The Seeds of Historical Fiction

Where do I get the ideas for my historical novels? The answer isn’t simple. I might get the seed of an idea from one place, then find another seed somewhere else; several ideas come together and germinate into the plot of a novel. Let me tell you about one of the seeds for my recently published novel, Testimony.

I don’t expect many people have heard of Martha Deane. I would never have heard of her myself if I hadn’t stumbled on an article titled “The Case of Martha Deane: Sexuality and Power at Cold War UCLA” by Kathleen Weiler.

Professor Martha Deane

In 1952, Deane was a full professor of Physical Education at UCLA, having taught dance for almost 30 years. Well-known in her field and a respected teacher, she was one of only two female full professors on campus.

Then, in the fall of that year, the university received an anonymous letter complaining about Deane. The writer, possibly a disgruntled neighbor, reported seeing Deane kiss another woman through the window of her own home.

The woman with Deane was her partner, Ruth Fulton, an assistant professor. When confronted, Fulton resigned, but Deane stood firm against allegations of “unprofessional conduct” and “moral turpitude.” Even though a faculty committee recommended her exoneration, the dean suspended her without pay.

Female faculty banded together to help support Deane financially during her lengthy hearing process. Finally, probably worn down from the ordeal, Deane settled with the university and left for early retirement. UCLA scrubbed her case from its records, but Weiler, an education historian, unearthed the story 50 years later.

Dean herself never spoke or wrote about what happened; maybe it was a condition of her retirement. When interviewed for a UCLA oral history project in 1966, she made a vague reference to the early 1950s. “It’s a time that I couldn’t even sort out in my mind if I had to,” she said. “It was a time of great turbulence on the campus … and a real reactionary kind of force coming in.”

Deane’s story ends on a positive note. “She survived all this unbroken, how I don’t quite know,” one of her female colleagues reported. Deane and Fulton built their own house in a rural area outside of Los Angeles, and Deane became active in the League of Women Voters.

Testimony took some of its inspiration from Deane’s story—I’ve been married to a female professor for 28 years, and Deane’s story pushed buttons. I transported my novel to Virginia in 1960, but cases similar to Deane’s have been plentiful throughout the country. Another seed: Renowned literature professor and scholar Newton Arvin—a gay man who was once lovers with Truman Capote—lost his position at Smith College in 1960 for “possession of obscene photographs.”

Like so many people fired for simply being queer, Deane and Arvin—and my protagonist, Gen Rider—endured much more than the loss of their livelihoods. As Weiler puts it, Deane lost “a central part of her identity.”