On Research

Writing is make-believe, plucking characters and settings from your head and dropping them onto the paper like Rorschach blots, hoping the reader will see a coherent image. But if you want to write something convincing, your story has to be rooted in reality. And if it’s a reality you know nothing about, there’s only one thing to do about it—research.

Oh, hey. I’ve got this, you say. Pull up Wikipedia, copy and paste, and voila.

Not. So. Fast.

The internet is a wonderful thing and it makes research easy, but according to Merriam Webster, the definition of research is: careful study that is done to find and report new knowledge about something.

Careful study.

That implies a little more than copy and paste, doesn’t it?

This isn’t to say that you can’t use the net, but you have to be willing to dig deeper than the first link you find, to pick through the mounds of information and find the good stuff, the right stuff.

(Did you know that the first seven astronauts did their survival training in the Nevada desert? Before I wrote this post, I didn’t. Thanks to some research, I now know that those seven astronauts were left for four days with a spacecraft mockup, a parachute, and a survival scenario. Pretty cool, eh? And yes, I got that information from the net; however, I’m pretty confident I can trust www.nasa.gov.)

If you want to write a story about a cellist and you know nothing more than the music the instrument makes is so beautiful it makes you cry, you better do research because you can bet that at least one person who might read that story will know more and will spot your errors a mile away. That isn’t to say you need to root everything in truth. Maybe your cello is a space cello with magical wormhole properties. In that case, you have a little more leeway, but still, you can research how instruments are played in space and wormhole theory. At least I hope you would.

But research isn’t just to make that one reader smile and nod and say yes, this author got it right. If you’re writing a story about a cello, why wouldn’t you do research? Why wouldn’t you want to know the lowest note a cello can play? (Two octaves below middle C.) Why wouldn’t you want to know that when Yo-Yo Ma plays, his instruments of choice are a 1733 Montagnana cello from Venice and a 1712 Davidoff Stradivarius? Even if you’re not a fan of the cello, you have to admit that a musician using a 300-year old instrument is pretty damn interesting.

You might spend days researching, slipping from one rabbit hole to another, picking up bits and pieces of information along the way. And maybe you won’t use those things in your story. Maybe you won’t even finish your story.

That isn’t the point.

Better to do the research and not need it than leave your story full of holes you should’ve filled. You owe it to yourself; you owe it to your readers; you owe it to your story.

Predicting the Past

Lucia St. Clair Robson was born in Baltimore, Maryland and raised in South Florida. She has been a Peace Corps volunteer in Venezuela and a teacher in Brooklyn, New York. She has also lived in Japan, South Carolina and southern Arizona. After earning her master’s degree in Library Science at Florida State University, she worked as a public librarian in Annapolis, Maryland. She now lives near Annapolis. The Western Writers of America awarded her first book, Ride the Wind, the Spur Award for best historical western of 1982; it also made the New York Times Best Seller List and was included in the 100 best westerns of the 20th century. Since then she has written Walk in My Soul, Light a Distant Fire, The Tokaido Road, Mary’s Land, Fearless, Ghost Warrior: Lozen of the Apaches (finalist for the 2003 Spur award), and Shadow Patriots, a Novel of the Revolution. Western Writers of America awarded her latest novel, Last Train from Cuernavaca, the 2011 Spur for Best Western Long Novel.

One of the slyer ironies of writing about history is that making up stuff doesn’t always mean it’s not true; and declaring something to be fact doesn’t guarantee that it is. Now and then someone will say he only reads non-fiction, to which I reply, “You think you’re reading non-fiction.”

The most talented and conscientious historians don’t know what really happened before they were born. And even if they were around for the excitement, anyone who’s attended a high school reunion knows what a trickster memory can be. Same class, same teacher, very different recollections.

When writing about the Apaches I consulted John Cremony’s entertaining memoir. Cremony was on the Boundary Commission surveying the new border after the Mexican War of 1846-48. He reported a particular rifle being used to send a bullet across the nether end of the Apache leader, Delgadito. Delgadito thought he was out of range and he was doing what Apaches so often did. He was mooning the soldiers pursuing his raiding party. The fight was called on account of laughter, and historians report that Delgadito didn’t sit down for a while.

When I gave the manuscript to a gunsmith friend to vet he said the rifle in question wasn’t produced until two years after that moon shot. In the fifty years between experiencing the event and writing about it, Mr. Cremony must have forgotten the exact make of the gun. The question then becomes, what other details did he mis-remember?

