August 2, 2011

Lies in History (Guest Post by Julie Chibbaro)

I really love the Historical Fiction Challenge Sabrina has put out to readers, so I offered to write about some of the difficulties I had doing research for my novel Deadly, the fictional diary of a 16-year-old girl who hunts down the reason for a typhoid epidemic in 1906.

The biggest problem, really, was figuring out the truth of Typhoid Mary’s story. History is, unfortunately, full of lies. History consists of stories that people tell us to fill in the gaps of what happened when (kinda like fiction, I guess). But who’s the authority? If two sources are telling me two different things, which do I believe?

History is what’s happening right now, but retold 10, 35, 105 years from now. So long ago, all we have are the leftovers – documents like newspaper articles, birth or death certificates, medical records, and first-hand (subjective) accounts. Imagine you are the only one left in the world to tell what the year 2010 was like. Would your story be different from, say, Bernie Madoff’s, or Michelle Obama’s? Would your birth certificate tell someone 100 years from now who you were? What about that vast inner life that every single person on earth possesses? How can anyone truly translate that? How can we call these leftover documents, these subjective retellings, history?

DeadlyStarting my research for Deadly, I wondered, was Typhoid Mary a terrifying serial killer who intentionally set out to murder people with her cooking, as I had heard as a kid, or was she a product of her time – the early 20th century, when most people didn’t know what the term “germ” meant – as I suspected?

I found a book written by a historian who was able to gather data from a huge variety of sources – newspapers, medical journals, and her own studies of health, medicine, and social dynamics – to write a nearly objective picture of Typhoid Mary, how and why she was hunted down, captured, and held in captivity for most of her life. I combined this ‘factual’ tale with the internal life of a fictional girl scientist, and came up with the novel Deadly. Sometimes, in my own search for what really happened in the past, I find the truest stories in fiction.


Julie Chibbaro is the author of Deadly (2011), a medical mystery about the hunt for Typhoid Mary. Her first book, Redemption (2004), an epic tale of love, kidnapping, and white Indians, won the 2005 American Book Award.


  1. I read DEADLY last week after my Indie Bookseller recommened it. Thanks, Julie, for writing this book which put a face and story to a vague name I'd heard all my life.

  2. thanks for this amazing post.i like this type of post.your blog is really amazing.


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