Thursday, April 22, 2021

The Cure for the Modern Era: Conducting Preliminary Research for the Historical Novel

Greetings readers and Happy Earth Day! I don't know about you, but I'm finding Present Day Earth to be incredibly stressful. Daily mass shootings (only in America, kids!), environmental disasters (goodbye Iceberg A68), people's reticence in getting vaccinated (we're never going back to normal), and this general fear that the Great American Democracy Experiment is on its way out (who needs voting rights) has ratcheted my anxiety to a thousand. 

For me, escapism has taken on many forms this past year--from binge-watching New Girl on Netflix to listening to old-timey crime podcasts on Spotify to planning a lavender garden in a Poconos backyard, but nothing gets me lost in my own world more than doing historical research for a book idea.

There are plenty of writers who won't touch historical fiction with a ten-foot maypole. And I get it. The research is daunting, and no one wants to mess it up or get called out for messing it up (I once had an editor tell me I was using a 2000-era slang word in a 90s setting--I wasn't, but people make assumptions about what they know). Although I have degrees in both history and library science, I haven't tackled a project of this magnitude since I wrote my undergrad thesis on Jewish colonization schemes in 1920s Mexico (actual title of my paper). And despite my young adult novels all having historical components--I've written two novels set in the 1990s (easy to research because I was there), one novella set in 1955, and two mystery novels with flashbacks to the Swinging Sixties and Roaring Twenties--I am overwhelmed at the amount of research ahead of me. It's not just fashion and food and the cost of milk in 1951 that I need to know, but the landscape of my Manhattan setting. What landmarks existed then? How did the city look and smell? And then there is the geo-political climate--Cold War, post-WW II trauma, birth of suburbs. And the newspaper business. And major league baseball. And Jewish history. And everything. I feel like I need to know everything.

What if I can't find what I need? What if an important plot point hinges on an idea that is not historically sound? What if I can't accurately convey the period because I wasn't there? What if it takes me three hours to write a sentence? What if I can't do this?

The truth is I can do this; it just might take me a long time to draft. And while I am daunted by the process, I am also excited. Last week, I requested through interlibrary loan a dissertation about female journalists in the fifties and sixties. I sat at my laptop, read the book, and took notes, just like I did in college. And it was fun. I got lost in the work, and forgot about checking email or Twitter. And the more I learned about this particularly facet of history, the more my novel began to take shape. I had discovered my protagonist's objective and story arc. I realized that this idea could be amazing. That, perhaps, I was onto something truly special.

Of course everything is fun when it's research and not writing. And it's very easy for writers to use research as a means to procrastinate. Truthfully, I'm teetering on that edge since my historical novel is a secondary project right now (calling it my side hustle). But because of our current socio-political climate, a step back in time is exactly what I need to function today.

What era do you love to get lost in most? Medieval Europe? The Jazz Age? Sound off in the comments below.

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