I seem to be posting a lot lately about the paradoxes of the writing life, and here’s another one (honestly, I do think of other things sometimes): Fiction writers tell lies to reveal truths.
At least this is what I was told by a wise friend just the other day, and his words came back to me as I read Cynthia’s post. He was right, which is why my historical novel required research and fact checking, though not to the extent that Cynthia’s work of non-fiction did. In my other job, as an archaeologist, I have done plenty of first hand research, some of it historical and archival of the sort Cynthia did for her upcoming book on the Birmingham Children’s March, and like Cynthia, that research has usually aimed to discover the truth of what happened in the past and convey it with accuracy and sensitivity.
Researching my novel was a little different. MAGIC CARP (to be renamed soon), is the story of a family of Bohemian immigrants working in the coal mine district of southern Colorado at the beginning of the twentieth century. Trina and her family never existed, so I didn’t have to worry about getting the details of my plot historically accurate. My story comes with the luxury of that disclaimer that you see at the end of movies if you are one of the few that stick around watching the credits: the characters and events are purely fictional and any similarities to events or people alive or dead is entirely coincidental. (I wish I could also give you the “no animals were harmed” disclaimer, but I am sorry to say there are some chickens in my novel that meet with an evil fate. Fortunately, they also are purely fictitious, so no REAL animals were harmed.)
Even though my plot is all a lie, schemed up in my dishonest little imagination, I still did plenty of research because of that paradox above–the need to reveal truths. Of course the truths my friend was talking about, the ones I really want to reveal as a writer of middle grade fiction, are truths about the human spirit, the things that make us all tick, and the things we can accomplish if we really set out minds to it. These are truths of such a grand scale that research comes in the form of life–I’ve been doing research for this book, and for every book I will ever write, since the day I was born. Wow, am I qualified!
I’m not off the hook, however, when it comes to historical research. Because while I don’t have to get the facts straight about the plot, and while the grand truths of life are known to me through living, I still have to set those actions and grand truths into a setting filled with enough detail to transport the reader to a different time and place, and to convince them that I am not lying (even though, of course, I am. Never trust a fiction writer.) I want my reader to fall head-first into 1901, into the filth and tedium that was a coal mining camp, into the life of a hopeful young immigrant. To convince them it’s real, I need detail. And I WANT to get it right–events in Colorado’s coal camps were historically significant and did impact the history of our nation. I want to do that justice!
So while Cynthia’s book research allowed her to bring together the threads of real lives that together weave into the fabric of history, my book’s research aimed to sew on the sequins to that fabric. And the interesting thing about needing little details instead of significant facts, is that historians haven’t always bothered to record those little details of ordinary lives. Do you ever remember reading in a history book anything about the kinds of shoes a coal miner’s wife wore, or what a can of plums cost in 1901?
To make my characters and their settings feel real, I needed details about Bohemia (a part of the Czech Republic) to give them a past, about southern Colorado coal camps to create their present, and about land values in 1901, to give them a future. Like Cynthia, I read books on the topic; Rick Clyne’s book Coal People, filled with oral histories as well as historical research was immensely helpful. But most of my detail research came through my own exploration of primary documents, in the form of photographs and newspaper articles.
This is dangerous work. I love poring over old photographs, and I can get lost in them for hours, looking at the details. Some of my best information comes from things in the photos that weren’t even the focus of the photographer, like the things or people in the background. What do the houses look like? Is the paint peeling or are is everything well kept? How are people dressed, and what does it say about them? These are the details that help me make the setting real, that I spend time looking for in photos.
Fortunately, this kind of research is easier than it used to be, thanks to a cool little tool called the internet (maybe you’ve heard of it?) Several wonderful archives of historic photos are available to the public, like the U.S. National Archives, or the Western History Archives of the Denver Public Library. By typing in “Coal Mining 1900” I suddenly had a wealth of setting details at my fingertips.
Reading old newspapers was harder (and harder on the eyes), but fun too. This was done at the microfilm reader of my local library, where several different newspapers from 1901 were available, filled with ads saying things like “Fancy Plums and Peaches, 1½ cents a can!” right next to articles saying “Thursday last, Mrs. Thompson’s cow got loose and caused quite a ruckus in John Wilson’s cabbage patch.”
Like I said, it’s dangerous work. You can get lost easily, but when you find your way back out, you will have a head full of details worthy of masking your lies and revealing your truths. And what could be more rewarding than that?