On Writing and Research

Writing

When I speak to schools about creative writing, I take two New Yorker covers with me. One shows a chimpanzee at a typewriter. At first he’s baffled, then terrified and furious, until finally he arrives at that wondrous Eureka!—when ideas hit and he starts typing. The other illustration is of a man putting pencil to the floor, literally writing himself into a corner. (That's what happens when the author doesn't have an outline!)

I try to make light of the “writer's block” pictured in the cartoons because so many students freeze if perfect paragraphs don't just gush out of them from the get-go. But here's the deal. Writing is incredibly rewarding, but it takes work. As light-bulb inventor Thomas Edison said: "Genius is 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration."

Writing is about sweating it out—digging through your own life, of course, but also learning to “report a story,” carefully watching, listening, and researching. Absorbing, reflecting. Asking those why questions. The best writers can not only explain what he or she feels but also accurately describe what the person across the room might be thinking.  

There is no precise prescription for creativity, but these qualities can help build the craft a writer needs:
1.  Read. Read a variety of genres, styles, and authors. Take note what type of writing best suits a scene or story. Remember that language has cadence, tone, and personality. If you particularly like an author's style or voice, try writing a few passages emulating it so you can absorb what creates its effect. Take note of things that capture your curiosity, move you emotionally, or simply delight you with their beauty.

2.  Keep a journal. But don't just write about your own life and thoughts. Learn to decipher and depict what you see and hear. People watch. Go to a park, a library, or an art museum. Sit down for an hour and open your ears, eyes, and heart. Imagine why passersby have come there, where they are going later, what they might be thinking—create their story. Look for revealing details about them. Their behavior will give hints about who they are, their dreams, what their mood is that day. Go outside and describe the sunset or the sound of bird song or the scent of tree blossoms, the feel of grass.

Include as many senses as possible —sight, sound, touch, taste, or smell. Write down words you particularly like, quotes that inspire you, newspaper headlines that disturb you. Do character sketches. These are all exercises to hone the craft of writing—just like musicians practice scales to build their ability to play larger, more complicated works.

Journals are also a great tactic for “saving string,” a term news reporters use. It means taking a snippet of a conversation, a dab of a persona, a tidbit of a news event, or the description of a scene and tucking it into your proverbial pocket to eventually save up enough bits of string to make a ball of twine—the threads of your story.  

3.  Write for student newspapers or magazines. I believe journalism is one of the best preparations for creating fiction. Journalism teaches you to make a deadline, to stop obsessing over that one paragraph, to use one adjective rather than four, and to finish a story. It demands clarity. Your fiction dialogue will also be far more believable and authentic if you interview people for profiles for a while first. I discovered how people really speak by writing down exactly what they said word-for-word as a reporter.

Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist and novelist Anna Quindlen puts it best: “I spent decades writing down people’s words verbatim, how real people talk. I learned that syntax and rhythm were almost as individualistic as a fingerprint. That one quotation, precisely transcribed and intentionally untidied, could delineate a character in a way that pages of exposition never could.”

Observe while you interview. I once wrote a long piece that grew into a nonfiction book about a domestic violence case. I spent 80+ hours interviewing the victim and one day she started nudging furniture in the room as we talked. I finally asked what she was doing, and she laughed self-consciously and said it was unconscious habit, that her husband had been angered if she vacuumed but didn’t put the furniture legs back into the indentation marks in the carpet. That opened up a whole valley of anecdotes that I wouldn’t have had, if I hadn’t noticed her doing that.

Reveling details, small anecdotes show rather than tell what a person is feeling or the meaning of a moment. Sometimes the way someone says something (if they shift uncomfortably, look away, or become more animated) is as important as the words they use. Including those descriptive details will paint a far more comprehensive portrait. They also keep your characters from sounding or acting like one another.

