Ideas from History


The WEbook guest author series continues with Mary Doria Russell, author of four novels—two science fiction and two historical fiction. Mary's subjects have varied from alien species to Winston Churchill, so she decided to write her post about how she chooses her topics.

Take it away, Mary!

Authors are always asked, Where do you get your ideas? From history, is my answer, even though my first two novels are science fiction.

The Sparrow The Sparrow
was my response to the 500th anniversary of Columbus landing in the New World, and to the historical revisionism that started up in early 1992. Suddenly, Columbus wasn't a hero anymore; he was a disease-ridden capitalist exploiter who came to America to plunder, rape and kill. Now, granted: things got ugly fast in the Americas, but it's not like Columbus woke up one morning and thought, “Depopulating a couple of continents might be fun... I think I'll get a ship and sail west.” He thought he was going to Japan.

The Sparrow put modern, intelligent, well-meaning people into the same position of radical ignorance that Columbus and his men faced. Children of God was set on another planet, but that story drew on the 1917 Russian revolution. A Thread of Grace got its start when I read that 85% of the Jews of Italy survived the Holocaust. (I'll be damned, I thought. What went right in Italy?) While my nephew was commanding a platoon of Marines in Al-Anbar Province, I wrote Dreamers of the Day, tracing the roots of the Iraq war back to the 1921 Cairo “peace” conference, when Winston Churchill, Gertrude Bell and T.E. Lawrence invented the modern Middle East.

Dreamers of the Day While watching the movie “Tombstone,” I wondered, How much of that was real? I started with biographies, and fell in love with Doc Holliday. Or, more accurately: I fell in love with Alice Jane Holliday's shy, frail, brave little boy, John Henry. Doc is his story, and he is going to break...your...heart.

So that's how it works for me. I hear something surprising. I'm reminded of something I accepted without question as a child. I start reading and sometimes... I fall in love. I hear dialog in the middle of the night, or while I'm standing in the shower. I accumulate scraps of paper with scribbled notes. Finally I open a file and get to work.

Of course, I don't always get that far. When Fess Parker died, I read about Davy Crockett, the iconic frontier figure Parker played on TV in the 1950s. I realized that David Crockett was the precise 19th century analog of Sarah Palin, but I quit on the subject because I didn't love David Crockett or anyone around him. Not even a little. There's a novel in Crockett's political life, but someone else will have to write it.

Is that you? Tell people you got the idea from WEbook!

Mary Mary Doria Russell's published novels include The Sparrow, Children of God, Thread of Grace, and Dreamers of the Day. Her fifth novel, Doc, will be published in May, 2011, by Random House. Learn more about Mary at or join her facebook fan page.

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  1. Dear Ms. Russell,
    Like you I am inspired by history. Currently I am writing a weblog documenting my adventures in Historical Simulations. The title of the weblog is "Timekeepers - The End of the Beginning", a title inspired by Winston Churchill’s quote: “This is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”
    Your novel, “Dreamers of the Day” sounds interesting. Can you tell me more about it?


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