The Past Is Never Past: Drawing on Personal History to Write Engaging Historical Fiction

New York Times bestselling author Karen White discusses what drew her to writing historical fiction and how she uses a modern setting to explore history.
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By the time I graduated from college, I had lived in four states and three countries outside of the U.S., yet had still not quite learned to appreciate how very fortunate I was. Maybe it was because I wasn’t a writer back then and had no aspirations whatsoever to write a book, much less 29 of them.

(Karen White: The Best Books Come From the Heart)

Instead, I spent an embarrassing amount of time lamenting all that I was missing back in the States (learning to drive, going to shopping malls, and access to Oreo cookies). As I got older and finally started to appreciate this wonderful gift I’d been given, I wanted to shake my younger self and tell her how lucky she was and to stop whining and pay attention. But after writing The Last Night in London, I don’t think I’d have to. Because somewhere deep in that younger Karen’s head must have been the mind of a writer, already imagining the stories she’d already begun to spin.

When I was 12 and starting middle school, my father’s job with Exxon moved us to London. As an avid reader of British mysteries, I was excited at my parents’ choice of residence on Regent’s Park in a beautiful Edwardian brownstone built in 1904 called Harley House. This would become our home for the next seven years.

I was only slightly impressed that Mick Jagger had lived in the penthouse flat and that Charles Dickens had once resided in a house across the street where he’d written David Copperfield. I was too focused on the fact that since we lived in the city, there would be no need for a car. I was devastated, imagining myself as the only American teenager in the world who wouldn’t get her driver’s license at fifteen.

Yet when the porter showed us up to our flat, I was intrigued when he explained that during the Blitz in WW2, nearby bombs had shattered some of the windows which was why some of the windows contained the original leaded glass windows and others were of clear glass.

The Last Night in London by Karen White

The Last Night in London by Karen White

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I’d always been a history buff, thanks to my father, but this was the first time where I felt I could actually hold history in my hands. I spent many nights over the next seven years imagining the stories of the people who’d lived in my flat since 1904.

For over a decade, I’ve been wanting to set a book in London, and revisit the years I’d spent there. Recalling stories of my Mississippian mother, trying to navigate her new life in London where she was treated as if she spoke a foreign language, I knew I needed to tell a fish out of water story with a Southern character.

And as a writer who isn’t a historical fiction writer, but more of a writer who inserts some history into her novels, I needed to choose the right historical period that would serve as the perfect balance for my contemporary timeframe. I thought back to our move-in day, and the porter telling us about the windows and the Blitz, and I knew I had found the slice of history to revisit in my novel.

The Past Is Never Past: Drawing on Personal History to Write Engaging Historical Fiction

The main characters were found in previous books (Maddie Warner from Falling Home and After the Rain and Precious Dubose from All the Ways We Said Goodbye) as well as from a random photo of an RAF pilot I found on Pinterest. But the fun part came as I started to write and fill in the details and I was able to mine my past.

As I began digging into the history of Regent’s Park and the West End during the war, I unearthed quite a few useful nuggets. The Savoy Hotel, still one of London’s most elegant old hotels, was a hotbed of political espionage and intrigue during war. It adhered to blackouts while at the same time continuing with parties and dancing even while in the midst of an aerial attack. I found this especially interesting because my junior prom (I attended The American School in London so we had proms and cheerleading—just no American football) was held at The Savoy.

Harley House was only a short walk from the grand department store, Selfridges, on Oxford Street. Not only had it sustained significant damage during the war, but a communications center used by Churchill himself to communicate with the American president was set up in the basement. What I found even more interesting was the fact that the store remained open throughout the war, as did so many other businesses on the much-bombed Oxford Street, shop-owners getting up each morning, sweeping away the glass, and carrying on with business as usual.

(Blurred Lines: Writing Historical Fiction From Fact)

Selfridges holds many memories for me, of Christmas shopping and buying fresh bread in the food hall, and new outfits for the first day of school. I also remember getting my ears pierced in the beauty court, and fainting. I continue to have a fear of needles, but my ears are still pierced.

In Regent’s Park, I would often bring my younger brother and his friends to the playground. My friends and I would row on the lake or take strolls through Queen Mary’s rose garden. Most mornings would find me jogging a three-mile path along the perimeter of the park, never aware of the history that surrounded me, of the bombs that had fallen in and around the park. And of the bones that would be found buried in the park just a few years ago that they suspect were unidentified victims of those same bombs.

All of these places play important roles in my book, in both the historical and contemporary timelines. As I began writing The Last Night in London, it became clear that this was a story that had been decades in the making, the twists and threads of it weaving themselves together in my head long before the idea of being a writer was not yet a twinkle in my eye. It is a reunion of characters from older books and a meeting of new ones, of stories of past residents of Harley House as a younger version of myself imagined them, and of a great city’s history mingling with my own to create my most personal book yet.

Build Your Novel Scene by Scene

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