4.  Practice.  When I give writing workshops one of the exercises I use is to divide the class into pairs. Each student is to think of one adjective—JUST one—they feel best describes them. (A great exercise in an of itself!) Then they must think of an anecdote from their life that shows that personality trait. His/her partner must interview to get that anecdote out of the student, listening carefully to answers to then be able to ask effective follow-up questions, coaxing the anecdote out of his/her partner. Only then so they guess the descriptive word based on the elicited story. You can replicate this on your own with a friend or family member.

5.  Don't stall out trying for perfection on the first draft. Students do this all the time. Yes, the “lede” has to be so gripping or evocative that you hook your reader. But I have found it is best to keep moving, finish the section or the chapter, and then go back and revise, revise, revise, and revise again.

4.  Read your writing out loud to yourself. Listen for the rhythm. It's the best way to hear if you have repeated something, or have one too many beats in a description, or meandering phrases. If I stumble over a passage, if my tongue trips up on itself as I read, I know I have some rewriting to do.

5.  Take writing classes. Work hard. Leave arrogance at the door. Be honest but supportive when critiquing one another. Don't let anyone discourage you. Judgments on creative writing are subjective. I had one grad school professor who definitely did not think that I had what it took to become a professional writer. I promise you I have written far more books than he. Even so, it took awhile—I received more than a dozen rejection letters before my first picture book manuscript was accepted. That’s typical.

So have courage. Be determined if you want to write. Take the risk if you have something to say. Don’t just talk about it—sit yourself down and do it!

Research

People always ask where I find my ideas. RESEARCH! That’s my favorite part of writing. Research is the treasure hunt. That’s where I play detective, where I find the gems and truths of a story. Sometimes I liken it to wandering a wildflower meadow and picking a hundred blossoms, which then lets me make bouquet after bouquet, or scene after scene. For me, writing comes quickly and easily if my arms are full of my research.

I always read reams of novels, biographies, newspaper articles, and memoirs from the time period before I begin writing one of my historical narratives. I interview experts in the field. I essentially report my novels just as I did my magazine stories. What I learn in my research sets my imagination soaring.

Let me give you a few examples from my own novels, to show rather than blab at you what I mean.

Hamilton-And-Peggy.jpgI’ll start with my most recent biographical novel, Hamilton and Peggy: A Revolutionary Friendship. One of the greatest sources on Peggy’s whereabouts and personality was Hamilton himself—his letters. Within days of meeting Eliza, Hamilton wrote Peggy, saying he’d already formed “a more than common partiality” for her “person and mind” because of a miniature portrait Eliza painted and carried with her. Hamilton playfully begs Peggy, as a “nymph of equal sway,” to come distract the other aides-de-camp so he can monopolize Eliza. To be his wingman, in essence!

(Think through all that hints at: Eliza so loves Peggy that she has painted a little portrait of her, carried it with her, and is willing to show the image of her beautiful little sister, “a nymph of equal sway,” to a potential suitor. “Person and mind” means Peggy is smart—something Hamilton required of a person to show any interest in him or her. I actually have a lesson plan for using these letters to interpret character and create story here: Write_as_Peggy_Lesson_Plan_1.pdf  If nothing else, use it to enjoy some of Hamilton’s beautiful writing for yourselves.)

Upon receiving his letter, Peggy seems to have ridden 150 miles to Morristown, NJ, through territory patrolled by bands of Loyalists who would have reveled in capturing one of General Schuyler’s daughters. She braved the worst winter ever recorded in American history, with snowdrifts 6 feet high, and temperatures so low that New York City’s harbor was frozen solid so deeply that heavy cannon were being pulled across the ice without a crack.  Soldiers encamped in Morristown described the hardships of that winter in vivid detail. Roads were impassible so supplies could not get through. Wild animals—squirrels, rabbits, birds—that the soldiers might have hunted to feed themselves all but disappeared, frozen to death. They often didn’t have anything to eat for days at a time.  A young private, named Joseph Plumb Martin, wrote in his diary about eating bark, roasting shoes, and killing and cooking pet dogs to survive.

Those haunting facts really point up Peggy’s daring, her independent and rather bodacious personality! It also established for me her tightknit relationship with Eliza—I think she braved those dangers to check out this flirtatious, silver-penned aide-de-camp to insure he wasn’t just dallying with her sweet-natured middle sister.

