Author Martha Hall Kelly will join Northwest Passages Book Club virtually to discuss her latest historical fiction novel, “Sunflower Sisters,” at 5 p.m. Friday.
Based on a true story, Kelly’s bestselling debut novel “Lilac Girls” introduced readers to Caroline Ferriday, a New York socialite turned philanthropist who helped 72 women escape from the Ravensbruck concentration camp.
In “Sunflower Sisters,” Kelly introduces readers to Ferriday’s ancestor, Georgeanna Woolsey, a Union nurse and ardent abolitionist.
During the war, Woolsey crosses paths with Jemma, a young enslaved girl, and Anne-May Wilson, a harsh plantation mistress whose husband is fighting for the Confederacy.
After earning two degrees in journalism, Kelly spent years building a career in advertising. “But once I hit three children, I just couldn’t handle working and having kids well,” she said.
Then one Mother’s Day, shortly after her own mother’s passing, Kelly visited the historic Bellamy-Ferriday House and Gardens – that is, Caroline Ferriday’s family home an hour from where Kelly once lived in Fairfield, Connecticut.
After visiting the lilac gardens, she decided to stay and see the house. By chance, there was no one else on the tour that day.
“It was all about Reverend Bellamy, but, at the very end, they talked about Caroline Ferriday,” she said, remembering when she first saw Ferriday’s writing desk.
“There was a photograph on the desk of 50 or so women, and I asked, ‘Who is that?’ And the docent said, ‘Oh, those are the rabbits.’ ”
The docent explained how Ferriday facilitated the rescue of 72 Polish Catholic women that had been experimented on at Ravensbruck concentration camp.
Once Ferriday brought them back to the United States, they didn’t speak English, and many were still recovering from the injustices suffered at Ravensbruck. But Ferriday was able to help.
“I just thought that was the most wonderful story I’d ever heard,” Kelly said.
From that day, Kelly was consumed with the idea of Ferriday, returning to the house frequently to visit the family’s archives and continue her research.
She had found a passion of her own to pursue, one that allowed her to put her journalistic training to good use.
Five years of research later, and quite by accident, Kelly met a literary editor. And five years after that, she published her debut novel. “Lilac Girls” was an instant bestseller.
Kelly does most of her writing in the morning. “The earlier, the better,” she said. “I get right to the computer because I feel like that’s the golden time.”
By about 3 p.m, she usually shifts into research and “other things that don’t require you to be in that fictive dream world.”
She switches between longhand and typing depending on the scene and always writes a detailed outline.
“I started my writing life not writing one,” she said. “But ‘Lilac Girls’ took 10 years to write, and I think part of that was because I kept throwing stuff out.
“I’d go, ‘Wait, Hitler wasn’t there then, so I can’t write this,’ and it was all for naught, so I started doing these really elaborate outlines, and that helps tremendously.”
She covers the walls of her office with character boards. “It helps ground you even if you’re working on a couple of different stories at once,” she said.
To aspiring authors, Kelly offered the following advice.
First, know that the publishing industry is looking for wonderful stories. You don’t need an MFA, you don’t have to be James Patterson. You just have to have a wonderful story.
Second, try to read everything you can about the craft of writing while also reading broadly in and outside your genre.
“Those are my teachers,” she said. “Even if you have an MFA, if you’ve got books on craft that you love and can go back to, that’s a real benefit.”
And, lastly, try to write in scenes.
“Sunflower Sisters” is scheduled for release on Tuesday and available for preorder online through Auntie’s Bookstore.
If you go Martha Hall Kelly When: 5 p.m. Friday Where: spokesman.com/northwest-passages/