By Michael Loyd Gray-
When I began writing my new novel about Amelia Earhart’s last days, The Canary, I knew it had to start with her as a castaway on a lonely Pacific island. But with her navigator, Fred Noonan, already dead, there was a decidedly small cast of characters. Having Amelia talk to herself endlessly would become endlessly tedious. Some research and an unexpected discovery came to my rescue.
Here’s what I knew: based on recent findings, there is evidence suggesting Earhart might have made a forced landing on a tiny atoll’s reef – Gardner Island. The more I looked into it, the more plausible it seemed. That inspired me to fictionalize her last days. The opening pages were easy: Amelia alone on an island with no reliable water source except rainwater and no food other than small birds, turtles, and legions of coconut crabs. But quickly I knew the book had to be more than just a brave young woman and her mental and physical deterioration.
As I looked more into young Amelia’s life to discover a writing voice for her, I learned she had moved from St. Paul, Minnesota, to Hyde Park in Chicago to finish her last year of high school, in 1914-15. This was before she had thought much about flying. The discovery made me think about who she was in those days and soon I was doing a Google search of Hyde Park on Chicago’s near south side, a place I once visited to hear a novelist read, and the location of President Obama’s house.
As I stared at the map of Hyde Park and imagined young Amelia walking to school and then home again to care for her ailing mother, my eyes drifted west, to the suburb of Oak Park, and I had my epiphany: Though they never met, Earhart and Hemingway spent a year of school only a few miles from each other. Ernest was then 15 and Amelia was around 17. Suddenly I knew what the book needed – an interior story in which Amelia fondly remembers her Hyde Park days and a yearlong friendship with the young Hemingway. The Canary became a better novel than it might have because I was open to how facts buried in silent history gave it the voices it needed.
If you are writing historical fiction, here’s the lesson. Being accurate is important. I had to do a lot of checking to make sure I depicted Hemingway and Earhart with historical accuracy, even though they never met. When they went to a baseball game, it had to be at Weeghman Park and not Wrigley Field, because Wrigley was called Weeghman in 1914. The Cubs didn’t even play there. It was home to the Chicago Whales.
Writing historical fiction means getting the history surrounding your characters right, but it’s also an opportunity to not be shackled by history. Your goal is to tell a great story and not merely to document history. Amelia lands and slowly dies is not much of a story. But Amelia meets Ernest and has adventures with him is a good story and it humanizes the iconic aviatrix and also generates even more sympathy for her and her plight. After all, it’s fiction – you’re making it up and setting it against an accurate historical background. Where the Cubs played in 1914 has to be accurate. But a relationship between Earhart and Hemingway that never happened – you’re free to create one and thus make history subordinate to good storytelling.
BIO – Michael Loyd Gray was born in Arkansas, but grew up in Illinois. He earned a MFA in English from Western Michigan University and has taught at colleges and universities in upstate New York, Michigan, Illinois, Wisconsin, and Texas. He graduated from the University of Illinois with a Journalism degree and was a newspaper staff writer in Arizona and Illinois for ten years. Gray’s most recent novel is The Canary (August 2013). He is the winner of the 2005 Alligator Juniper Fiction Prize and the 2005 The Writers Place Award for Fiction. Gray’s novel Well Deserved won the 2008 Sol Books Prose Series Prize. His novel Not Famous Anymore was awarded a grant by the Elizabeth George Foundation and was released by Three Towers Press in 2012. His novel King Biscuit was released in 2012 by Tempest Books. www.michaelloydgray.com