After a harrowing 3-day journey, Peggy arrived in Morristown in time for the Winter’s Ball, Feb. 23rd, 1780. Roads were “so shocking,” the snowfall so heavy, only 16 women made it through to dance with 65 officers that night. With a ratio of 4 men to one lady, I’m sure Peggy (called by one peer “a favourite at dinner tables and balls”) danced a lot that evening.  

Surely at least once with George Washington. GW was a good friend of Peggy’s father (who happened to be GW’s right-hand man for espionage because of the spy rings he ran out of the Schuyler Mansion). Washington absolutely loved to dance and was renowned as a graceful, impressive partner, especially for the minuet. It was on the dance floor that GW often shed the overwhelming seriousness of his duties and filled with unabashed joy, moving with “great spirit and satisfaction, grace and ease” as his contemporaries noted.

Now here is the enormous gift that little tidbit offered me as a writer:  Doing a bit of research, I learned the minuet was a SOLO performance by a couple in front of the entire assembled ball. One pair at a time, in descending order of social rank/importance. Learning what a balletic metaphor the dance was for courtship and what bravery it took to perform the three-minute-plus dance, I made a minuet the centerpiece of my chapter depicting the Morristown Ball, showing Hamilton and Eliza’s relationship and how she would have helped the brash, socially insecure aide-de-camp in such moments.

BTW, GW and Peggy were co-godparents to the youngest Schuyler baby, whom Peggy also happens to save from Redcoat capture by dashing into the fray of an attempted kidnapping of her father by Loyalists. Darting through the fighting, she scooped up baby Caty from her cradle, where the infant had been left behind by the retreating family!

See what a magical jigsaw puzzle writing is? Research gives the author pieces of scenes, plot twists, and characters’ personalities to put together a rich, detailed picture.

Because Hamilton and Peggy is a biographical novel, it was crucial to be as factual as possible. Peggy left behind no letters of her own, so I had to research around her, finding mentions of her in the Schuylers’ wide circle, in letters and memoirs, in footnotes and references in other people’s biographies. Here’s what I found:

Peers described Peggy as a “wicked wit;” as “endowed with a superior mind and a rare accuracy of judgment of men and things;” as “lively and generous.” She was fluent in French, and taught herself German by reading her father’s engineering manuals. A. Ham called her “spritely,” and Ben Franklin, the king of one-liners, even dubbed her “wild Peggy.” 

One of Hamilton’s closest friends, James McHenry, criticized Peggy as being “like Swift’s Vanessa, ” referencing a Jonathan Swift poem. It was 18th century code for a whip-smart woman who was too insistent on talking politics with men to be entirely likeable. “Tell Peggy so,” McHenry wrote Hamilton. “I am sure her good sense will soon place her in her proper station.”   Ha!  I don’t think so.  Peggy seems to have remained the proud intellectual despite such condemnation and was as much the Revolutionary thinker as her eldest sister Angelica. Peggy truthfully is a wonderful real-life role model for today’s smart-girl—the young woman who wants to join our nation’s political debate or speak her mind against women being labeled.

This is why PRIMARY DOCUMENTS are the BEST! Letters such as Hamilton’s are like someone from long ago whispering into your ear all his or her longings and fears. Regarding Peggy, Hamilton’s immediate affinity and big-brother-affection comes through loud and clear. In his long, impassioned letters to Eliza, he often dropped bits of gossip about “My Peggy,” as he called his soon-to-be little sister. Like this one Hamilton writes just a few weeks after meeting Peggy. He dismisses a potential suitor of hers, saying he will not consent to “Capt. Beebe being Peggy’s favourite. He is not clever enough for her—he sings well and that is all.

But Hamilton did approve of another potential romance—which I learned of because he gossiped about it to goose Eliza a little, hinting that Peggy might beat her to marriage: “When your sister (Peggy) returns home, I shall try to get her in my interest and make her tell me of all your flirtations. Have you heard any thing more of what I hinted to you about Fleury? When she returns, give my love to her and tell her, I expected, she would have outstripped you in the Hymenial line.”    

