Historical fiction: marrying reality and invention

Since THE PRESIDENT'S LUNCH was released in July 2014 I’ve been invited to speak at a number of reader events and book clubs. At these events people most like to discuss the real characters in the novel - Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt - and the research I carried out in order to gain an insight into the lives of these extraordinary individuals.

When I spotted this Citroen Tourer at the National Museum of Australia, 
it struck me as just the kind of car Monty Chapel would drive.
There’s no denying that the president and his wife are worth talking about, but I don’t feel that I, as the author, made these characters extraordinary. In reality, Franklin and Eleanor were remarkable people long before I ever began writing about them. I merely portrayed a portion of their lives in print.
World War 2 correspondents such as the 'Murrow Boys'
were my inspiration for Sam Jacobson.
That’s why, a couple of Sundays ago when I visited a book club to chat about THE PRESIDENT'S LUNCH, I was delighted when the women revealed they would prefer to discuss the fictional characters. These are characters that were born in my own imagination, people I sweated over to bring to life on the page. There were no biographies, memoirs, diaries or letters to read. There were no photographs or historical documents to scour. These are the characters in THE PRESIDENT'S LUNCH that are my real achievement.
It was the clothes of American designer Elizabeth Hawes
that helped me shape the character of Iris McIntosh.
It is extremely hard work researching real-life characters. Visiting libraries and reading endless lists of autobiographies and other historical texts takes time and discipline. Then organising the resulting information and utilising it well takes patience.

However, I consider it far more challenging to create a believable life for characters who never existed. And that’s what the ladies at the book club understood and appreciated.

Rear Window

The most common question people ask me is why I became an author. I never have a satisfactory response to this query. The truth is I haven’t been certain of the answer until today.

Once or twice a week I take an early morning bike ride around the lake not far from our house. And when I say early, I mean early. Sunrise. I ride along bike paths from my home to the lake and back again. It’s a round trip of 22 kilometres. It’s peaceful and relaxing and allows me the solitude and time to reflect on the present, the future and, of course, my novels.
The view from my bike seat
But it struck me this morning that I enjoy the excursion for one other reason – the peek I get into other peoples’ lives.

As I ride by the homes that back onto the bike paths I glance into the window of a townhouse and see a middle-aged woman in a faded dressing gown, staring seriously into an open fridge as though the contents will provide her with the meaning she’s been seeking.

In another house I spy an elderly woman in a comfy recliner. She is watching television, the early news I guess. There’s an expression of severe consternation on her face. It’s not even six, yet she’s already dressed in a skirt, blouse and lace-up shoes. Hot rollers cover her head. I muse on the possibilities. Where is she heading today and what news story has concerned her so?

In another home a man pounds away on a treadmill that’s situated in his living room. A woman, his wife I presume, sits straight-backed at a table drinking coffee. There’s a newspaper in front of her. The living room overlooks the lake and I find myself wondering why he is not running outdoors. Agoraphobia? Ornithophobia?
I know, it all seems a bit creepy. It’s a bad habit, I admit. But don’t worry, I’m not gawking through key holes or drilling peep holes in walls … yet.

So that’s the answer, I suppose. Why did I become an author? I simply like creating stories about people. As my legs turn the bike pedals I am working out my creativity as well as my body. And perhaps one day during a ride I’ll see something I can turn into a nifty premise for a novel.

Video of THE PRESIDENT'S LUNCH research trip

Here is a quick video montage of my family's recent travels to research THE PRESIDENT’S LUNCH. 

It took us to Washington D.C., New York City, Hyde Park in NY, Salem and Rockport in Massachusetts and Campobello Island in Canada. 

The purpose was to visit the houses and look into the lives of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, on whom the book is based. We even met one or two people who knew them personally!

Watch closely and you'll see the locations of many scenes from the book, including the statue in Rock Creek Cemetery that Eleanor travels to in her very first scene, and the bluff overlooking the Hudson River where Iris spends reflective moments.

The research trip wasn't all work. Along the way, as you'll see, we had a lot of fun!