Guest Post: Researching The Bookseller by Cynthia Swanson

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.

Swanson pic credit, Glenda Cebrian PhotographyPlease give her a warm welcome.

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!

Mailbox Monday #309

Mailbox Monday, created by Marcia at To Be Continued, formerly The Printed Page, has a permanent home at its own blog.

To check out what everyone has received over the last week, visit the blog and check out the links.  Leave yours too.

Also, each week, Leslie, Vicki, and I will share the Books that Caught Our Eye from everyone’s weekly links.

Here’s what I received:

1. With Every Letter by Sarah Sundin, free Kindle download.

Lt. Mellie Blake is looking forward to beginning her training as a flight nurse. She is not looking forward to writing a letter to a man she’s never met–even if it is anonymous and part of a morale-building program. Lt. Tom MacGilliver, an officer stationed in North Africa, welcomes the idea of an anonymous correspondence–he’s been trying to escape his infamous name for years.

As their letters crisscross the Atlantic, Tom and Mellie develop a unique friendship despite not knowing the other’s true identity. When both are transferred to Algeria, the two are poised to meet face-to-face for the first time. Will they overcome their fears and reveal who they are, or will their future be held hostage by their pasts?

2.  All God’s Children by Anna Schmidt, free Kindle download.

Beth Bridgewater, a German American, finds herself in a nightmare as World War II erupts—a war in which she takes no side, for she is a Quaker pacifist. Just as she gains opportunity to escape Germany, Beth decides to stay to help the helpless. Meanwhile, Josef Buch, a passionately patriot German, is becoming involved in his own secret ways of resisting the Nazis. . . . Despite their differences, Beth and Josef join together in nonviolent resistance—and in love. Does their love stand a chance. . .if they even survive at all?

3. The Bookseller by Cynthia Swanson, which came unexpectedly from Tandem Literary.

A provocative and hauntingly powerful debut novel reminiscent of Sliding Doors, The Bookseller follows a woman in the 1960s who must reconcile her reality with the tantalizing alternate world of her dreams.  Nothing is as permanent as it appears . . .

Denver, 1962: Kitty Miller has come to terms with her unconventional single life. She loves the bookshop she runs with her best friend, Frieda, and enjoys complete control over her day-to-day existence. She can come and go as she pleases, answering to no one. There was a man once, a doctor named Kevin, but it didn’t quite work out the way Kitty had hoped.  Then the dreams begin.

Denver, 1963: Katharyn Andersson is married to Lars, the love of her life. They have beautiful children, an elegant home, and good friends. It’s everything Kitty Miller once believed she wanted—but it only exists when she sleeps.

4. The Uncertainty Principle by Roxanna Bennett, an unexpected surprise from Tightrope Books.

Roxanna Bennett’s debut collection of precisely crafted poems examines connection and consequence. The poems in The Uncertainty Principle are the aftermath of events both at an atomic and human scale, from the domestic intimacy of a dysfunctional family to the wreckage of an atom bomb.





5. Teacher’s Pets by Crystal Hurdle, an unexpected surprise from Tightrope Books.

Thought provoking, sexy, edgy, and affecting, Teacher’s Pets explores what happens along the line that should not be crossed. Join a group of Venturers, a Wilderness Training school group, on their treks into the great outdoors of supernatural British Columbia and the mysteries of love and loss. Told in a series of free-verse poems from a lively crew of characters, interspersed with student assignments and the comments on them, discussions in and out of the classroom, journal entries, report cards, lists, and horoscopes, this book will engage teens and adults alike.

6. Boston  Strong: A City’s Triumph Over Tragedy by Casey Sherman and Dave Wedge from LibraryThing Early Reviewers.

Veteran journalists Casey Sherman and Dave Wedge have written the definitive inside look at the Boston Marathon bombings with a unique, Boston-based account of the events that riveted the world. From the Tsarnaev brothers’ years leading up to the act of terror to the bomb scene itself (which both authors witnessed first-hand within minutes of the blast), from the terrifying police shootout with the suspects to the ultimate capture of the younger brother, Boston Strong: A City’s Triumph over Tragedy reports all the facts—and so much more. Based on months of intensive interviews, this is the first book to tell the entire story through the eyes of those who experienced it. From the cop first on the scene, to the detectives assigned to the manhunt, the authors provide a behind-the-scenes look at the investigation. More than a true-crime book, Boston Strong also tells the tragic but ultimately life-affirming story of the victims and their recoveries and gives voice to those who lost loved ones.

What did you receive?