Wednesday, October 17, 2012

The True Where and What of My Truthful Fiction

So, where do I weigh in on the value of research when writing fiction?

Well, for starters, I disagree with Sherman Alexie, a writer I greatly admire who so generously offered his Top 10 Pieces of Advice for Writers in a recent blog:  I don’t think research is overrated.

In fact, I’d say it’s under-rated.

I know first-hand: digging up the concrete details relevant to each of my imagined stories - for example, the people, the times and places, the weather and daily living of lives, allowed me to grow my characters and puzzle out their plotlines, all while uncovering my story’s Truths.

We all know 3 is the magic number when supporting an opinion, so I’ll gladly share 3 instances when research enhanced and enriched my stories, making the fictive details incredibly credible.

I could not have written my first picture book There Goes Lowell’s Party! (Holiday House) without traveling the Ozarks courtesy of a host of books I met while reading my way through the 910 Section of the Wilmette Public Library. (That’s right! I wrote a book set in the Ozarks in May without ever setting foot there myself!)  Shelves of books offered me maps to read, photographs to study, land forms and water ways that could work their way into my text.  As for the rain proverbs (Section 398) that kept my plotline going – the skies growing red, the birds flying low, the leaves tickling Lowell’s cheeks, I came to know them thanks to Ozark folklorist Vance Randolph.  My book’s illustrator Jacqueline Rogers’ first request was for me to send on my primary and secondary research.  I also found a slew of place and character names printed on maps of Missouri and Arkansas.  By the time Lowell’s kin made it to his party, despite rain and floods and mud slides and twisters, my readers knew the wonder of familial love.

As for my delicious picture book CHICKEN SOUP BY HEART?
Well, believe it or not, I read and cooked chicken soup recipes (Section 641) from around the world.  In fact, in its first iteration, Rudie Dinkins was one of many multi-cultural characters who, so loved by their afterschool babysitter, Mrs. Gittel, wanted to cook her chicken soup when she came down with the flu.  And to counter my editor’s doubt that chicken soup could be sweet, as Mrs. Gittel liked her chicken soup, I was forced to keep digging through cook books until I came upon a Hungarian recipe that utilized sugar.   Readers came to see the crucial ingredient – the reciprocity of love.

My picture book FANCY THAT demanded time-travel, back to 1841and Berks County, Pennsylvania (Section 900).  Once again, my Wilmette Public Library served as the World’s Best Travel Agent.  Pippin Biddle, my story’s orphaned young limner, who set his heart on earning his keep traveling about painting people’s portraits, all to get his three sisters out of the Poorhouse, was a unique combination of every single limner I read about in Jean Lipman’s comprehensive book (Section 750).  Fortunately, I was earnest in my research; otherwise Pip would have returned at Thanksgiving, only there wasn’t a Thanksgiving yet; Pip’s dog would have been a breed (Jack Russell Terrier) yet created.  A Christmas return directed me to Sections 248 and 249 of the Library, so I could read about the Germans who’d brought Christmas to America in the late 1830’s, and Pip’s sisters could then save the day with their wreath-making business!  To my surprise, I’d written a book about hidden talents and how they reside in each of us.

“Fiction is a lie that tells the truth,” Stephen King wrote.  IMHO, research helps the writer tell the best lie possible.

Happy Writing and Researching!

Esther Hershenhorn

Don’t forget to celebrate NCTE’s Fourth Annual National Day on Writing Friday October 19 and Saturday, October 20.
This year’s theme is What I Write.
Come Friday and Saturday, tweet out your compositions of all sorts and post them to Twitter using the hashtag #WhatIWrite, and if space allows, #dayonwriting.

Since the National Gallery of Writing opened on October 20, 2009, more than 3,300 galleries were created and nearly 33,000 writing contributions were submitted. While the Gallery is now closed for submissions, it is a searchable archive and is a great resource for you to use when involving others in writing.

Don’t forget to enter our Guest TeachingAuthor Book Giveaway to win an autographed copy of Eileen Meyer’s Who’s Faster? Animals on the Move.


Linda B said...

I finally found time to read your wonderful post, Esther. This will be great for sharing with students about the fictional 'lie' based on research, research, research! It's a challenge to be sure they understand that background bolsters the stories. Thank you very much! I loved hearing the examples.

Esther Hershenhorn said...

Thanks, Linda, for sharing my post with your students.
Reading maps and newspapers of a particular place, from a particular time, helps me immensely - with people and place names, but also,plot possibilities.

Megan Frances said...

Fascinating how research enriched your fiction with detail and verisimilitude (such fun to be able to pop that word in).
I just came across some notes I made a few months ago in the course of doing research for my WIP. Some background information I'd forgotten just triggered a great idea for a twist in the story. I can't wait to use it.