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A Child of Ukraine Writing Historical Fiction

A Guest Post by Tetyana Denford

Someone once said, “writing historical fiction is the most random and strange process: you are writing an incredibly emotional scene, and then you stop and open a tab to research ‘when towels were invented’.” And here I was thinking that all books were written like that, but it was the first time I felt seen in my process. Because let’s be honest, historical fiction writers cannot just happily invent events, places, or even people and their habits sometimes; it really is a bit of a minefield navigating this genre, but one that many of us are happy to do. I never thought I’d be a historical fiction author, but I have my grandparents and great-grandparents to thank for that- I’m a first-generation (born in New York) Ukrainian woman, and my family are all from Ukraine. And because we have a colorful past, I’ve become a storyteller to see if my future can learn from it all. It’s not easy, but lately, I’ve realized it’s absolutely necessary. History has a habit of repeating itself, as we all know. And the thing that Ukrainians recently have been ‘ready’ for is yet another attack on their culture, their land, and their very sovereignty. When February happened, I remember I was in a point in my career where I had successfully self-published my first novel in 2020, and I was in the process of self-publishing a few more books after that, all poetry and prose. But my first novel was based on true events that my grandparents and parents had gone through during WWII. I wrote this story for myself, for them, and for my family. But I realized, it *was* historical fiction, so… was I a historical fiction author? Or was I just hoping that people connect to my words, to ask themselves about their own family story? Turns out, after the war happened in Feb 2022, I was both.

A fire erupted in the center of me, and suddenly I realized that if I was going to walk in the shoes of a storyteller, I was going to commit myself even further to not only my own stories, but to engage with people all over the world who never knew about Ukraine, about Ukrainians, and even about their own family stories and living history; what better way to embody a historical fiction author than to tell people that history matters and that stories matter? Now was the time. My intention was never to sign with a publisher or an agent; my intention was to keep writing and keep self-publishing. But when Bookouture (the digital imprint of Hachette) contacted me because they were compelled by my first novel (Motherland was the original title), I wanted to listen to what they had to say and what they saw for the future of this particular story. And when I was lucky enough to meet this team and hear their process and their story, I knew it was not only the right fit for my career as a historical fiction author, but also the right fit for how widely I wanted the reach for Ukrainian stories; I felt like I could be one of the many voices in the chorus telling the world about who Ukrainians really are, and why they are so resilient and hell-bent on thinking about hope in a time of such upheaval and destruction.

My book (renamed The Child of Ukraine) has now been re-released and I’m working on a brand new manuscript (out in 2023) and it’s given me a beautiful new realization about the magic of historical fiction: we are all the storytellers of unheard, hidden, and powerful stories of hope, empowerment, grief, rebuilding, familial dynamics, parenthood during strife, and the importance of learning from our decisions. It is one of the most important things I can do for myself, for my children, and for a greater impact on my audience and even further: the amplification of new stories and new voices, and the way that people can challenge themselves by reading things that aren’t necessarily readily available on the bookshelf or promoted in magazines all the time. If humans are creatures of habit, then maybe new habits might shift how we perceive the world and might change how we approach what we read. Despite the upheaval that my family and friends in Ukraine are currently going through, one of the most amazing things is the encouragement for art to stand as rebellion, creation as a war effort, so that all of us can shift the narrative onto stories rather than war and grief, art instead of bloodshed and loss. And maybe that’s one of the most important things about historical fiction: to take an incredibly important event and add a bit of literary magic to it so that people lean into history instead of turning away from it.




Tetyana Denford is a Ukrainian-American historical fiction author, poet, and translator for Frontline News.

She has been featured in The Telegraph, The New York Times, The Paris Review, and her first novel, Motherland, details her immigrant family's escape from wartime Ukraine and was originally longlisted for the Reader’s Digest Self-Published Book Awards- it was re-released on July 20th 2022 by the Hachette imprint Bookouture, renamed as The Child of Ukraine. Tetyana also hosts The Craft and Business of Books on YouTube— all about how to navigate the creative process of writing a book and understanding the publishing industry. She currently lives in New York.

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