YVONNE LEHMAN (www.yvonnelehman.com) is an award-winning, best-selling novelist with forty-eight books published. She founded and directed the Blue Ridge Christian Writers Conference for twenty-five years and now directs the Blue Ridge “Summer in the Mountains” Novelist Retreat held in conjunction with the Gideon Media Arts Conference (gideonfilmfestival.com), and directs the Blue Ridge “Autumn in the Mountains” Novelist Retreat held each October at Ridgecrest/LifeWay Conference Center in North Carolina. She teaches at writers conferences and is a mentor for the Christian Writers Guild.
Research for Hawaii Historical Novels
What could be more romantic than writing a series of historical Hawaii novels? After all, Hawaii is a tourist mecca where thousands go there each year for vacations, weddings, and honeymoons.
I felt sure that my words and imagination would flow, since I had already written one contemporary Hawaii novel, my three daughters had visited there, and I have a writer-friend who lives in Hawaii.
Well . . . I had a lot to learn!
My contemporary novel’s, Hawaii Heartbeat, American heroine visits the islands for the first time. My American hero has lived there only a few years. The plot revolves around these two and their inner conflicts. From my daughters’ telling me about their visit and seeing their photos, I was able to sufficiently present Hawaiian scenery, a luau, and the setting.
However, as I began research for the historical series, I discovered there is much more to Hawaii than islands sparkling like jewels in the sea, warm breezes in the palm trees, beautiful girls swaying the hula, and ukuleles softly playing. Writing these books entailed much more than putting historical characters into the setting I envisioned.
I read James Mitchner’s Hawaii and searched the Internet. I checked out books from the library (children’s books are helpful with basic information), bought books that I marked up, viewed DVDs about Hawaii, and watched movies set there. I read books set in Hawaii to see how other authors handled their stories. Writer friends who had visited Hawaii offered their impressions and experiences. But the more I learned, the more there was to learn. This place of incredible beauty is also one of constant change and turmoil.
Questions abounded and I felt overwhelmed with the abundance of information and frequency of change throughout the Hawaiian islands. Should I write about the eras of early missionaries, differences between myth and faith, numerous nationalities, royalty, whaling industry, ranching, or sugar production? What time period should I use, since I’d have to work around or include events like tsunamis, volcano eruptions, annexation into the U.S., and the bombing of Pearl Harbor? Then there was the problem of communication between not only Hawaii and the U.S. but also the islands. I had to learn when travel changed from five- to six-month-long voyages to shorter periods, and when automobiles replaced horses. What about fashion, electricity, and indoor plumbing?
I had to narrow any historical periods in which my stories would be set. I learned about the early missionaries and that Hawaii had cowboys before the U.S. did. The idea of a Hawaiian cowboy intrigued me, particularly since they wore flowers on their hats. I decided to set my story primarily on the island of Hilo in 1889–90. My American characters travel by ship for five months from the U.S. to the island. For Aloha Love, a Hawaiian rancher is my hero and the story includes royalty and religious myths, as well as Christianity.
Each book is set in a different chronological time period. Although my research for the first book helped tremendously in my knowledge of the islands and people and served as background information, I had to research an entirely different way of life. Royalty was no more. Hawaii became a U. S. territory. Whaling industry for oil waned with the onset of electricity. Ranching became less important and the sugarcane industry more important.
In the early 1900s, tens of thousands of Japanese men sailed to Hawaii to work in the sugarcane fields. Because no women accompanied them, using only photographs and recommendations, matchmakers in Japan paired Japanese women with the men working in Hawaii. That intrigued me, sounding like an expanded version of mail-order brides. I use this situation in Picture Bride and include some American characters who get unintentionally involved in the matchmaking process. My Hawaiian character is, of course, involved in the sugarcane industry.
I set the third novel, Love from Ashes, in 1946 after WWII. I already had a fair knowledge of the Pearl Harbor bombing but I needed to research the effect it had on the people of Hawaii and how the thousands of Japanese there were involved and treated. Since my readers are familiar with the setting and my continuing characters from the first two books, I set this one in Hilo too. This book takes on not only the race issue, but cultural differences and two main characters whose native countries were wartime enemies less than a year earlier.
As I developed my plot for the third book, and the time period of 1946, I needed to find out if any drastic changes had occurred in Hilo. They had. A tsunami hit Hilo and destroyed much of the town, businesses, schools and killed many people, including school children. Had I not researched the date of 1946 and if I had written that book without the tsunami being of primary importance, the book would have been a disaster. Of course, I use the tsunami as an important part of the book, affecting my main Hawaiian character and her family. But my discovering that a tsunami had hit helped me decide to make this character a builder and carpenter before having gone to war.
My American character visits the area where his brother died and tries to find people who had known him. He volunteers to help with rebuilding after the tsunami hits, and therefore becomes acquainted with the Hawaiian characters.
Finding out the history of a place can become a fascinating, even lifelong, endeavor. Contrasting places, cultures, and people requires exhaustive research. But the rewards are worth it. Hawaii has become to me not only a place of incredible beauty, but one of rich history, many cultures contrasting and complementing one another. The islands have a distinct smell, unique features and weather patterns, particular fashion and their own brand of music, gorgeous plants and flowers are found nowhere else, and one can experience food from almost every country imaginable.
These books, which I thought would be my easiest to write, required more research, reading, studying, thinking about than any of my others. I worked hard on this series, but I am pleased with what I learned and how the books turned out. Recently I heard from several readers who loved the stories. One was reminded of her sister’s Hawaiian wedding. The books reminded another of “the good old days.” Another said she skips paragraphs when reading but didn’t skip a thing in the Hawaii books. Encouragement like that keeps me researching and writing.
The three books will be released by Barbour in a collection Aloha Brides in April 2011.