There’s so much in that letter to unpack, including that final double-entendre, but my immediate thought was: who the heck is Fleury?

It was difficult to unearth much on the French Marquis de Fleury, but well worth the digging. He showed such valor at the Battle of Stony Point he was one of only eight people awarded a Congressional Medal of Honor during the Revolution. He was praised not only for successfully leading what seemed to be a suicidal, bayonet-only charge up cliffs to storm a British fort, but for also showing mercy and sparing the lives of his enemies during the battle. He also shared his reward money with his men.

An engineer as well as officer, Fleury seems to have been quite enthusiastic. He wrote Washington in excited, clumsy, badly spelled English about self-propelled, exploding boats he wanted to build and launch at the British fleet floating outside Philadelphia.  That letter displayed his wonderfully geeky scientist personality. But I CORROBORATED that—journalists always require a 2nd source and you should too—with a collection of letters/memoirs of people living in Newport, Rhode Island when the French army wintered there. According to the town-resident who housed him: Fleury was “sociable, jocose, very agreeable in conversation, of a free, liberal turn of mind.”

So. . .Fleury was brave, ingenuous, humane, generous, open-minded—someone who should appreciate a “Swift’s Vanessa.” Definitely Peggy’s kind of guy. Hamilton also gossips about a kiss by a carriage, and Fleury writes Hamilton, joking that they may soon be related because he is quite fond of Miss Peggy. 

All I’ll say is for any student who thinks primary documents are boring???? They just need to read some of these letters, Hamilton’s especially….

A few other examples of how research is done and how it makes story:

IMG_1907.JPGBecause I wrote Suspect Red to explore the trickle-down effects of national politics and rhetoric on the thoughts and friendship of two teenage boys from opposite sides of the political spectrum, the novel’s backdrop setting and cultural references were as important as the characters. I read 1950s newspapers and magazines, scholarly analysis of the Cold War, and bios on McCarthy, Hoover, and journalist Edward R. Murrow. I watched YouTube clips of McCarthy’s speeches, Murrow’s See it Now broadcasts and witnesses’ testimony in front of McCarthy’s committee. I re-read The CrucibleFahrenheit 451, and Lord of the Flies—all written during the Red Scare—as well as nonfiction books like I Led 3 Lives, Herbert Philbrick’s chronicle of his experiences as an FBI secret-agent embedded in a communist cell. I put my reporter hat back on and interviewed former State Department and Congressional officials. I watched 1950s TV shows and movies, plus current works about McCarthyism like Good Night and Good Luck, to get the lingo and pop culture details to make my dialogue, clothes, food, music, and settings authentic.

All this reading unearthed the fact that Robin Hood was banned from schools and libraries. (Yup—Robin Hood. He and his merry men took from the rich to give to the poor, a theme a zealous Midwest textbook commissioner dubbed “subversive” and sympathetic to communist philosophy.) That stunning fact—which so exemplifies how extreme the paranoia became during the Red Scare—is a pivotal plot point and quick-defining brushstroke for my character’s backdrop realities.

Elliott-Walls-cover.jpgI did a lot of interviewing for Walls as well and was incredibly lucky to stumble onto an alumni group of Berlin “Army Brats,” when fishing around the Internet about the city. Several of these former military kids generously spent hours and hours with me—describing what it was like to grow up in that dangerous, conspiracy-laden posting in the epicenter of America’s Cold War standoff with the Soviet Union and its puppet communist state, East Germany. They shared yearbooks and memoirs as well, wonderfully tangible details that gave authenticity to the novel’s scenes and tone.

My life as a novelist began with Under a War-torn Sky, a story about a B-24 pilot who had to bail out of his plane onto Nazi-occupied France, barely evading capture and only with the help of French civilians who risked everything to do so. Henry Forester was inspired by my father’s experiences but my research grew the character into an everyman for the 4,000 British and American boys who survived that ordeal thanks to the French and Dutch Resistance. BTW, the British SAE estimates that for every flyer saved, one French person died. One-for-one. That heartbreaking statistic—cataloguing the sacrifice of real-life souls—really comes alive when portrayed not only with numbers but through characters that embody them, characters that readers care about and walk with through the novel’s plot twists. Responsible, well-researched historical fiction—(the key word being well-researched)—humanizes history.

