Joan Schweighardt is the author of River Aria , which is both a standalone novel and the third book in a trilogy, as well as other novels, nonfiction titles, and children’s books. She is also a freelance writer and ghostwriter.
“As long as you are willing to bend a little…it is possible to make a living doing what you love.“
Q: What’s inside the mind of a historical fiction author?
A: I wrote contemporary fiction for several years before I began to write historical. Historical novels are generally bigger projects, because they require so much research. If there is a fire in the year 1908 in the town of Hoboken, NJ—as was the case in my historical novel Before We Died—would it have been responded to by horse-drawn fire wagons or motorized fire engines? Both were operational in 1908, but which would have been used in Hoboken? It took me hours of research to decide on the horses, and even then I wasn’t one-hundred percent certain I’d made the right choice. The line about the arrival of the fire vehicles in that book was just that—one line.
I agonize over such details when I’m writing historical fiction. But the payoff, for me, is enormous. Writing historical fiction feels like I am working with a partner, a collaborator. In River Aria, I wanted Estela, my protagonist, who grows up in the early 20th century in an impoverished area of Brazil, to study opera. I could not simply have her study opera in high school, because schools in Manaus, the region of Brazil I’d committed to, would not have offered any kind of voice or music classes in that time. More likely, students of all grades studied in one or two school rooms and had very few extracurricular activities. My partner, Historical Authenticity, pushed me to come up with a fictional scenario that would make good sense within the historical context we had to work in. Unlike the horse-drawn fire wagons, the arrival in Manaus of a worldly voice instructor who would have reason to want to teach opera to a handful of “river brats” was not just a one-sentence matter. It drove the plot in a direction I never would have thought to take it if I had not been forced to come up with a fiction that would work side by side within a specific historical context. This is what I love about historical fiction. I get to be surprised.
Q: What makes River Aria special?
A: There are two main settings in River Aria. One is Manaus, Brazil, which, while hard-up economically in 1928, when the book begins, is located in the middle of the world’s largest rainforest and enriched by an amazing history (it had been the headquarters for the South American rubber boom until the boom’s abrupt end in 1912) and a wealth of superstitions, mythologies and folklore originating with the indigenous ancestors of its inhabitants. The other setting is New York City, riding high on the rewards of industrialization, a place where even bell boys are getting rich in a soaring stock market. You could say the two locations are polar opposites.
Estela, who, as mentioned above, has studied opera, and her cousin JoJo, a poor fisherman who happens to be a naturally-talented artist, are compelled to travel from Manaus to New York. But even though Estela has had a highly unique education and JoJo is exceptionally street smart, nothing prepares them for the challenges they face. Why should readers buy it? It’s a full story with lots of drama—speakeasies, rumrunners, people who would take advantage of immigrants, family members who fail to understand boundaries, opera, jazz, art, and even an unlikely romance… all within intriguing historical settings.
Q: What makes a good historical novel?
A: I guess it’s the balance of a vigorous plotline and the right amount of historical information. Strands of both need to be woven together in such a way that readers never feel they are reading a textbook but yet always feel immersed in a particular time and place.
Q: Where can readers find out more about you and your work?
Q: What has writing taught you?
A: Besides my own writing projects, I have written and edited for other people, including ghostwriting books for people with great stories to tell but lacking time or inclination or just needing support with the craft. I’ve also done some agenting for other authors, and I even had my own indie publishing company for a time. Writing has taught me that as long as you are willing to bend a little, to take a broad view of your career path, it is possible to make a living doing what you love.