Here’s a very abbreviated peek at how the book came together over nearly four years.
January 2015: Editor Kristin Rens at HarperCollins contacted my agent, Ginger Clark, with the question: “Would Elizabeth ever be interested in writing a nonfiction book about the Night Witches (or any other nonfiction for young readers, for that matter)?”
To which I responded with an unguarded, “WHY YES. YES SHE WOULD.”
March 2015: HarperCollins makes an offer for my services.
April 2015: I start reading MANY BOOKS.
I knew who the Night Witches were – Soviet women who flew World War II bombing missions in flimsy bi-planes made of balsa wood and fabric. But I didn’t know much about how they got the job. My early reading made me aware that I was going to have to include a small-scale history of the Soviet Union if this story was to make any sense at all to a Western reader.
The last time I worked on a non-fiction project of this scale, it was my PhD thesis. For that, I did my academic research in the Bodleian library in Oxford, whose catalogue at the time was kept in handwritten leather-bound books. Nostalgically anticipating the work I’d be doing for my new assignment, I foolishly bought a supply of index cards.
I took a bunch of notes on a few of them and then recycled them.
June 2015: At this point, I’d learned that the Night Witches were only a small part of the picture. I knew that the story I wanted to tell had to include three different Soviet women’s aviation regiments, and I needed to focus on one pioneering woman, Marina Raskova, the celebrity aviator who brought them together.
July 2015: Sitting on a picnic bench below the Cape May Lighthouse, I made the first of many calls to Kristin, and discussed the way to structure the book.
Nothing that got proposed in this conversation actually made it into the final draft.
August 2015: The contract is signed!
September 2015 – September 2016: I worked on writing something else (The Pearl Thief, my most recent novel with Hyperion, published in 2017) – all the while reading and taking notes on the Soviet Union.
November 2016: I decided to go to Russia with someone I met on Twitter.
No lie –YA author Amber Lough, who was also researching a historical project about Russian military women, suggested we travel together. The travel arrangements got made in about three weeks, and Amber and I met in real life for the first time in a hotel in St. Petersburg. The entire city was under a blanket of snow two feet deep. For me, the highlight of this research trip – though not technically research itself – was visiting Marina Raskova’s grave in the Kremlin Wall.
Fortunately I’d saved the partial manuscript on a memory stick, and for the next month I continued to work on an object dubbed “Frankenpooter”: constructed by my IT-genius son, it consisted of a $70 android tablet, an external keyboard, and an external hard drive. It was impossible to connect the keyboard and a power source at the same time, so I had to work in two-hour increments: type like crazy till the battery died, then switch plugs and charge up again.
January 2017: About a third of the book is handed in on time.
February – December 2017: Probably the most productive year of my life, as I completed the proposed “Night Witches” manuscript – now called A Thousand Sisters – and wrote two other books at the same time.
January 2018: We realize A Thousand Sisters is about 150 pages too long for middle-grade non-fiction, and…
February 2018: …Much to everyone’s relief, Kristin manages to bump it up to her young adult list.
April – October 2018: Editing, tightening; pulling in an expert reader; finding and choosing appropriate photographs for illustrations; organizing and checking the endnotes; copyediting; creating an index and maps; creating the cover.
Although I wrote and researched the book, there is so much that I had help with. A team of researchers at HarperCollins tracked down and got permissions for the photos, created the index, cross-referenced my notes with the correct page numbers, and fact-checked details like crazy.
November 2018: The first professional review comes in the day after we finish correcting the final map image.
Which leads us to:
January 22, 2019: RELEASE DAY!
I have NO REGRETS.
Elizabeth's writing spot for A Thousand Sisters - her daughter's flat (at the time) in Salisbury in the attic of a building built in 1666 with a view of Salisbury Cathedral!