This week, I’d like to present a very special edition of Wednesday Writing! Last Friday, I shared my thoughts on Erin Lindsay McCabe’s I Shall Be Near to You, which I highly recommend. While I was reading, Erin and I chatted on Twitter and I asked if she’d be interested in writing a guest post for Read-at-Home Mama. I was so happy when she eagerly agreed, but my excitement turned to slight trepidation when I realized that I needed to offer a topic for her to write about. Fortunately, that touch of fear was short-lived, as a subject quickly presented itself while I was reading: I found myself very interested in Erin’s research and writing process, not only as a blogger but also as a historical fiction fan, as an aspiring writer, and as someone with a personal interest in the American Civil War. There were so many things I was itching to know! How did she go about researching the book, and how much research did she do? What was her focus? How much time did she spend doing the research? And most importantly, how did she then take the history and breathe fresh life into it by weaving it into a fictional story?
Her answer was both thorough and fascinating! Would you like to read it? Of course you would!
And so, without further ado, I happily hand over the reins to Erin Lindsay McCabe! Enjoy!
There were many times when I was writing and researching I Shall Be Near To You, about a woman who disguises as a man to fight beside her husband in the Civil War, when I wished I could just write a contemporary novel instead. It would be so much easier, I told myself. But in truth, writing any book is hard and requires research of one sort or another, so writing in a modern setting wouldn’t actually get me off the research hook. Really, that wish was a response to the often frustrating aspects of researching an historical novel. Because I wanted the book to serve as a tribute to the over two hundred documented women who fought, I felt an enormous responsibility to get the history right; the research had to be impeccable so no one would be able to discount the story on the grounds it wasn’t accurate. Still, when I spent hours trying to confirm if a particular stone bridge over Antietam Creek had two arches or three, or when I was poring over battlefield maps, tracing the movements of Company H of the 97th NY State Volunteers, and the writing slowed to a crawl (mostly during the two years it took to complete the first draft of the novel– especially the nine month period when most of it was written), I often found myself frustrated.
But of course, I could not have even written this novel had it not been for the original research that was the inspiration for it. Each of my novels (I have one hiding in the drawer, I Shall Be Near To You, and a new one in the works), begins with a spark gleaned from historical research. Had I not gone searching for a primary source on which to write the final paper for my college US Women’s History course, I never would have found the collection of the real Sarah Rosetta Wakeman’s letters home or learned that women fought in the Civil War. Beyond that, the letters’ contents served as a huge inspiration for the character’s voice and many events in the novel.
Which brings me to the incredibly positive side to the research involved in writing historical fiction. I learn so much while I’m writing! Once I have the initial inspiration for a story, the research and writing process really feed each other. It’s not until I get into the story that I discover what I don’t know, and that really determines my focus. Sometimes it’s a quick detail that I can pretty easily look up (how many buttons on a Captain’s uniform?). Other times, I need to know a whole lot about a particular subject (the battle of Antietam, 19th Century farming) and then I spend some time reading historians’ work and primary sources (especially letters—I love reading letters) and looking at historic photos, maps, and other images until I have enough of an understanding of the events and the time period in order to feel like I have the authority to write that part of the story. Often during this kind of research, I find information which inspires parts of the novel (the ring Hiram carves or the dance are both examples of moments that came directly out of research and which I never would have imagined myself).
At a certain point, though, book and Internet research fails me. When that happens, I employ what I like to call “method writing.” All that means is I set out to create real-life experiences for myself that are similar to my characters’. For instance, in the course of writing I Shall Be Near To You, I attended a Civil War re-enactment. I saw camps, weapons, artifacts, clothes, or picked the brains of the participants, but even better, I heard the cannons and the muskets firing, the sound of caissons and horse-drawn ambulances rumbling over rough ground. The tiniest details add texture to my writing like nothing else, so part of “method writing” is also to do tasks or chores my characters would have done. I learned how to make soap from scratch (though I can’t say I went so far as to render the fat or leech the lye out of the wood ash), because that was something Rosetta would have done. I raised my own goats, helped deliver the babies, and learned to milk. I planted a garden and tried growing some crops that Rosetta might have harvested (pumpkins, dried beans) and preparing food she might have eaten (pumpkin bread, pumpkin soup, split pea soup, ginger cake are the recipes I can recommend. Hard tack? Not so much). I now understand why shelling beans is such an odious task (for my efforts, I didn’t even end up with enough black and pinto beans to make one pot of chili), and I have no idea how families ever grew or harvested or canned enough to last them a whole winter. I ended up with a much greater appreciation for the day-in and day-out grinding work of a subsistence farmer, and it added to my understanding of the physical toughness and the practical mindset life in the 19th century would require. Much of this information doesn’t make it explicitly into the pages of the book, but it helps me understand how my characters’ worldview might be completely different from my own.
Another particular challenge for me is writing setting—and as a writer of historical fiction it’s even more difficult. To make it easier, I searched out buildings in towns that existed when my characters would have been walking the streets. I visited each of the battlefields that appear in the novel. None of my “book learning” compared to actually following the path my characters would have marched and finding places where certain pivotal moments occur (though of course, had I not done the academic research beforehand, I wouldn’t have even known where to go). Had I not walked through The Cornfield at Antietam, I would have never realized that the leaves made me itch, or that the light changed the farther down the row I went. While it’s certain that the landscape isn’t exactly the same and many of the buildings still in existence have been modified over the last hundred and fifty plus years, they have a flavor that’s unique and gives a sense of time and place that you just can’t get out of a photograph.
The finished novel that readers hold in their hands then, is really my attempt to weave together what I’ve learned from history books, maps, photographs, primary accounts, videos, and personal experience. All those factors come together in a way that I hope doesn’t feel “research-y” but manages to add authenticity and authority to my writing, garnering tidbits and images that help transport readers to another time and place.