Today, I’d like to welcome Cynthia Swanson to the blog today. She will share with us her thoughts on researching historical fiction and the creation of The Bookseller.
Cynthia Swanson is a writer and a designer of the midcentury modern style. She has published short fiction in 13th Moon, Kalliope, Sojourner, and other periodicals; her story in 13th Moon was a Pushcart Prize nominee. She lives in Denver, Colorado, with her husband and three children. The Bookseller is her first novel.
I have several rules for writing fiction that I try very hard not to break. One of them is, while working on a first draft, I resist doing research.
It’s not that I think I know it all. Quite the contrary. When writing historical fiction – even recent history, as in the 1960s Denver setting of The Bookseller – it would be unwise to rely on memories, if one had them (and I am getting up there in age, but not quite that up there). Memory is unreliable and haphazard. If the final draft of a novel included simply my own and others’ memories, there would be holes and inaccuracies aplenty.
But in a first draft, those holes and inaccuracies are important. The problem with doing too much research early in a fiction writing project is that research often leads to digression. It’s too easy to go down the rabbit hole, whether online or at the library or with one’s nose in a book. You’re supposed to be writing, and instead, something like this happens: even though you started out wanting to learn about the bus line that ran on Pearl Street in Denver in 1962, somehow you’re drifted over to, “Hey, wait – what if we skip the bus and put her in a car? If so, what kind of car would she drive? Let me see how many thousands of images of 1962 cars I can pull up on Google. Wow … that’s a lot of cars…”
You see what I mean.
So here’s how I do it. I get that first draft written. I make a lot of educated guesses. I take notes. I keep going until I have the basic gist of a novel.
Then the real fun begins. In the second draft, I start to fill in the holes. I resolve quandaries. I tighten the language and flesh out the characters.
And I do some research. I start by reading histories – actual, printed books with real pictures are best, because they slow down the research and give me additional ideas. Or I might go to the library and look at microfilm of newspapers of the day. (And wow, talk about time-consuming – I could set up housekeeping in the Western History Department at the Denver Public Library for six months and I still wouldn’t get through all the newspapers printed during The Bookseller’s time period.)
When working on the second draft of The Bookseller, I learned all sorts of interesting things – like that the Broadway bus line, which for years had diverted onto Pearl Street in South Denver, no longer did so by 1962. That little fact actually changed quite a bit of the storyline.
By the third draft, things were getting tighter. The questions were more specific. Was there a bridge on Downing Street over the Valley Highway? Was the shoe section on the first or second floor of the May D&F department store? What song was at the top of the Hit Parade for the week of February 17, 1963? What book was number one on the New York Times Bestseller List that week? And was that book as popular in Denver as it was nationally? In polishing The Bookseller, I attempted to be as accurate as possible. I know there are errors – I doubt there’s a historical novel out there that doesn’t have at least a few. And for every detail I researched, I’m sure there is someone who lived through it and would insist I’m thoroughly mistaken.
Like all historical novelists, I do the best I can. I don’t profess to have it perfect – nor do I believe my research methods are the only tried and true ones. They work for me. They worked for this novel.
Call me a book geek – I don’t mind. I willingly admit doing this research was some of the best fun I’ve ever had.
Thank you, Cynthia, for your thoughts on research. And I think you are in a welcoming crowd of book geeks!