Under a War-torn Sky is still my best-selling work, nearly twenty years after publication. That has far less to do with me than the fact the anecdotes of WWII are so riveting and inspiring. Honestly, all I had to do was gather them to write a moving and meaningful story.

cover_war.gifRemember my saying to look for “revealing details” that show rather than tell. Here’s a for instance: I wanted to show the reader how cold, how scary those B-24 mission flights were. Research gave me the details to do that vividly. Rather than stating the temperatures could plunge to 30-below-zero in those tin-can-bombers—(because the plane's guns were aimed and shot through open bays)—I simply wrote a scene of the crew dressing for a mission. The flyers had to wear bright-blue long johns that were wired like electric blankets that they plugged into the plane's circuitry. If the gunners took off their fleece-lined gloves for a better grip their hands could stick, frozen, to the metal. Every 20 minutes, the co-pilot had to remember to shout, “Crack down your lines, boys,” to remind the crew to squeeze their oxygen masks and lines to break up spit from their shouting that had frozen into ice-pellets and could cut off their airflow.

If the crew had to bail out of a burning plane onto Nazi-occupied territory all their survival kit contained was four syringes of morphine, a can of rations, a candy bar, a silk escape map of France, a few bills of French money, and a small pamphlet that translated phrases like, "I am in a hurry" and "I am hurt” into four different languages, with a headline in red saying, “Not To Be Produced in Public.” A sobering reminder that these boys would be on the run, trying to hide the fact they were Americans, while desperately traversing a country whose language they wouldn’t understand.

Remember my saying what a treasure hunt research is? I am constantly handed unexpected gems that bloom into powerful symbols or moments in the narrative. In trying to paint backstory for Henry, for instance, I decided to have him play marbles as a child. I didn’t want to have any anachronistic language (words/phrases NOT of an era) and purchased a handbook about the game of marbles just to make sure I didn’t make any boo-boos. In it, I discovered terms that could beautifully define Henry’s relationship with his tough, Depression-era father. “Playing for keeps” meaning if someone shot your marble out of the circle they claimed it. “Knuckle down” the proper way to hold a marble to shoot it, which was hard and even painful and the way to achieve success in the game.

I also learned of a type of marble that became the perfect symbol and good luck charm for my flyer, Henry. An  “end of day” marble—back when marbles were hand blown and cut—made up of leftover scraps of different colors (like the edges of dough left by cookie-cutters). They made “a cloud,” a milky marble with threads of blue and rose, like a cloudy sunrise. What could be a better good luck charm for my pilot to carry?

cover_troubled.gifReaders were so taken by Henry Forester and worried about the French civilians who had saved his life, they kept asking for a sequel. So in A Troubled Peace I went back to post-liberation France to find out what happened to them. I was stunned to learn how much we had to destroy France to free it.

Research told me that: three out of four bridges, for instance, had been blown apart either by the retreating Nazis, the French Resistance, or our advancing troops having to fight village-by-village on our advance to Germany. So, too, railways and train cars. This meant supplies couldn’t move. I read about the staggering price of eggs, about Parisians being rationed to one hour of electricity a day and a bath every three for more than a year after the city was liberated; about riots over strawberries and butter because of scant supplies; and about catch phrases such as "la femme au turban" for women who wore scarves on their heads to hide the fact they had been collaborators with the Nazis and then punished for it by angry mobs shaving their heads. These are details that really show with what my characters, Henry, Pierre, and Claudette had to contend.

