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On Memory and Fiction: Part Eight

(Read Part Seven here.)

Heather Terrell is the author of The Map Thief, a novel that takes place in early-15th-century China and the Ming Dynasty, late-15th-century Portugal and the European Age of Discovery, and the modern-day world. I discovered Heather's work when I read her debut novel, The Chrysalis, last year, and I wrote her a fan letter.

MJR: When you write about the past, it's extremely vivid and dramatic. Your characters inhabit that space and yet are still completely relevant and relatable. How do you accomplish that?

Terrell: To plunge into the past, I immerse myself into the real people who inhabited the time period and the finer points of their lives and settings — by studying original sources wherever possible, and the visual aspects of their lives when available. For example, in The Map Thief, to capture the worlds of the early-15th-century Chinese mapmaker who created the map and the late-15th-century Portuguese cartographer and navigator who used it, I reviewed the journals of the historian on board the Ming Dynasty sea voyages as well as the first-hand accounts from those on Vasco da Gama's expeditions, among other things. In fact, I ordered so many rare, obscure historical texts from my library that the librarians thought I was writing my Ph.D. thesis on eunuchs in Ming Dynasty China, and asked me to lecture about that topic — before they learned I was writing a novel.

I believe that we can tap into the mindset of those who lived in the past by familiarizing ourselves with the real details of their existences — and that we can bring them alive with our creativity. That is the goal I strive for, in any event.

When historical fiction is well written, it does seem to have sprung from the psyches and memories of those who lived long ago. And, who knows, perhaps it does...

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Visit M. J. Rose at her website ( or read her daily blog ( on reincarnation facts, philosophy, and curiosities. Her most recent novel, The Memorist, is an Indie Next pick.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. The Memorist
    Used Hardcover $4.95
  2. The Map Thief Used Hardcover $6.50
  3. The Chrysalis Used Mass Market $3.50

M. J. Rose is the author of The Memorist

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