Research for Fiction Writing and Real Life
The assignment was to write about the sex life of one of the kings of England.
I was a sophomore at a small Catholic high school in Virginia. Our history teacher was a man, not one of the Sisters of Charity who taught all the other classes. He was fresh out of college and, true to the promise he made the first day, the class was always interesting. Fifty-plus years later, I don’t remember any details about the king’s sex life. I don’t even remember which king I was given. What I do remember is the joy of research.
I remember something else, too. In today’s parlance, my history teacher would be labeled a nerd and would likely be bullied. I suspect his innovative, sometimes provocative, assignments were to help him look cool. Whatever his motive, my teacher taught me to explore the people behind history’s dry dates and places and, in doing so, find their humanity. Why is that important? Because that’s where we all connect.
That was my first big idea about research. Here are a few other things I learned in the years that followed.
- Research what interests you.
The fact that you find a topic interesting may shed light on some shadows in your life. That might have been the case with the assignments from my history teacher. I’ve always been interested in themes of medicine and healing, themes that feature prominently in two of my historical novels. It took many years for me to see the foggy correlation between that interest and my efforts to please my father, a pharmacist.
Don’t be afraid of the shadows. Fiction thrives there.
- Trust serendipity and historical societies.
In 1988, my husband and I went to Alaska for ten days. We started on a cruise. The ship docked in Skagway, a boomtown in 1898. We spent a whole day exploring the town, the shops, the docks. It wasn’t until the end of day that I saw the local historical society. A poster in the window said they had an exhibit dedicated to the women of the Klondike Gold Rush. That exhibit gave me an idea. What if a woman went to the Klondike for something other than gold? She’d have to be a strong woman and her motive powerful. What if she had to leave medical school to rescue her sister from the clutches of a ne’er-do-well drug pusher?
My head full of ideas, my husband and I left Skagway that evening and headed for the interior. Along the way, I combed grocery stories, drug stores, and souvenir shops for diaries kept by people who had come in search of “the yellow.” The state historical society published the diaries in magazine form. I came home with four diaries, each filled with the details needed to draw a reader into a novel’s “Once upon a time.”
When I sold Band of Gold to Harper Collins, my editor said she loved the setting and the details that brought it to life. I wouldn’t have found those details had it not been for the efforts of historical societies.
- Reframe family stories.
I was nine years old when I made my grandmother cry. I didn’t mean to. My family had driven from our home in Virginia to visit my German grandparents on their farm in South Dakota. They had left Missouri in the early 1900s to homestead. Gramp was never one for conversation, at least not with me and my two younger sisters. Gram talked all the time about her garden, her recipe for sticky buns, and the nine cats she named Suzie.
One day, I asked about a particularly pretty cup and saucer in the china cabinet. Gram told me they belonged to Rosie, her younger sister. When I told Gram I didn’t know she had a sister, she explained that Rosie had stayed back in Missouri. I assumed Gram and Rosie visited each other every year just as my family visited my other grandparents in Pennsylvania. I asked Gram if she was going to Missouri that year to see Rosie. That’s when my grandmother burst into tears and ran from the room. I didn’t know what I had done, but I knew it was awful.
Many years later, my dad told me the story. When my grandparents got married, Rosie was afraid to come to the Dakota wilderness and Gram couldn’t leave the farm. Decades passed before Gramp drove Gram back to Missouri so she could see her sister. Rosie died before they could see each other again.
That bond between sisters forced to live hundreds of miles apart became the seed for First and Forever.
- Get thee to a library.
The public library of Eureka, South Dakota, was closed on the only day that I would be in town. I had come to do research for First and Forever. The women in the town clerk’s office listened to my plight and called the librarian at her home. The librarian told the clerk where she kept the key. The clerk let me in, turned on the lights, and took me to the local history shelf. There was the local color I craved. I found collections of poetry, essays, short stories, and recipes in spiral-bound notebooks with faded covers, in black marble tablets, in a scrapbook of yellowed newsclips. I found a manually typed memoir stapled between two pieces of construction paper.
Local residents had penned all the contributions. In them, I found names for characters and vernacular for dialogue. I glimpsed the longings of their hearts and saw children, family, health, and prosperity. I saw their fears, how months of sacrifice and back-breaking work could be destroyed by the whims of the weather. I saw their faith.
What I didn’t see was a copy machine. The library couldn’t afford one. I took a lot of notes. When I was finished, I did as instructed by the town clerk. I turned off the lights and locked the door behind me.
- Keep a quarry.
While doing the research for First and Forever, I came across an interesting historical tidbit about brauche, an old German method of healing that used magical chants and the phases of the moon. Hard as I tried, I couldn’t incorporate brauche into the story. Rather than toss the information, I filed it in the quarry, a repository of unformed potential. When I was exploring ideas for my third historical romance, I hunted through the stones I had once excavated. There was brauche. I used it to shape a conflict between science and the Old World healing art.
The heroine in that book, Just a Miracle, is a pharmacist.
- Stay curious. Be fearless.
I had to write three novels before I could see the autobiographical issues I needed to process. Research was the tool that pried open the treasure chest.
Zita Christian is a wedding officiant and the author of three historical romance novels, a novella, a civil rights play for students that has enjoyed several national tours, a few magazine articles, and the love stories of more than a hundred couples she has married. www.zitachristian.com