Aimie K. Runyan has been drawn to historical fiction for most of her life. It “has the ability to transport you through time and space, where contemporary fiction has less of that. It requires so much more description, and makes the writing so much more vibrant, which is one of the joys, and challenges, of the genre,” said Runyan. In her latest book, Daughters of the Night Sky, Runyan takes the reader to the front lines of World War II in Soviet Russia, and tells a tale of war, flight, and women’s rights.
The process of writing text that transports the reader to another time period proved to be a logistical challenge. Runyan wrote most of Daughters of the Night Sky in stolen moments: in a study room at the county library to minimize distractions, by putting her gym membership to good use by writing in the lobby of the gym, or in the home office any time Runyan’s daughter had gone to preschool. Because she’s so used to writing wherever she can find a place and whenever she can get a moment, Runyan rarely writes without her earphones, and the sensation of wearing them is something she has to have to focus.
Runyan knew that she wanted to tell the story of the Night Witches, the women pilots of Soviet Russia during WWII, and she needed a strong, female protagonist to do so. However, it took a lot of work before the book’s main character, Kayta Ivanova, revealed herself to Runyan. “I had to do more freewriting than normal to get inside that woman’s head,” Runyan told Spine. “I didn’t have a lot in common with the main character, so it took a long time to get her to talk to me.” After taking Myers-Briggs personality tests, freewriting, and writing responses to letters sent from Katya’s friends and family, Runyan finally felt she understand Katya’s motives and decisions as a character.
Runyan knew for her historical war novel to feel authentic, Katya and her crew needed to be surrounded by other people. "It needed to feel like there were a gaggle of pilots around," she said. Creating these characters did not prove as difficult as creating Katya. Runyan found Vanya, Katya’s love interest, through a Google image search of Russian movie stars from the 1930s, and proceeded to write a backstory for him. Several of the other characters are based on actual historical figures from the war.
Toeing the fine line between creative freedom and historical accuracy is crucial to successful historical fiction works. “Readers care more about the details; whether or not you’re using a sterling silver hairbrush in the 1600s, instead of wood or ivory.” Runyan knew that readers would be forgiving if a character was placed slightly out of historical context, but not if she got one of the book’s most crucial details wrong: flight. Runyan knew that to get it right, she would need to do more than research the planes; she would need to fly.
Runyan found a veteran with a restored Stearman biplane who agreed to take her up. They ran dives and maneuvers that the pilots would have done during the war. He let Runyan touch the controls, and interact with the restored biplane, which was almost identical to the plane that Katya would have flown - “wooden, and covered with Irish Linen and a few aluminum straps.” The experience was the best part of Runyan’s research. “It was absolutely amazing to feel how sparse the plane was,” she remarked.
A female pilot took the opportunity to beta read the novel for Runyan, to offer perspective on what it was like to be female in the male-dominated world of flight. Runyan felt that to truly understand the difficulties that Katya and her fellow pilots faced, she needed an insider’s perspective. Sexual harassment, unequal equipment, and poor living conditions became the plight of these women pilots, and Runyan’s source told her that in the world of flight, not much has changed since the wars.
At its heart, Runyan's book celebrates the accomplishment of pioneering women. Despite facing unrelenting pushback from her male superiors, Katya becomes a pilot, as did her real-life counterparts. “My goal in writing this book was to honor these women and everything they went through,” she said, “without putting too much of my modern filter on what these women went through.”
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Brittany is an educator by day, and writer whenever she has time to fit it in. She's passionate about sharing her love of books and writing with the next generation and her peers. Brittany prefers to spend her time reading, crafting, and playing board games.