K. M. Sandrick is an award-winning freelance medical and science writer based in Chicago. The Pear Tree is her debut novel. Here, long-time friend and colleague Jo Ellen Mistarz asks her about her switch to fiction and how it influenced her writing.
Q: The Pear Tree is your debut novel. But you’ve had years of experience as a nonfiction writer specializing in health care and science. How did you transition to writing historical fiction?
A: I did a lot of the same things I always do: find the facts, then try to figure out an interesting and accurate way to present them. But there’s so much more to fiction. In my freelance work, there is a regular framework. Like any reporting, you begin with an anecdote that gets readers involved, then you present the information step by step and finish with a quote or summary that wraps everything up.
There are so many different ways to approach a work of fiction. In the beginning I had no idea how to even start my story. I tried what to me at the time was a dramatic flashback, but to my first readers, it was a mishmash. I then went on to follow the timeline of the facts step by step, which was deadly dull and did nothing to reveal the characters.
It was then that I realized I had to think another way. I had to learn the basic elements of fiction and try different ways of applying them to my story. It was trial by error.
I often find writing to be like a puzzle. You write yourself into a corner and then have to figure out how to get out of it. There were a lot more corners I got myself into with fiction.
Q: What changed about your writing when you began to write fiction?
A: I have to say that writing fiction has made me a far better writer than I used to be. I have become a much better observer and critic of my own work. I now look for new ways of imparting information, new and more precise words to describe what I’m trying to say. It’s added excitement to once was pretty much a daily routine. I can say I am truly enjoying what I do, no matter what kind of writing it is.
Q: How did you balance the need to be historically accurate with the need to tell personal fictional stories?
A: My thought from the very beginning was to try to place readers in the situation as realistically as possible by letting them experience what the characters were going through, how they were feeling, what they were seeing, hearing, smelling. After my initial research into times, dates, what was actually going on and when, I looked for the places, the surroundings, the small facts that fill out the picture. I was amazed at the detail I could find. Temperatures on specific dates in 1942 and 1945 made it possible for me to depict how characters were feeling--hot and sweaty, slogging through mud after a heavy rain. Photos were particularly helpful. Once I saw actual settings, I could imagine how a character would be reacting. One time I watched a virtual flythrough of Čzernín Palace and its grand staircase with light hitting the fresco in the ceiling from octagonal windows set high up the walls. From that I got a sense of one of my characters and his reactions: how his hand traced the marble balustrade as he walked up the steps, how he looked at the painting, and how he felt at that time and place.
Q: Did you read other authors on your topic? Were you inspired by any particular writers or documents?
A: I read, or at least skimmed, many books on the mechanics of writing fiction--character development, writing and particularly ending scenes. I also spent a lot of time reading other writers of historical fiction or popular history. One of the most influential was Erik Larson. His Devil in the White City and other books gave me ideas about how to set my own scenes. When I read Devil, I could imagine myself back in Chicago in that time period. I could feel myself walking down the street, seeing store fronts and people illuminated by street lamps, even smelling horse droppings from the carriages. I wanted to create the same kind of reactions for readers of my own book.
K.M. Sandrick is a member of the Chicago Science Writers, Chicago Writers Association, Illinois Women’s Press Association, Midwest Writers Group, Authors’ Guild, and Historical Novel Society. She continues to write on a freelance basis for medical and hospital professional audiences. She is a past president of the Chicago chapter of the American Medical Writers Association and current co-chair for programming of the Chicago Science Writers. She is also a vice president of the League of Women Voters of Chicago.