AMERICAN HISTORICAL NOVELS discussion

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What is Your Research Process - Susan Henderson

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message 1: by Thelma (new)

Thelma Adams | 15 comments Following the FB Page of author Susan Henderson The Flicker of Old Dreams, I'm always fascinated by the photographs she shares of current research. So, I reached out to her and asked the rambling question: You are really into your research – and I think original in how you approach it. You spend a lot of time taking pictures, being at the site – what is your process? And do you use this to mine emotional as well as historical information?

In short: What is your research process?

This is Susan's stimulating and inspiring answer:

"The setting is always what first draws me into the novels I write. With The Flicker of Old Dreams, it was the proud town of 180 people. Most of the homes and businesses were empty, and many of the residents were trained for jobs that no longer existed. With my current work-in-progress, it’s an abandoned asylum covered in vines. And while the doors have been bolted shut, the town’s teenagers have found ways inside, and you see their flashlights moving through the building at night.

My research begins by physically circling my chosen setting, peeking into windows, snapping pictures. Then, as I move closer, questions build: Who worked here? What did this lever do? What did this place sound like when it was up and running? When did things fall apart?

This is when I start to seek out people who lived and worked there. I tell them I’m an author and I’m interested in learning more about this place and would they let me take them out for breakfast? Most times they say yes.

With my current project, I spend a lot of time with a guy who collects artifacts from the hospital. When it first shut down, this guy went in and grabbed what was left behind. Others added to his collection—a doctor’s autopsy ledger, an old nurse's cap, patients’ craft projects. I look through his stuff while he tells me stories. And when he mentions the hospital’s locksmith or a former patient he’s still in touch with, I ask if he’ll introduce me. And then I hear their stories.

I only take a handful of questions with me: What brought you to this town or to this line of work? Describe a typical day… and an especially memorable one. How did you let off steam? Soon they’re telling me about the supervisor they didn’t like, the finger they lost in an accident on site, and the alcoholic that soothed them at the end of each day. The magic is always in those tangents!

The world I’d been circling becomes vivid with these details and emotions, and my imagination begins to inhabit it. Then, one morning, I’ll wake up with a scene that shows me the way into the new book. With The Flicker of Old Dreams, it was the image of children playing a morbid game inside the abandoned grain elevator. I can’t wait to discover the image or scene that leads me into this one. "

Readers: What is your research process? And, readers, what authors can you rely on for fantastic historical accuracy?


message 2: by Martha (last edited Jul 24, 2018 06:26PM) (new)

Martha Conway | 255 comments Mod
Thanks for posting this extremely interesting essay.

Richard Ford twists the famous saying, "Location, location, location" to underscore the importance of setting in a novel — and I agree with him completely. I notice how often in dreams, what stays with me upon waking is where the dream takes place. I often dream about intricate houses, or places with water. Lately I've been on a light rail system going all over some suburb somewhere. My dream locations often repeat themselves.

To answer your question: the author that first springs to mind for historical accuracy is Hilary Mantel in Wolf Hall.

Martha


message 3: by Thelma (new)

Thelma Adams | 15 comments We share the same dreams, it seems. I am often in houses, return to houses that are familiar from previous dreams, feel good in houses that have a window or door that leads to water, usually the ocean.

I adore Hilary Mantel. For me, she's the gold standard -- I've been shy to mention her because this niche is American Historical. But I love her. Also the works of Philip Kerr and Alan Furst who I read religiously as mystery/thriller writers but are working in historical contexts -- before and after WWII in Europe (and Argentina in the case of Kerr).

I love the Richard Ford quote -- Brooklyn has become one of my major locations. While I don't live there any longer, I spent fifteen or so years of my life there, bought my first house there, was pregnant there and walked the streets and visited the institutions. Greenwood Cemetery is now cropping up in my next historical novel -- and I'm surprised how many of my character ensemble are buried there.

Thanks, Martha!


message 4: by C.J. (new)

C.J. Heigelmann (cjheigelmann) I enjoyed this very personable and intimate interview. As an author of Historical fiction, I have also found that allowing the story's location, surroundings and environment to resonate within myself, is a critical component for the beginning of research. If a writer cannot travel to the location, photos or other forms of media of the area of interest can suffice. Great interview!


message 5: by Beverly (new)

Beverly Magid | 15 comments This is my first post. I've been signed in, but life always seemed to intervene. However, research is the best part of writing historical fiction. My three novels (Flying Our of Brooklyn, Sown in Tears and Where Do I Go) focus on women in tough situations, ( World War 2 homefront, Russian pogroms, sweat shops in early Lower East Side in 1908) and delving into the facts via library (remember them?), internet, old newspapers (remember those too?) was the most fun. Sometimes, too much fun because I kept delaying the actual writing. Women, of course, were central to all those main events in those difficult times, sometime going to jail or losing their lives in the effort to right the wrongs.

I would steep myself in the times, thinking of my main character and what would they do if???? Then shaping the day, the smell, the sound, the feel of their surroundings. What they wore, they ate, read, saw around them, slowing shaping their particular world in the midst of the events occurring.

The author that blows my mind with her research is Hilary Mantel with her books, Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies.


message 6: by C.J. (new)

C.J. Heigelmann (cjheigelmann) Yes, I find the emotional foundation is best to be laid first, even before the gritty and all encompassing historical investigation begins. After that I find a process where those initial emotions are either tempered or accentuated by the research results. I believe Historical fiction novels are among the most difficult to write due to this process. However, they have the greatest potential to become profound, linking the hidden past with the present day reader. Illuminating the relevance of the past with the present has a way of revealing an individual's perspective of the future.


message 7: by Thelma (new)

Thelma Adams | 15 comments C.J. wrote: "Yes, I find the emotional foundation is best to be laid first, even before the gritty and all encompassing historical investigation begins. After that I find a process where those initial emotions ..."
Beautifully put!


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