Finding Easter Eggs in Historical Fiction
Today’s guest post comes from historical fiction author Liza Nash Taylor.
For a span of years, maybe from age eight to twelve, I longed to be an Abandoned English Orphan. As a young reader, historical subjects were my go-to, in both fiction and biography. I was also—and still am—drawn to novels written in earlier times, where antiquated language and formality immerse me in an era. I loved discovering the details of everyday life—the hair ribbon Laura Ingalls wore on the Prairie, what Guinevere ate for breakfast at Camelot, what the attic was like in a Victorian-era London orphanage for sad little Sara Crewe. As a more mature reader, and now as a writer, I still love those quotidian historical details that give a story plausibility and texture.
In researching my forthcoming novels, set in 1924 and 1931, I kept finding little-known historical events or totems that fascinated me. I call these little gifts “Easter eggs” , borrowing the term from this Google dictionary definition: “ an unexpected or undocumented feature in a piece of computer software or on a DVD, included as a joke or a bonus.”
Sometimes my sort of Easter egg is just an interesting detail to be used as an aside. Sometimes, it supplies a cohesive theme that runs through the plot, uniting seemingly disparate elements into a whole, and sometimes, an egg will change the course of a novel, turning the plot on its axis.
Recently, I listened to Alan Hlad’s fabulous historical novel, The Long Flight Home. The premise of this riveting WWII story deals with an aspect of British Army Intelligence I had never heard of. I asked Alan how he came to his unique storyline. He wrote back, “While conducting research for The Long Flight Home I became captivated by a 2012 British news report about the skeletal remains of a war pigeon that was found in a Surrey chimney, decades after the war. Attached to the pigeon’s leg was a coded message, one that has yet to be deciphered by codebreakers around the world, including Britain’s Government Communication Headquarters. I find it intriguing that British codebreakers, during World War II, cracked the Nazi Enigma machine and turned the tide of the war. But today, this encrypted message has stumped the world’s best cryptologists, and the pigeon’s message remains a secret.”
Now, I call this the best sort of Easter egg. Multicolored, with sugar frosting flowers and a little window at one end and a tiny diorama inside of a bunny in the grass. THAT good.
In writing my first novel I stumbled upon several nice Easter eggs. When I began Etiquette for Runaways I was sitting on the front porch of my 1820s farmhouse in Virginia in the heat of early September, nursing a newly-broken ankle. I would be in a cast for eight weeks, unable to drive. That fact, right there, decided the setting. My novel would begin right on that porch where I was sitting. Next, I had to choose a time period for my story, and then come up with characters. Beside my chair was a small table with a mosaic top I had assembled from shards of pottery, found around our property over the years. One of my favorite pieces is a broken part of a Victorian-era porcelain dolls face. I found it in the dirt while weeding my garden. Now, I studied that broken face and as I watched, transfixed, it began to glow, then popped out of the grout, pulsing a white light in front of my face….
Just kidding! It wasn’t that “woo-woo.” Maybe it was the broken-ankle Demerol talking, but in any case, I knew instantly, that my novel was going to be about the little girl who owned that doll, here at Keswick Farm. That shard became a totem for the novel.
Another Easter egg came to me through research, as Alan’s did. I decided to set my story during Prohibition, because Albemarle County, where I live, was rife with moonshining. My brother-in-law’s former house, a mile from mine, has two trap doors in the living room, under the rug, installed in the 1920s to conceal stores of moonshine and illegal liquor. Nearby Franklin County was called “The Moonshine Capital of the World.” Also in Franklin was held what came to be called “The Great Moonshine Conspiracy Trial of 1935”. A ring of crooked sheriffs were convicted of shaking down small local moonshiners, offering “protection” for bribes, when in fact, the Governor had passed down an order to let the small operations slide, because the court dockets and jails were overburdened with minor offenders. “Over a seven-year period, these crooked officials defrauded the government out of 5.5 million dollars in whisky excise taxes, equivalent to roughly 95 million dollars today.” (Wikipedia). I borrowed this storyline, and placed it in 1924, in my county of Albemarle.
When my main character May Marshall ends up by chance in New York, I needed a place for her to live. Somewhere, I mused, that would be comparable to the church-run women’s boarding house I lived in in the early 1980s as a graduate student. Well, it turns out that the Roberts House, where I lived on 36th Street, opened in 1922. Bingo! That’s where May Marshall would live in New York, two years later. I could easily remember and describe the odor of disinfectant, and swiping dinner rolls from the cafeteria to serve as the following day’s lunch, and living on one 25-cent bagel on Sundays, when meals weren’t served, because I had spent all of my week’s allowance at a nightclub.
As writers of Historical Fiction, we need to do our research. We also, I believe, need to remain open to serendipity and coincidence, and keep an eye out in the tall grass for those Easter eggs!
Liza Nash Taylor was a 2018 Hawthornden International Fellow and received an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts the same year. She was the 2016 winner of the San Miguel Writer’s Conference Fiction Prize. Her work has appeared in Microchondria II, an anthology by the Harvard Bookstore; Gargoyle Magazine; Deep South; and others. A native Virginian, she lives in Keswick with her husband and dogs, in an old farmhouse which serves as a setting for her novels. Her first novel, ETIQUETTTE FOR RUNAWAYS, will be published in August by Blackstone Publishing. Follow Liza on her website, lizanashtaylor.com, Instagram @lizanashtaylor, and on Facebook @ Liza Nash Taylor Author Page.