Paying Attention To The Details
Another author, Mary Sharratt, has written five historical novels. These novels by nature are heavy on research. She told Laurie Hertzel in an article for the Star Tribune, “Writing historical fiction is painstaking work, requiring extensive research into the tiniest, most arcane aspects of life. Get even a single detail wrong, and someone will notice.” And, her latest novel, “ILLUMINATIONS,” about the life of a 12th century nun, Hildegard von Bingen (October, 2012) underscores that statement. It ended up taking Sharratt years to research, reading not only the nun’s theology, but the writings of modern theologians as well. She also took trips to Germany to the site where the abbey once stood.
I didn’t intend for my second book to end up so full of historical tidbits, yet I found that I actually liked doing the work to uncover certain facts. An example was the location. I’ve been to the North Carolina mountains many times, so I could speak to the overall look of this area, even name some of the flora and fauna, but in order to accurately write about such mundane details as a wagon ride from Flattop Mountain to Lost Cove required that I spend copious amounts of time on Google, as well as looking at maps to ensure, that yes, it was within a day’s travel.
It didn’t take me years – only months – to find out various facts, but, I knew I had to investigate them. I remember reading once about an author who wrote an apology to the people in a town he was using in his story because he had to “move” the town so it fit the concept of his story’s location. I guess you can do that, and you can also make up places if it’s easier, but I’ve always preferred to read about stories that use the names and locations that are real.
As the story of the second book progressed and I decided on what was going to happen, I had to be sure I was depicting other events accurately, such as the day to day living in this area, how they worked, etc. I somehow landed on a thesis written by Christy Smith as part of her Masters of Arts in Liberal Studies at East Tennessee State University. The title of the thesis was, “Lost Cove, North Carolina: The Life and Death of a Thriving Community (1864-1957).” Since Lost Cove just so happens to be one of the locations in my book, and the paper covered the right time for my story (it’s set in 1925), you can imagine the jaw dropping moment I had when I dug that nugget up. Still, I tried to only use the most obvious facts from her paper, like their typical diet and their work life versus anything pertaining to the actual people who lived there.
And, there was some research done in the first book, like confirming what year a song was released so I wouldn’t unwittingly reference it two years too early. There was also research on a couple of food items, but all said and done, none of it compared to what I had to uncover to accurately portray certain elements in the second book.
Inaccuracy on even the smallest things can turn off a reader, the misspelling of a word, the timing of some event or usage of a product, etc., anything that a reader might notice ought to be verified and checked for correctness. Getting those tiny details right are just as important as the overall arch of any story. There’s nothing worse than to open a book and read something like, “It was 1968, the year Neil Armstrong first stepped on the moon…,” I’d put that book right back on the table – or shelf – and walk away…, fast.