Many of the books I read for Reading My Way are historical fiction. Oftentimes the authors of these books spend an enormous amount of time researching their setting–both the physical and the time period. (Stephen Markley mentions in the backmatter for Ohio that he practically wrote his character Stacey’s dissertation.)
I always enjoy reading an Author’s Note for these books for a little insight into which parts were “true” and which parts came from the author’s imagination. And I’ve commented before on little tidbits that caught my attention in the reading, and that have led me to do a little bit of research to “fact-check” something that seemed out of place. (Perhaps the most memorable was the age of onset of menses during the 1800s, which was mentioned in Rae Carson’s The Gold Seer Trilogy.)
So, I was very excited to receive an email from Vali Benson, the author of Blood & Silver, asking if I’d be willing to review her book for Reading My Way in exchange for a copy. It’s a Young Adult historical fiction set in Tombstone, Arizona in 1880, and stars a 12-year-old girl named Carissa. It sounded perfect for this blog.
I asked her to tell us a little about her research process and what advice she might have for other writers. Her response is below.
My husband and I moved to Arizona from Illinois as newlyweds over forty years ago. We were not necessarily seeking the desert, just refuge from the brutal Illinois winters. We visited Tucson in mid February; that was all the convincing we needed.
“Blood and Silver” was inspired by my many visits to Tombstone, AZ. We live less than an hour away and I became increasingly curious about what was now a town of thirteen hundred people. In 1884, Tombstone was a bustling metropolis and was the largest city between St. Louis and San Francisco. What would it have been like to live in this vibrant place during its heyday? I really needed to get a sense of the conditions and customs of the period to answer my question. It was time for the part of the writing process that gives life to the story, research.
Everything revolves around the research no matter the genre. Research is the best tool that a writer can use to equip the reader with a receptive mindset. The more prepared a writer can make the reader, the more effective the writing will be. One needs to look in unusual places, not just the top three Google hits. I love sourcing museums, libraries, newspaper archives, and even historical homes. Don’t rely on only your computer. Everyone can get that information so not only is it not original, it is not interesting.
The character of “Swamper Joe” in “Blood and Silver” was discovered on one of my early visits to Tombstone. He was a real man and any town local will be proud to regale you with his legend. But if I had not taken the time to actually research firsthand accounts, it would not have dawned on me to explore this little known regional footnote as a plot element. I would like to emphasize to any burgeoning writer to seek out the primary sources whenever possible. If you can work from the original source, it allows you to not have to depend on someone else’s version of the truth.
As I began to delve deeper into the true story of Tombstone, I also uncovered unexpected angles. The most prominent of which was the effect of the Chinese population. The result of this research led me to a real person whom I could never had made up, a woman named “China Mary.” This woman lived in Tombstone from 1879 – 1906 and essentially ran the town. In addition to operating a gambling hall behind her general store, she was also the preeminent broker for opium, laudanum and Chinese prostitutes. After I discovered the real life splendor of China Mary, I made her one of my central characters and twisted my fictional story around her actual exploits. None of that could have been possible without an extensive research period.
It is also important to realize that research is a never ending pursuit because you can’t ever learn everything there is to know about a subject. At some point, you just have to make up your mind that you have enough to confidently craft a story. In my experience, I begin the actual writing using my research as a reference and don’t worry if I have a fully formed conception or not. I firmly believe in the Jodi Picoult approach, “You can always edit a bad page. You can’t edit a blank page.” Again, if you are passionate about your subject, your research will help form the type of setting that you are interested in exploring.
Thank you to Vali Benson for her insights!