Historical Research Series Guest - Phyllis DeMarco

Today's guest blogger in our historical research series is Phyllis DeMarco, award-winning author of Passage to November and Bombshell

Phyllis DeMarco, historical, romance, author
Phyllis DeMarco
Phyllis DeMarco studied filmmaking and screenwriting at Columbia College, Chicago before becoming a novelist. Her first work of historical fiction, Passage to November, won the 2012 EPIC Award for Best Historical Romance. Her passions include history, classic old movies, writing compelling stories, and White Sox baseball. She lives in suburban Chicago with two cats and a crazy puppy named Charlie.

Phyllis, tell us about the time period and setting for your novels.
Passage to November is set on a Great Lakes freighter in 1913, when Great Lakes shipping was still one of the major methods of transporting goods throughout the United States and Canada.

Bombshell is set during the Great Depression, beginning in a Hollywood nightclub and finding its way to a small river town in southern Illinois, a town devastated by the effects of the Depression.

Do you have any special connection to the period? e.g. a degree in American History, well-known family history, etc.
I don't have a degree, but thanks to my father I have a probably unhealthy interest in history. I'm a history junkie–– I find myself obsessed with many different eras and cultures and I try to imagine how seminal events may have impacted everyday people. 

Passage to November
Passage to November was set during what was known as The Gilded Age: the time of the robber barons, oil and steel magnates, and unprecedented technological advancements. It was a time when vast fortunes were built off the labors of people like the characters in my book.

Bombshell is set in 1934, when the Depression was in full-swing, and I am fortunate to have had family members who could recall what life was like in those days. 'Hardscrabble' doesn't begin to describe the sort of life these folks led, but they persevered. Coming from a blue collar background–– and feeling the effects of the state of the current economy––  I have a deep respect for people who can survive and even overcome such extreme hardship.

What appeals to you about this period?
The first half of the twentieth century seems to be a time when everything was possible. America was still a young nation. We were building it and rebuilding it every single day, and if you were an enterprising individual, nothing could stop you from achieving some measure of success. This may be the romantic in me, but the two time periods I cover in my books were depictions of simpler times. There was a sense of individualism and self reliance, but at the same time, people weren't afraid to extend a helping hand to someone who needed it.

How much time do you spend researching each book?
It depends on the type of story, and the level of involvement my characters will have in a particular historical event. I spent about three years researching the details for Passage to November. In addition to good old fashioned book research, I traveled to some of the cities mentioned in the story, sailed Lake Superior and studied shipwrecks, and consulted with a Great Lakes historian. With Bombshell, I spent more time tracking down a music publisher to get permission to use lyrics from a 1933 Bing Crosby song than I did actual book research.

Right now I am working on a story set during World War One, focusing on the war at sea. I am studying various naval battles, tactics, Royal Navy traditions, the types of ships involved, and the biographies of the real life characters who will be involved in the story. I don't expect to become an expert, but I have to know enough about the history to not only remain true to the subject, but to also be able to allow my characters to realistically live in that world. It's going to take me a while!

Do you tend to research before you write, or more as you write?
I try to research as much as I can before I start writing, because I like to go into a story with a certain level of knowledge, but I always end up doing the bulk of research while I am writing. I have a broad idea of the events that will transpire in a story, but once I start writing, authenticity demands research. Before I started writing Passage to November, I studied early 20th century meteorology, the history of Great Lakes shipping, the differences in the types of boats, etc. But when I actually sat down and started writing, I realized I needed to know who did what on a freighter, how different controls worked and, equally important, what someone would have to do to survive a monster lake storm when they are already hypothermic and near-death.

Actually, I find the research to be just as much fun as writing the story! I find myself learning new things I probably never would have learned in my everyday life, and once I get involved in a certain era, I become completely obsessed with it. Have I mentioned I am a history junkie?

Have you ever found out after a book was published that you made an error with a historical fact?
Thankfully none have ever been pointed out to me. I sent a copy of Passage to November to the historian I'd consulted, and was thrilled when he let me know that I'd really captured the history of the era and that the events I depicted were very realistic. I live in terror of someone finding a mistake in my work, so I try to be as thorough as possible when it comes to depicting historical events. I think if I ever did find out that I'd made an error I would be heartsick forever.

Which authors in this time period do you enjoy? Who inspires you?
I read books set in many different time periods, and I really enjoy historical novels–– basically historical facts presented in novel form. I've read several of Anthony Everett's books and really loved his novel Cicero. Stacey Schiff's Cleopatra was another gem. One of my favorites is Karen Abbott's Sin in the Second City, which tells the story of two real-life sisters who opened a high end brothel in Chicago at the turn of the twentieth century. If any book should be turned into a movie (or a cable miniseries), this is it.

I also enjoy speculative historical fiction, and recently finished reading Christopher Moore's Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ's Childhood Pal. Extremely well-researched from a historical perspective, and very funny as well.

I hope you've enjoyed my interview with Phyllis DeMarco as much as I did. Here are several ways you can reach out to Phyllis or learn more about her:

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