The Honest Truth behind My Lies (or why you can only trust a fiction writer for the little stuff)

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.

Digging for facts takes on a more literal meaning in my other line of work (I am the one in the very right hand corner, bending over by a wheelbarrow, in case you were wondering.)

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!

Monument honoring the Ludlow Massacre, a labor dispute in Colorado's coal camps that had a significant impact on labor issues in early 20th Century America

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.

Libraries are such useful places! My local library even has it's own history sculpture right out front.

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?



Filed under Research, Writing

11 responses to “The Honest Truth behind My Lies (or why you can only trust a fiction writer for the little stuff)

  1. While I love reading historical fiction, I’ve never felt tempted to write it because I had a pretty good idea of the level of research needed just to get your main character out of bed in the morning. But contemporary fiction has its own challenges. Right now I have a German dictionary, an old Rick Steves guide to Italy and ART FOR DUMMIES on my desk. (The last book was written by a former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, so it has a higher tone than the title might suggest.)


    • Thanks for your comment, Kristin, because you make an important point. All writers have to set the stage, and so we all have to do research; that is in no way unique to historical fiction.

      I’m glad too that you mention an old Rick Steve’s guide to Italy. It is funny what sources turn out to be the most useful. I have never been to Bohemia, where my characters originate, but I wanted to have a feel for what sort of things they would feel homesick about after leaving there. I looked at travel websites, books, etc. Ultimately, the sources that were most useful for me to really get a feel for that region were the geography books for kids in the children’s section of the library. They just focused on the right kinds of things that kids would notice or feel, and they had a lot more great pictures in them than the books for adults.

      One day I was at the library checking out a huge stack of kids’ geography books on the Czech Republic, Eastern European fairy tales (which figure prominantly in my story), and a kids’ cookbook full of favorite Czech foods and recipes. The librarian smiled at me and said “Nice to see a mom helping a kid out on their school report. He must have put it off to the last minute, right?”


  2. J. Anderson Coats

    Love this post. I’m in a similar research boat as well, but since WITHOUT THE WALLS takes place in the middle ages, I don’t have the same types – or volume – of sources to work with.

    So there’s a lot that’s unknowable, and it’s hard knowing that as educated as my guesses are, they’re still guesses.

    And I re-e-e-e-ally wish all the good sources for a key event in my book hadn’t been deliberately torched. Just sayin’.


    • Damn Vikings.

      Interestingly, I was a history major in college, and my focus was medieval history, so the stuff you write is SOOO much closer to my real love in history than the stuff I write. There was a certain amount of chance that seems to have me writing quite a bit that centers around the late 1800s/early 1900s in the American West, but someday I hope to get back to the eras and places you write about.

      Ironically, one difficult thing about researching 1901 is that, even though it is recent in time, it appears to be one of the most boring years in history–nothing worth writing about happened in 1901, or so you would think when you try to tie in to key events. Finding facts specific to the year was surprisingly difficult.

      I would think in your case that one of the great things about writing fiction about the dark ages is that they are dark, and you get to hold up the torch that brightens them (but hopefully doesn’t set the rest of the libraries on fire.)


  3. Mike Jung

    I really like how you describe the difference in historical research between nonfiction authors and fiction authors, Jeannie. But I weep for the fictional chickens! Oh my courageous, imaginary chickens…cluck cluck and godspeed, sweet angel chickens…


  4. What a great blog post, Jeannie.

    Research for me, studying the medieval time, is quite a different beast altogether. And unlike the Tudor age, which is rife with journals and chronicles and letters and eye-witness accounts, for the years of the Wars of the Roses, we have such a scarcity of real personal reports. For example, for a pivotal battle in English history — the Battle of Bosworth at which Henry Tudor defeated King Richard III to become Henry VII — there is not a single eye-witness account. We don’t even know for sure that it took place at Bosworth; recent scholarship suggests that it did not.

    I spent a great deal of research time trying to figure out what members of the middle class called each other before “Mister” began to be used in the mid-1500s. Perhaps it was so obvious that no one ever really bothered to write it down.

    And what can be gleaned of a person’s soul from the eyes staring out of a painted portrait, even a Holbein? So many people have jumped to the conclusion that Richard III was nervous — even guilty of the murder of his nephews — because he is playing with the rings on his fingers in his most famous portrait. But maybe he was just a busy ruler ready to get back to work? Many novelists have given him that fidgety habit as a character trait. From one portrait.

    It’s such a fascinating topic to discuss, and I’m glad you raised it.


  5. Cynthia Levinson

    Jeannie, I love that you wrote about paradoxes–just days before our beloved Erin spent a morning talking about paradox at our EMLA retreat. Whether the two of you came to the topic independently or you built on each other, paradox is in the air.


  6. It was a complete coincidence, Cynthia!


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