MJ Rose’s Backstory: Susanne Dunlap

I have a confession to make. The idea for In the Shadow of the Lamp, my new young-adult historical novel, wasn’t entirely mine. It was actually my editor at Bloomsbury, Melanie Cecka, who said while we were having lunch near Union Square one day about a year and a half ago, “I’d love to see you write a book about Florence Nightingale.”

Frankly, I hadn’t really given Florence Nightingale much thought—not since I was a young girl, anyway, when I was going through a caregiving phase. I wanted to be Florence Nightingale, or Clara Barton, or a veterinarian. That phase followed closely on the one where I wanted to be a nun. I wasn’t Catholic, you understand, but I was jealous of all my friends who went to parochial school and got extra holidays.

Nonetheless, when your editor (who has successfully shepherded you through two young-adult historical novels and is still interested in working with you) suggests a subject—it behooves you to listen.

So I went home and immediately started doing some digging around. The first thing I discovered was that at the most interesting time of her life—when she was in the Crimea tending to the wounded and dying British soldiers—Florence was 35 years old. Gulp. Hard to write a young-adult novel with a 35-year-old heroine. What was Melanie thinking?

Then I discovered, too, that Florence wasn’t the bleeding-heart, bedside soother many people think she was. In fact, her main strength was in seeing the big picture, gathering data, understanding the way a hospital should be managed to make the care of the patients humane and effective. As far as principles of nursing went, hers consisted mainly of ensuring patients had clean surroundings, the right food, and plenty of air and light.

Florence was also pretty authoritarian, and got right up the noses of the hospital administrators and the army doctors in Turkey. All in all, not exactly warm and fuzzy.

So what next? Where was the young adult story in a woman like that? Any romance in her life was over before she went to the Crimea. She turned down a proposal of marriage from the one man who might have been her soul mate. And when she came back, she was virtually an invalid, living a very retiring but long life, writing about nursing.

“Aha!” I thought one day. “I could write from the point of view of one of the nurses who actually went with her!” Except, of course, that Florence stipulated that the nurses who made the journey to the Crimea had to be at least 24 years old, preferably older. She didn’t want any shenanigans among the nurses and soldiers. That image of Florence Nightingale floating through the dark wards at night by the light of an oil lamp? She did it, apparently, because she didn’t trust her nurses to behave around the men.

But despite all the obstacles, the idea wouldn’t go away. I was becoming as fascinated with Florence and her crusade to haul the British army medical corps into the modern era as Melanie was.

Fortunately, at some point while I was doing my research, a voice started speaking to me. It was a young voice, female, and it had a very thick London East End accent. Not Florence, then, who was from a wealthy family. I would know: I lived in London for ten years of my adult life, and have a variety of London and British regional accents in my ear still. The voice, which I soon discovered belonged to a fictional parlormaid named Molly Fraser, spoke to me distinctly, with all its dropped H’s, F’s instead of TH’s, and glottal stops. And she distinctly said that she was only 16. That meant I had to find a way for Molly to sneak in among the nurses and lie about her age. Before I knew it, a plot was taking shape.

The irony of all this is that Molly is one of my favorite characters I have ever written into a novel. Something about her spunk and honesty, her warm-heartedness and trust, touches me. I know I shouldn’t say that, because after all she came from my own imagination. But as other authors know, there are ways in which we’re only vessels for something that flows through us from somewhere else, and by some process of alchemy ends up on the page.

In the case of Molly, I half suspect there’s a ghost of a parlormaid somewhere who dreamt of going with Florence Nightingale on her grand, Crimean adventure, who heard my psyche casting about for a heroine, and started whispering in my ear.

All I can say is thank you, Molly, whoever you are. And phew! It’s good to get that off my chest.

(Susanne Dunlap turned to writing historical fiction after 11 years in graduate school studying music history and earning a PhD. She made the transition to young adult with her third novel, The Musician’s Daughter, and hasn’t looked back since. She can be found at her website: www.susannedunlap.com.)

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1 Comment to MJ Rose’s Backstory: Susanne Dunlap

  1. March 15, 2011 at 9:20 am | Permalink

    Susanne, thank you for this post. I loved reading about how you took an idea from your editor and followed it almost as an act of faith, researching and exploring until the narrator of your novel came to the forefront of your mind and joined you to write the book. Amazing!

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