Historical research is like interviewing witnesses at the scene of an accident, except that the accident happened a hundred years ago. Also, the witnesses don’t speak your language, someone was shooting at them at the time, and they have a vested interest in protecting the good names of the drivers. The best we chroniclers can do is collect as many reference points as possible, then triangulate on the truth.

I’m not claiming that historical novelists should be given the sort of credence accorded academicians. We are professional liars, after all. But I see the relationship between fiction and non-fiction as symbiotic. I depend on the work of historians for facts to weave into my stories. On the other hand, novels often motivate readers to seek out more information on the subject, if only to see if the preposterous events described actually happened.

I wish I could remember who said, “I never let a story get in the way of good facts,” but well-written historical non-fiction can be as compelling as fiction. Generally speaking, though, novels have more potential for connecting with readers on an emotional level. And if history isn’t about emotions, what is?

A well-researched historical novel gives an added dimension to facts. The reader and the novelist make an unspoken pact. The reader says, “I know you’re lying to me, but I’ll suspend disbelief on the chance that together we’ll arrive at some greater truth.”

Historical fiction explores the consequences and motivations of human nature. It allows readers to absorb the sense of another time. Novelists must do more than report events. They have to re-create the world in which those events took place.

Novelist L.P. Hartley once wrote, “The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there.” It’s not enough for a novelist to know who the generals were, how their troops were deployed, what they carried, and what they wore.

What technology was available? What were the current medical advances? What did people talk about in the taverns? What slang did they use, what jokes did they tell? What sort of hanky-pank did they engage in? (I’m always amused by people who are horrified at the notion of our ancestors engaging in hanky-pank).

There are times when a generalist such as a novelist uncovers more information than a specialist because she casts a wider net. In a used-book store in San Antonio the owner asked if he could help me find anything. I told him I was writing a novel about the Mexican War. “I have just the book for you,” he said. “It lists all the books that have been written about the Mexican War.”

I thanked him, and said I had quite a few books on the subject and was looking for other sorts of information. He took umbrage.

“How can you write about the Mexican War if you don’t know everything that’s been written about it?”

I told him I needed to know how to cheat at monte, how to fool a sucker into buying a horse with glanders, what the soldiers used to polish their brass buttons, and what the cure for cholera was in 1848. I think I had him at cheating at monte, but he also found me a good book on horse trading.

Now and then I stumble across information that historians have missed. A Pulitzer-Prize-winning author of a biography of Andrew Jackson mentioned that Will Rogers was related to Sam Houston’s Cherokee wife, Tiana Rogers. Other writers picked up on it and mentioned it in their own books, but it wasn’t true. Two men named John Rogers lived among the eastern Cherokees and both moved west about the same time. One was Hell-Fire Jack (Tiana’s father), and the other was Nolichucky Jack. The award-winning biographer mixed them up, which was understandable since the Cherokees were a sidebar to his main subject.

On occasion imagination has come closer to reality than could be expected. This is when stuff that’s made up turns out to be true. One of Hell-Fire Jack’s descendants telephoned me one day. She introduced herself and said the family wanted to know where I had gotten some of the stories in Walk in My Soul. I told her I had read them or made them up. “No,” she said. “Those are stories only the family knows.”

Another reason I like to write fiction is that I can go where historians can’t, or shouldn’t… into the back alleys of speculation. That’s not as irresponsible as it sounds. A lot of it is common sense and the linking of disparate pieces of information. For instance: male alligators are aroused by B-flat. We know this because someone asked a French horn player to serenade his captive gators. B-flat sent them into courtship mode and they converged on the hapless musician to see if they could score.

So, in writing a novel about the Second Seminole War, I described General Winfield “Fuss and Feathers” Scott’s campaign to surround and surprise the hostiles in the Florida swamps. For a guerrilla war in a quagmire he brought along a military band and to boost his troops’ morale he had the band play a concert after dinner. The Indians attacked and I imagined the poor musicians taking cover behind their tubas and trombones. But I also imagined the band hitting B-flat and the area coming alive with horny saurians.

I noticed that at least one historian wondered why the Mexicans would have called on St. Jerome in the battle that gave Geronimo his name. St. Jerome, the historian said, was a scholar. Because I had written a book about the Catholics of early Maryland I happened to have a few books on saints. One of them mentioned that there were two St. Jeromes, one of whom was a soldier. I don’t know if that had anything to do with Geronimo’s Mexican name, but it’s a possibility.

