Friday, March 11, 2011

Those Little Details

As an author of historical romance and a history major, I live and breathe research. Sometimes, though, it can take over my writing. Since, I also am a firm believer in getting details correct and using real historic events and figures to provide color, research floods my mind, at times. This usually happens when I’m first exploring story ideas (and continues far thereafter). Since I’m never quite sure what direction I want to go, I tend to begin by researching a lot of different possibilities to see what inspires me. k

When I first starting thinking about CHANCES, for example, I knew only that I wanted a strong female character and that she would be one of Miriam’s (my heroine from CHOICES) boarding school roommates. That led to a brainstorming session. What type of woman would have a strong character in the late 1870s or early 1880s? Someone who believed in suffrage kept coming out on top. That led to the first round of research into which states had suffrage movements during that time and whether or not there were historic figures within those movements who might inspire a character.

About that same time, I picked up a small biography in a used book store about a female telegraph operator. I was immediately intrigued. A female telegraph operator would be exactly the type of person who would promote suffrage. I learned that railroads had hired women as early as the 1870s so I began to compare my lists (suffrage and railroads that hired women). I hit pay dirt: Colorado had a state suffrage referendum in 1877 and the Kansas-Pacific Railroad, which ran through Denver, hired women.

From there, I needed to create my hero. I needed him to be in conflict with Sarah, my heroine. The little biography again offered up an idea. In the book, there was a recollection about a dead body coming in on a train and it being sent to the wrong undertaker. How perfect! An undertaker seemed like the type of guy who would be conservative and in ready conflict with a pro-suffrage telegraph operator. Editors, agents, and contest judges advised me to make him a lawman but there were too many wonderful possibilities to make Daniel anything but an undertaker.

Now, I had several subjects to research: telegraph operations, suffrage movements and the Colorado state referendum, Denver in the 1870s, and funeral practices in the nineteenth century. I decided to add details on prostitution, literature, ice skating, dances, games, and entertainment halls. I was hooked. I amassed information, maps, books, articles, photos, etc. I did a historic walking tour of downtown Denver and visited museums. I began to discover all sorts of details within each subject that had to be explored further in order to determine what to include and what I had to sacrifice. Then, I began to develop my characters within that framework.

This all was so much more work than my first manuscript, which I knew from the moment I started was to be about an officer’s daughter and an enlisted man at Fort Randall, Dakota Territory. It was only as I began to layer in backstory about my villain, Miriam’s mother, that I went off on research tangents about laudanum. I think this was because so much of the story was inspired by research for other projects and done prior to plotting the novel.

My third manuscript, yet unpublished, proved to be another research adventure as I worked to refine Lise, the third roommate, who was part Sioux. Plotting her story led me on a merry chase through the Sioux Uprising in Minnesota (which I had been intrigued by ever since my Minnesota girlhood), Standing Bear’s 1879 trial, and changes in Indian law. I got the chance to investigate early Omaha, politics, and fishing as I crafted my hero.

Currently, I am working on another Denver story which is chock full of even more fun research. I still struggle with having to set it all aside to work on writing…always a struggle in the first few chapters. Just last week, I discovered a wrinkle and had to spend a day investigating details. Now, back to writing, I’ve set the research on the back burner once again and am working to bring all those rich details to life.

Until the next story starts to form.


Jacqueline Seewald said...

Hi, Pam,

Glad you're working on another novel. Will you look for another publisher since Five Star will be dropping the Expressions line or will you get in under the wire?

Pamela Nowak said...

I'm on the great query adventure. My manuscript was one of those waiting for consideration when Five Star dropped the Expressions line. So, I have a manuscript ready to go and no home for it. Standard answer in the publishing world thus far is: western historicals just don't sell well. Funny, because I buy them whenever I can find them.

Jacqueline Seewald said...

I love historical westerns myself. I also wrote one and submitted it to Five Star. Then they dropped the line. Very frustrating! With starred reviews on both your westerns, I think you should have publishers panting for your work--agents as well!

Anonymous said...

Great post, Pam, about how research fuels creative energy. Thanks for sharing!

Michelle Black said...

Dear Pam--I loved your post because I, too, love the research as much as the writing. I can also relate to your comment above, "western historical just don't sell."
That breaks my heart because I love to read and write them. (I am working on one right now and have no idea where to market it when it's done.)
(I think you are also a member of Women Writing the West, like me.)
If enough of us like-minded Western lovers got together (in cyberspace) maybe we could brainstorm on how to reach out and find readers who like our genre (subgenre?)
I am so frustrated, but I want to DO something, to take action on this. Just not sure what. =(
--Michelle Black

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