Today, I would like to introduce you to my dear friend and fellow author Nancy Brandon. I’m going to let her take the floor. She is going to share with you her research process for her bestselling debut book Dunaway’s Crossing. Take it away Nancy.
Thank you Lois and hello to everyone in WG2E land
Long-time respected journalist Leon Dash once said in an interview that writers should always “know what [they]don’t know.” In other words, they should recognize where their knowledge of a subject ends and be sure to investigate that subject carefully to fill in the gaps.
A common misconception readers have about novels is of authors declaring one day, “I’m going to write a novel about __[fill in the blank]_.” And then they sit down at the computer and start writing. Well, maybe some writers do get started that way, but my writing usually germinates from an initial question, which sparks some research, which then develops into more questions and therefore more research. Once I’ve solidified my fascination with a subject, I decide it would make a good premise for a story.
For instance, my debut novel, began ten years earlier with my interest in the 1918 influenza pandemic.
The process started when I picked up a book from my book store’s bargain table: Gina Kolata’s Flu: The Story of the Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918 and the Search for the Virus that Caused It.
Catchy title, isn’t it?
I don’t know what about the book grabbed me. Perhaps it was the captivating cover design. Or maybe it was the bargain price of five bucks. Maybe it was springtime and I noticed the author’s name rhymed with pina colada. I don’t know. But I picked up the book, and Gina Kolada pulled me in at page one.
Over the next two or three years, I wanted to learn more about the disease. I read books from Kolata’s bibliography. I read works of fiction about the pandemic. I even taught college literature courses with medical themes so I could discuss with my students all I’d discovered. And then I learned that my great-grandparents temporarily relocated from their home in town to live in their country cabin to avoid contagion. After several years of learning, I finally pointed my finger in the air and declared, “I’m going to write a novel about the influenza pandemic.”
But I wasn’t ready.
I’d learned much about influenza, but little about country life in 1918 rural Georgia. I had to look up information about automobiles, telegraphs, agriculture, and mail routes. Most of what I needed to know was available online or at local libraries. Fortunately, I live just a few miles away from the Georgia Historical Society, an invaluable library for writers of historical fiction.
But I needed more. For instance, I knew my characters could communicate via telephone, but I needed details of phone services in small towns at that time. Online and print sources didn’t offer such information. So I called my ninety year-old Uncle John, who grew up in tiny Claxton, Georgia, the son of the town doctor. Over an hour and a half, Uncle John described to me how people would turn the crank on the telephone, how they would speak to the local operator, what one would hear through the ear piece when making a call, that the phone number in his home was D23 and his father’s office phone number was D24.
I needed that information for maybe ten lines of my manuscript. But without those details about early telecommunications, I would not have been able to write an accurate depiction of 1918 rural Georgia.
Even after all my research, my work still had a few inaccuracies. For instance, in a couple of places I have my characters feeling nervous and I compare their jitters to fire ants in their nests. After reading my manuscript, both my mother and father contacted me and informed me that fire ants didn’t exist in Georgia in 1918. They migrated north from Mexico fifty years later. It had never occurred to me to research a bug’s existence. In that case, I didn’t know what I didn’t know.
The story develops after–sometimes long after–a simple question. Then once the research begins, other questions arise, more research takes place, and more ideas develop. So while the influenza premise of a novel occurs at one point, the decision to make the hero a mailman develops later on. Then during the second revision of the novel, the writer might decide to kill one of the most beloved characters or add a private investigator to complicate the protagonist’s mission. And there begins more research.
But it’s worth it. Those researched details make the difference between a hurried manuscript and a well developed art form. Readers always appreciate that effort because those small bits of information are what make them lose themselves in the fiction, and it just might inspire them to ask their own one simple question.
Nancy Brandon is the author of journalistic articles, academic articles, short fiction and writing textbooks. She teaches college English in Savannah, Georgia, where she lives with her husband and two children. Dunaway’s Crossing is her first novel. It is available on Amazon.com or through her website.
(D. D. Scott here):
Thanks Bunches, Lois, for bringing Nancy to The WG2E, and a big ol’ Welcome to You, Nancy!
As a special treat today, head on over to The WG2E’s Sister Site – The RG2E – where we’re Ebook Gifting Nancy’s bestselling book!!!
The Best of The WG2E Indie Epublishing Wishes — Lois Lavrisa and Nancy Brandon