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I have always preferred my fiction laced with the spice of history. There's nothing quite like an enthralling story centered on true events that invites my imagination back into a living, vibrant past. In school, history was too often a dry mix of events and dates that required memorization and little else. And then quickly forgotten. (Now let's see, when was the signing of the Magna Carta?)
Back a few years ago, I was searching for an historical framework for a book of my own, when I remembered that the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic was coming up.
Now there was a story. Not just one, but many. As I began researching, I felt myself pulled deeper and deeper into the horrific events that took place that terrible night. Some days I simply lost my way, following thread after thread, not wanting to discard anything.
I kept going back to the fact that only one lifeboat made any attempt to rescue any of the 1,500 people calling for help from the freezing waters. In truth, many of those boats were already dangerously overloaded, but the desire for self-survival played a part, too. And this produced many twists of anguish among the survivors.
Then I discovered that one lifeboat -- which could have held up to sixty people -- was launched with only twelve passengers, including the most famous couture designer of her time, Lady Lucile Duff Gordon, and her husband. No other boat held so few survivors.
Back on land, the press clamored for answers: What happened on that boat? Had the wealthy, imperious designer refused to allow others on Lifeboat One? The Duff Gordons never quite lived down the ensuing scandal.
All that is fact. From there, I tell my story through the eyes of an eager young dressmaker named Tess who is hired as Lady Duff Gordon's personal maid for the crossing to America. At first dazzled by her good fortune, she soon faces the most difficult moral struggles of her life, wanting to stay loyal to her employer while searching for truth. Woven through my story is actual testimony from the U.S. Senate hearings that began the day after the Titanic survivors reached land.
While writing my book, I had a chance to visit Cherbourg, the French port from which the Duff Gordons boarded the Titanic. It wasn't hard to let myself slip back into the past as I watched on our ferry from London the lifeboats bobbing up and down with the waves, imagining, wondering...
Back at home, I only have to look up at a model of the Titanic on the bookcase next to my desk (my husband's Christmas gift last year) to walk those decks again with my fictional young dressmaker as she dreamed of a better life.
No question about it: For me, writing -- and reading -- historical fiction is a wholly riveting way to step back in the past. Fiction is my time machine. It can take me anywhere. And dear reader, I hope the same is true for you.