a taxi in my grandparents’ driveway, five days before Christmas 1944.
After the story was published, I received so many heartrending letters—lots of World War II veterans were still alive then. The letters were filled with stories of homecomings, of acts of courage. And I realized I wanted to do more on that subject. At the time, my kids were precocious middle-grade readers and I knew that preteens weren’t getting these stories in books. Now, of course, there are many wonderful World War II novels for middle grade. It was editor Katherine Tegen, who had bought a picture book from me for Hyperion, who suggested I fictionalize my dad’s story.
Readers of your historical fiction may not know you have also written five picture books. Where do they fall in the chronology of your work?
I wrote Hunter’s Best Friend at School when my son Peter was in preschool, before any of my novels. He came home from school one day quite worried because his mischievous best buddy was acting silly in circle time—distracting other kids—and pressuring Peter to follow along with him. My son is such a good soul with such a strong moral compass even when he was that young and didn’t want to go along with the boy. So rather than “lecturing” my five-year-old, I told him a story about things a child might be able to do to avoid trouble, that sometimes being a best friend meant not following along, but “helping his best friend be his best self.”
My daughter then happened to tell her science teacher this story, and as luck would have it, her science teacher was the illustrator Henry Cole. He loved the story and introduced me to his editor, who was Katherine Tegen. She bought it, and assigned the amazing Lynn Munsinger to be the illustrator. I almost burst into tears when I learned this because I had spent years reading and loving Lynn’s Tacky the Penguin books, and now she was going to illustrate my story. But because of Lynn’s schedule, it took three years before that book was published. During those three years, I wrote and Katherine edited Under a War-Torn Sky, which actually came out first. But Hunter was my introduction to Katherine, who is totally responsible for my becoming a novelist. She’s been my editor for 20 years and nine novels.
And you went on to write four more picture books?
Yes, I wrote two more books about Hunter, and then Katherine suggested I write a holiday book. So I wrote String of Hearts about Valentine’s Day and Thanksgiving Day Thanks. But I think picture books are behind me for now, maybe until I have grandchildren.
After Under a War-Torn Sky you wrote two companion books: A Troubled Peace and Across a War-Tossed Sea. Did you plan to write a trilogy about World War II and its aftermath?
No, all I had in mind with that first book was to write about those young pilots and aircrew—many of them boys of 19 or 20—who had to bail out over Europe during World War II. Here’s what is wonderful about historical fiction—it humanizes, brings emotional weight to statistics. As I was researching the story of young men like my dad, I learned that 51,000 American airmen went missing in our fight against Hitler. Many died; many were captured and interned. Four thousand of them evaded capture and survived to come home, specifically because of help from the Dutch and French Resistance. But it’s also estimated that for each one of those American boys who lived, one French or Dutch Resistance worker died. One for one. A horrifying ratio, but still just a number until you put a beating heart to it. So my novel became just as much about the women, children, and men who risked everything to save lost and often wounded American boys.
Then with Henry Forester himself, I purposefully created what I think of as an “everyman,” a young pilot undergoing a double odyssey. I wanted it to be both a great adventure about escaping through France over the Pyrenees to Spain and a typical coming-of-age story in which a young man finds self-definition and courage. I wrote the following two books in response to students at schools where I spoke, who often asked what happened to the characters.
Hamilton & Peggy! A Revolutionary Friendship was published in 2018, at the height of the popularity of the musical Hamilton. How did you manage that timing?
The idea for this biographical novel started with Katherine. She has such shrewd instincts about what makes a good story, and what interests readers when. She knew I’d seen the musical and suggested I do something about Hamilton to ride that wave of fascination. There were already many books about Eliza, and Angelica felt a little problematic for YA. So I looked to the youngest sister of that now-famous Schuyler Sister Trio, who pops in with that exuberant “And Peggy!” By my count, Peggy has only 36 solo words in the musical. I realized focusing on her could lend a totally new take on what has become a beloved story. I wrote that book in 10 months—which I couldn’t have done without my daughter Megan’s researching help.
Does Megan help research all your books?
Yes, she officially began helping me research as a day job while working as a theater artist after graduating from William & Mary. The first book she researched extensively was Da Vinci’s Tiger , which is about the 15th-century poet Ginevra de’ Benci. The only existing line of her poetry is: “I beg your pardon, I am a mountain tiger.” Wouldn’t you want to write a story about a woman who wrote that? That book had its genesis when Megan told me that the only Leonardo da Vinci painting in the Americas is in the National Gallery of Art in D.C. It’s the first portrait he ever did and it’s of Ginevra de’ Benci.