I discovered a Q and A pamphlet titled "112 Gripes about the French," issued in 1945 by the Information and Educational Division of the U.S. Occupational Forces to help our GIs better empathize and understand the French they were trying to help. It filled my head with the era's lingo like "getting soaked" for paying too much for something or a fancy restaurant being "swank." Photographs of the time inspired characters—like a black-and-white image of a gaunt girl selling milk from a cart being drawn by a large dog. Looking at the photo I started wondering what happened to the horse that would usually pull the wagon for her? Killed? Stolen? Eaten? How would that affect a teenage girl, her emotions or sense of hope, and how would that influence how she might interact with Henry? You'll meet the character that photo sparked in my imagination in Chapter Thirteen.

Two lines from the preface to the novel Suite Françoise spawned many of the plot twists of A Troubled PeaceSuite Françoise is about the German occupation of France and was written by Irene Nimerovsky, a well-known Jewish author. It is unfinished because, tragically, she was deported and died in Auschwitz. Her small daughters managed to carry the manuscript with them as their governess hid them. The two lines had to do with her daughters standing at Paris’ Gare de l'Est railway station following VE-Day, holding up signs with their names, hoping Irene or their father would be among the hundreds of returning concentration camp survivors stumbling off those trains. That image of Nimerovsky's children haunted me and told me that was where Henry needed to look for Pierre. Until I read those two lines, I had had no good idea where to begin.

Across-a-War-tossed-Sea-sml.jpgReaders continued asking about the characters in Under a War-torn Sky, so for my third and last take on Henry’s saga I delved into Patsy’s homefront world. In Across a War-tossed Sea, two young Londoners cross the Atlantic Ocean to escape the incendiary bombs Hitler’s Luftwaffe dropped relentlessly on Britain and are taken in by Patsy’s family. The youngest brother suffers PTSD, (post-traumatic stress disorder), from watching ships in his convoy being torpedoed by German U-boat submarines. I knew to write that because of the memoirs these child-evacuees later wrote about their experience “in the States.” Amid their worries for parents and deep homesickness were also funny diary entries—telling of the “vomit songs” they wrote to survive sea-sickness, their expectations of meeting cowboys and Indians and gangsters because that’s what they’d seen in the movies, their dislike of peanut butter, their joy at ice cream and refrigerators and hot showers, their confusion and shock at segregation, their fury at the German POWs working American farm fields. All these little details helped me paint a very authentic and, I hope, engrossing portrait of our WWII homefront.

DavinciTiger_jkt_des10.jpgI love researching ALL my books, but I have to say that Peggy Schuyler and Da Vinci’s Tiger are my favorite experiences of deep-diving into a real person’s life. Ginevra de’ Benci is the young poet portrayed in Leonardo’s first solo commission and his only work permanently housed in the United States (at D.C.’s National Gallery of Art). The painting is Leonardo’s first work in oil, his first solo commission, and his first portrait. But is also truly revolutionary in the world of art at large. It was the first Italian portrait to turn a female away from being objectified and bejeweled in modest profile—an advertisement of her family’s wealth—to an outward, engaged gaze at her viewer. As such, Ginevra de’ Benci has been called the first “psychological” portrait, meant to reveal an individual’s soul and personality, what Leonardo called the “the motions of the mind.”

It is hard to imagine that a direct gaze from a woman was that controversial, but during the Renaissance—when women were supposed to “learn the virtues” and only one in ten were taught to read—it was staggeringly so, dangerous even in the mind of the era’s moralists. (One leading philosopher wrote that a women looking directly into a man’s eyes would immediately corrupt him, leaving him in danger of eternal damnation.) So it took profound courage for Ginevra to let herself be painted in that pose—a defiance even—that was certainly hinted at by the only remaining line of her poetry, “I beg your pardon, I am a mountain lion.”