In recent years, charges of revisionism have been leveled at writers of historical fiction and non-fiction alike. Maybe that’s true in some academic settings, or in history books written to stir up controversy on the talk-show circuit. But let’s face it, people have been revising history, either deliberately or inadvertently, since the first cave man exaggerated the size of the saber tooth tiger that got away.

They say history is written by the victors, but that’s only half true. Much of our past was chronicled by Victorians as well. I call those accounts wishful history or proto-revisionism. A lot of clap-trap has been passed off as history— George Washington and the cherry tree, the line in the sand, Osceola driving his knife into the treaty. My personal favorite is the army report that referred to a Comanche leader as Buffalo Hump. According to one book on the Comanches, he was named after an entirely different part of a male bison’s anatomy.

History is messy and sexy and smelly. It has odd angles and sharp edges. It’s not easy to wrap up in neat packages with pretty paper and ribbon. To try to imbue the past with present-day sensibilities is bone-headed; but correcting myths, errors, and misconceptions is not revisionism.

As for errors of fact that creep into my novels, I can’t take all the credit for them. I either found them in non-fiction sources and was fool enough to believe them, or when triangulating on the truth I didn’t allow enough for windage.

Horse Magic

Lucia St. Clair Robson’s best-selling debut novel, Ride the Wind, won the Spur Award for best historical western of 1982.  Since then she has written  Walk in My Soul, Light a Distant Fire, The Tokaido Road, Mary’s LandFearless, Ghost Warrior: Lozen of the Apaches, and Shadow Patriots, a Novel of the Revolution. Her  most recent novel, Last Train from Cuernavaca, won the 2011 Spur Award for Best Western Long Novel.  Robson lives in Annapolis, Maryland.

The Chiricahua Apache chief, Victorio, called his sister Lozen his wise counselor and his right hand. He said she had the “strength of a man” and was “a shield to her people.”

General George Crook wrote, “The Apaches are the tigers of the human species,” but even in a society possessing extraordinary courage, endurance and skill, she was unique. The Apaches believed that when she was young, the spirits blessed her with horse magic. They also endowed her with the gift of healing and the power to see enemies at a distance. In the Apaches’ thirty-year struggle to defend their homeland, they came to rely on her strength, wisdom, and supernatural abilities.

Because of her gift of far-sight, she rode with the warriors and fought alongside them. After her brother Victorio’s death, she joined Geronimo’s band of insurgents. With Geronimo and fifteen other warriors, she resisted the combined forces of the United States and Mexican armies, and

the heavily armed civilian populations of New Mexico and Arizona Territories. She and the sixteen warriors, and seventeen women and children held out against a total of about nine thousand men.

Lozen is the heroine of Ghost Warrior, my seventh novel. I’ve been researching people and events from history for thirty-three years now, and a thought occurred to me as I started writing this about Lozen. It’s a thought that gives comfort in troubled times, and let’s face it, all times are troubled thanks to our species’ capacity for mischief and mayhem.

The thought is that even in the worst of situations, individuals with extraordinary strength of character appear and leave a legacy that persists. How fortunate we are that other people made note of them and left a record for the rest of us.

The Apache Wars certainly qualified as the worst of times. Many of the names of the leaders who waged those battles are familiar — Geronimo, Cochise, Victorio. Lozen was as exceptional as any of them. One Apache I spoke to referred to her as their “Joan of Arc.”

Reading about what Lozen and her people endured puts my petty problems into stark perspective. And it strikes me as amazing that the spirit of someone who died 120 years ago can influence what I think and feel now.

Booklife Essentials: Chasing Experience? An Interview with Nathan Ballingrud

Nathan Ballingrud is a remarkable short fiction writer who has won the Shirley Jackson Award and had his work reprinted in year’s best anthologies. I first met him at the Clarion Writers Workshop in 1992. Pertinent to our discussion of “Chasing Experience,” I remember that the first day he locked himself in his dorm room and
typed furiously for a couple of hours. Suitably intimidated, we all thought Nathan was incredibly committed to his art. But, as he told me many years later, in fact he wasn’t typing anything: he was just nervous about meeting the other writers attending the workshop. Although Nathan talks about experience in the context of “genre” writers, I believe what he says is relevant to all writers.

(This week, by the way, I’m in the Carolinas speaking at Wofford College, Malaprops, and a Barnes & Noble in Burlington. Check out the full schedule for details.)

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