Megan helped me research 15th-century Italian poetry and the philosophical underpinnings of the unique and complicated Renaissance concept of a “platonic muse,” as well as my very basic question about how Ginevra would know about mountain tigers. I rely on Megan for so many insights, but especially her deep love of poetry and her feminist sensibilities, both in research and in editing, to ensure I pull that thread through my narratives.
Megan and my son Peter are actually both my first, and incredibly astute and demanding editors. Peter was only 14 when he started serving as my sounding board for male characters’ authenticity, as well as the clarity and pacing of my narratives.
You wrote your picture books as Laura Malone Elliott; why do you write your historical fiction as L.M. Elliott?
A lot of teenage boys are drawn to novels about World War II, and back when my first novel was published, there was a concern that 13 to 15-year-old boys wouldn’t trust a woman writing about war. I didn’t care what name I wrote under, I just wanted kids to read the book! That book also ended up being on a lot of lists of books geared towards reluctant readers.
How does your previous work as a journalist inform your work as a fiction writer?
If I have any ability, it’s as a reporter. I’m a much better fiction writer because of all the years I’ve spent as a journalist. If you keep track of little details, you can give your character conundrums that are born out of real-life events. These can produce unexpected moments, such as Shirley in Walls talking in the jazz café about American records being pirated through the Iron Curtain on x-rays.
Interviewing people and writing down their exact words has also helped me in creating authentic dialogue. I believe that dialogue is one of the quickest character reveals. One of my idols has always been the writer Anna Quindlen, and I love what she wrote about that: “I spent decades writing down people’s words verbatim, how real people talk. I learned that syntax and rhythm were almost as individualistic as a fingerprint. That one quotation, precisely transcribed and intentionally untidied, could delineate a character in a way that pages of exposition never could.”
How have your research and writing processes changed over the course of writing so many works of historical fiction?
I don't think I have changed my research techniques that much. But I do think I’ve learned the hard way not to go down the rabbit hole of tangents as much! Many historical fiction writers tend to stay in one era or century, or at least on the same continent, and I’ve bounced around a lot, following fascinating stories. I love that I am always learning something new with every novel, whether it’s historical fiction or biographical fiction like Peggy & Hamilton! and Da Vinci's Tiger. But it has meant that I need to rein myself in some. The research for each novel unearths a dozen other potential, equally compelling stories.
I’ve also learned to trust my journalistic instincts more. I’m doing more interviewing, rather than reading every book on the topic. And then, I can get my hands into so much more because of all the digitized collections of historical material and the internet. I don’t have to go everywhere. I would have loved to go to Berlin for Walls but I didn’t have to.
Being an experienced journalist is certainly a huge help in writing historical fiction. But there are other crucial elements specific to writing fiction, be it historical or any other kind, such as creating a story arc and building momentum, and creating credible character and relationship development. How did you learn and develop these skills?
You’re asking about the challenge of creating story, not just reporting it. I love what Mark Twain, who was both a journalist and a novelist, said about writing in the two genres: “Truth is stranger than fiction, but that is because fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities. Truth isn’t. Fiction has to make sense.” When I’m doing my research, I’m discovering not only my plot touchstones and themes, but also the possibilities and plausibilities for my characters. Then, as a novelist, I must make them react in ways that are in keeping with the personalities I have given them and to forward the arc, the epiphanies, the emotional journey I want them to go on.
History is made by ordinary people who must survive all those battles or political movements that the well-known figures of a time lead. How do ordinary people dig down deep inside themselves to find the courage to stand up for what is right or to pull their family to safety during a crisis? I hope my books make kids think, “What would I do if I were in that situation?”
What are you working on now?
I’ve just finished writing another World War II narrative, Louisa June and the Nazis in the Waves. It’s set in Tidewater, Va., and the Chesapeake Bay, and the historical peg is an attack on a tugboat by a Nazi U-boat. It’s a little-discussed fact that immediately following Pearl Harbor, Hitler’s submarines relentlessly attacked our merchant ships sailing along the East Coast, averaging one sinking a night during the first six months of 1942. Louisa June’s overarching odyssey is learning to cope with her mama’s pervasive depression and the sudden loss from one of those U-boat attacks, which kills Louisa June’s favorite brother—something, sadly, that many teens will be dealing with post-Covid. I hope readers find solace in her story and joy in the quirky characters who help her find her way.
This one is a little different for me. I use a slightly younger, more regionalized, first-person, and—I hope!—poetic voice than I typically do in my historical works. Louisa June just spoke to me that way.
Walls by L.M. Elliott. Algonquin, $19.95 July 27 ISBN 978-1-64375-024-8