When I began my first historical novel, Straight along a Crooked Road, I knew I wanted to tell the story of a family that left its home in Vermont and traveled by wagon to California. I had heard plenty of tales about that kind of travel, for my family loved to sit around and tell stories about the past. It would be an easy matter to translate these stories to the typed page. Wouldn’t it?
It would not . . . and here’s why. Though I knew stories about the people, I didn’t know all the details that would make those people and their experiences alive. I needed to name the flowers that grew on the Great Plains. I needed to know what bear grease smelled like — and how far away you had to stand to escape that distinctive odor. I needed to hear the shouts of the wagonmaster and the sounds of a camp coming to life before sunup. And I needed to immerse myself in the rhythms of speech of that long ago time.
In short, I couldn’t write the book until I knew what I was talking about. I was reminded of a professor I had in college. His favorite bit of advice when assigning a research paper was “Get those details right!” He would often look over a report, jab one finger at a place on the page and demand, “Are you sure about this? Can you prove it?”
So I stopped mid-plot, not once, but many times, to research. To make sure I had the facts straight, and then to use those facts to move the story forward.
Sometimes it was hard to return to the drudgery of writing after the excitement of research — but not for long. For the new-found information was what added life to the narrative, to the dialogue, to the setting.
Luanna’s little sister, Emmy, gathered not daisies, but ox-eye daisies. The family camped not in the woods, but in a stand of oaks. The rattlesnake didn’t coil on the riverbank, but on the bank of the Mojave River. When the family reached the mouth of Cajon Pass, they didn’t see a valley covered with wildflowers, but a valley covered with blue lupin, red and yellow poppies, and lavender paintbrush.
Get your details right, and don’t be afraid to weave them into the story. They will flesh out plot, make characters come to life, and help create a setting of technicolor instead of black and white!
-contributed by Marilyn Cram Donahue