Researching Historical Characters: They Tell You Who They Are: by Dianne K Salerni

Today it is my pleasure to bring readers another installment in my posts on historical research. In this 6th article, YA and MG novelist and fellow Kid Lit Author’s Club member, Dianne K Salerni, will talk about researching historical characters. Here’s Dianne:

The very best thing about writing a book with real, historical characters is that you get to skip the process of building their personality from scratch: their strengths and weaknesses and emotional wounds. Historical characters tell you who they are through their letters and other writings. When I wrote about the romance of spirit medium Maggie Fox and Arctic explorer Elisha Kent Kane in We Hear the Dead, I had years of their love letters to draw upon.

Researching my upcoming novel, The Roosevelt Ghosts, I had not only letters to guide me, but also the autobiography of Eleanor Roosevelt (who was born a Roosevelt long before she married her fifth cousin, Franklin). Eleanor’s first cousin Alice, daughter of Theodore Roosevelt, was so much a fixture of Washington D.C. for her 96 years that she was known as “the other Washington Monument” and left untold writings and interviews behind.

Eleanor’s primary emotional wound isn’t hard to identify. She spells it out pretty plainly in her autobiography: My mother was always a little troubled about my lack of beauty, and I knew it, as a child senses those things. I can remember standing in the door, often with a finger in my mouth, and I can see the look in her eyes and hear the tone of her voice as she said, “Come in, Granny.” If a visitor was there, she might turn and say, “She is such a funny child, so old-fashioned that we always call her Granny.” I wanted to sink through the floor in shame.

It is reported in multiple sources that Eleanor’s mother, Anna Hall Roosevelt, spoke quite harshly to her young daughter. You have no looks, so see to it that you have manners.

Eleanor

Eleanor was orphaned at the age of eight, losing her mother and one of her brothers to diphtheria and her father to the effects of alcoholism. Thereafter, she lived with her oppressive maternal grandmother, who ran an austere household and dressed Eleanor in made-over garments that left her sadly out of place among her peers. Her cousin, Corinne Robinson, commented (in regards to a dance when they were both young teens): No one, young or old, wore very short skirts in those days, even for sports, but her grandmother bought her a dress that could have been for a five-year-old. A friend of Corinne’s remarked, more bluntly, that Eleanor was a living freak.

Teens are cruel, but so, apparently are adults. Edith Roosevelt, Theodore’s second wife and Alice’s step-mother was as snide as they come. Eleanor has been here too – poor little soul; she is very plain. Her mouth and teeth seem to have no future. She was also a master of the side-slander. I got Alice a beautiful dress at Stern’s, dark large plaid with navy blue velour, but how much do you think it cost? Forty-two dollars. Alice is a child who needs good clothes and would look quite forlorn as Eleanor in makeshifts.

Only Alice defended Eleanor’s physical appearance: She was always making herself out to be an ugly duckling, but she was really rather attractive. Tall, rather coltish-looking, with masses of pale, gold hair rippling to below her waist, and really lovely blue eyes. It’s true that her chin went in a bit, which wouldn’t have been noticeable if only her hateful grandmother had fixed her teeth.

Alice, meanwhile, had her own emotional wounds. Her mother died shortly after her birth, and her father abandoned her to the care of an aunt while he ran off to the Dakotas to assuage his grief. Theodore refused to call his daughter by the name she shared with her mother, and when he married Edith, his childhood sweetheart, Alice felt that she became even more of a burden. My father obviously didn’t want the symbol of his infidelity around. His two infidelities, in fact: infidelity to my stepmother by marrying my mother first, and to my mother by going back to my stepmother after she died.

Alice

It was no wonder that Alice acted out in response to this domestic drama. As she got older and attempted, more and more dramatically, to capture her father’s attention, she alienated everyone in her immediate family.

Edith referred to her as a guttersnipe. One of Edith’s friends described her like a young wild animal that had been put into good clothes. Alice’s own half-sister, Ethel, said she was a hellion, …capable of doing almost anything to anyone at any time. When Alice was sent away, at age fourteen, to live with her aunt in New York because her family in Washington couldn’t stand her, Edith made sure Alice knew where she stood, remarking that Alice’s first letter home was so sweet, the family thought it must have been done by (your cousin) Helen.

Ultimately, I had little character-building to do at all. It was only left to me to construct the ghost that would bring these two cousins, similarly-rejected but with opposite personalities, together.

Salerni Head Shot

DIANNE K. SALERNI is the author of the The Eighth Day fantasy series and historical novels, The Caged Graves, a Junior Library Guild Selection, and We Hear the Dead. Her next book, The Roosevelt Ghosts, featuring young cousins Eleanor and Alice Roosevelt and a vengeful ghost, will be released in the fall of 2020 by Holiday House.

Dianne K. Salerni
Author of Middle Grade and YA Fiction

  • The Roosevelt Ghosts (Holiday House) ~ coming Fall 2020
  • The Eighth Day (HarperCollins) ~Minnesota Young Readers Award Nominee 2017-2018, Young Hoosiers Book Award Nominee 2017-2018, Virginia Readers Choice Nominee 2016-2017, Tome Society It List 2016-2017
  • The Caged Graves (Clarion/HMH) ~Pennsylvania Young Readers Choice Nominee 2016-2017
  • The Inquisitor’s Mark (HarperCollins)
  • The Morrigan’s Curse (HarperCollins)
  • We Hear the Dead (Sourcebooks)