As a one-time reporter specializing in women’s issues and feminism, boy oh boy, did I want to write about her once I learned those bare-boned facts and read that single, wondrously rebellious sentence. My research took me to jousts and festivals and poetry readings, to Florence during a time it was THE mecca for artists, to the lavish palace of the Medici’s, and to Verrocchio’s vibrantly alive and busy bottega, where Leonardo had apprenticed.  There are too many delightful details to share here (please look at the page dedicated to Da Vinci’s Tiger for more) but I will tell you to heed three things if you want to be a writer, especially of historic fiction:

First, never swallow whole the status quo or traditional interpretation of a piece of art or of historic figures. Scholars are constantly discovering new things, especially with access to vastly expanded and coordinated digitized collections of primary documents. With Ginevra, for instance, her image was described for decades as an “unhappy” engagement portrait. But it is far more likely that the work was commissioned after her marriage by the Venetian ambassador who had taken Ginevra as his Platonic Muse. He also commissioned poems to celebrate her beauty, virtue, and intellectualism. Some feminist scholars now speculate that she, Ginevra, this 17-year-old poet, might have been the one to inspire Leonardo to create human portraits and active Madonna’s—females of agency. These facts and new hypotheses instantly make Ginevra a far more complex figure and her life story endlessly fascinating.

Second, when you can, use the exact words of real-life people you are including in your novel. Leonardo was a prolific writer, so I could pull directly from his actual notebooks for his dialogue.   

Last, don’t forget to read the footnotes! I swear that’s where you will often find the most wonderful anecdotes that an academic writer just doesn’t see a place for in his main narrative. (During a dinner scene at the Medici’s house, I describe a spectacular “armeggeria,” a mini-parade and pseudo-joust in honor of one particularly beautiful young woman, a float with a bleeding heart set on fire, and a snowball fight. I swear! All found in a long footnote in a book about daily life in 15th century Florence.)

cover_liberty.gifOne final example—this from Give Me Liberty, which was spawned almost entirely by a two-paragraph description I found in a rather dry and obscure historical journal). My brilliant editor, Katherine Tegen, had suggested I do something on the American Revolution (this was a decade before Lin Manuel Miranda’s revelatory musical, Hamilton). Events like the Boston Tea Party or Lexington and Concord had already been beautifully covered in other novels, so I was thinking like a journalist and looking for a “hole in coverage.” I turned to Virginia, where so many of the words spawning and explaining the liberties the colonists hoped for were written. I started reading and discovered a little known but crucial battle in December 1775 at Great Bridge, just outside Norfolk, Virginia. In this battle, local volunteers stood up to well-equipped, professional British soldiers and sent them running after only twenty minutes of fighting. The battle handed me the perfect climatic ending to my book and told me to create two characters with very different experiences in their quest for liberty.

Here's why: runaway slaves fought at the Battle of Great Bridge, not for the Americans, but for the Redcoats, as part of the Royal Ethiopian Regiment. They mocked Patrick Henry's galvanizing slogan "Liberty or Death," which the Virginia regiments embroidered on their hunting shirts—by wearing a sash that read: "Liberty to Slaves." That terrible irony insisted I create two characters with opposing story lines, a slave (Moses) with the British Ethiopians who had to face off with a close friend (Nathaniel) fighting with the patriots.

A writer can't make-up something that "good," i.e. that compelling or symbolic or thought provoking. Life is your best source. Discovering that one little battle provided me with an action-packed ending, two main characters, an important and surprising plot twist, a moral dilemma, and an important secondary theme.

I joke that I wrote the novel backwards. I had everything I needed in its ending, I just had to create a storyline to get me to it. I found it and my characters to fit that trajectory by reading the 1774 Virginia Gazette, page by page, in digitized archives at the Rockefeller Library in Williamsburg.

In the end, when you get stymied, remember this: Writing is really as simple as building a drip sand castle—detail layered upon detail makes a sentence, a paragraph, a page. You create those drips by research, mixing what you find there with your imagination, just as you stir together sand and water, grab handfuls of it, and use that wonderful mess to build a castle.

Good luck. Have fun. Keep the faith in yourself.​​​​​​

Interview with the Grateful American Book Prize about writing and research:

http://gratefulamericanbookprize.com/2018/11/14/interview-l-m-elliott

 

Guest Blog about the connection between journalism and historical fiction: 

https://jacklimpert.com/2013/02/the-key-to-writing-good-novels-you-use-the-reporting-skills-of-a-good-journalist/

 

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