Eight Things This Fiction Writer Learned About Historical Research
Leslie Pietrzyk | June 2017
I’m not a natural researcher, so Lord only knows what I was thinking, deciding to write a novel set in 1899 in Chicago. Not only that, but my book has two very different characters—a young man who has recently emigrated from Poland to Chicago, and a young married woman from an affluent Chicago family. So that’s almost like researching two entirely different books. But I’m always one for a writing challenge, so off I went to figure it all out, and here are eight things I’ve come to learn:
Number 1: The concept of “enough.” Perhaps the most important thing that the writer should remember is that one single word: “enough.” There is “enough” research when you’re writing fiction. You’re not going to learn everything about your time period, and, frankly, you don’t need to know everything: you only need to know “enough”—enough to tell your story in a believable way. You’re not writing an authoritative history; you’re writing a STORY. People are reading your book to see what happens next to your characters, not so they can understand trends in Elizabethan England.
So, beware of historians. Historians think you should know everything. You really only need to know “enough.” I know what kind of carriage my character Lucy rides in and what the road is like, but I don’t know if there are still posts to hitch up horses in the street. I don’t know if rich people in Chicago preferred black horses or brown horses. Sure, it would be nice to know those things, and if I did, I might throw the information into the story, but it’s not relevant and it’s not necessary.
Number 2: Be open to the world. This book idea came to me when I was killing time between meals in Chicago and randomly walked into the McCormick Bridgehouse & Chicago River Museum on Michigan Avenue. On the wall was a question: “Did you know that the city reversed the flow of the Chicago River?” How crazy is that? I had to learn more, asking a zillion questions, and by the time I left, I ‘d already jotted down my book idea, in which that event—the river reversal in 1899—plays an important role.
All this is to say that while we all know that the writing process is mysterious and filled with serendipity, so is the research process. You be searching for one fact and discover another. You will be reading The New Yorker and there will be an article about the history of breast-feeding which contains crucial information for your book. You’ll feel guilty about reading a fluff-article in Vanity Fair about the challenges of being a modern-day titled Brit and there you’ll come across some historical facts about the divorce rate in the 1890s. Trust that things will appear as you need them…and nudge that serendipity as much as possible by reading widely and simply paying attention.
Number 3: Background reading. Before I started writing this book, I spent several months reading about the broad parameters of what was going on in the country during my time period. I felt as though I was in an old-time social studies class, but this type of very general reading gave me a good background on the big picture of the world at that time.
And read before your year and time period to see trends developing and to know what your characters (and the world, your setting) has gone through before things reached this point. My book is specifically set in 1899, so I read from about 1885ish to 1900. Even if what you learn is not inherently relevant in a specific way to your project, you need a sense of how and why the world was as it was once you reach your time period. Not having that background would be like trying to write about the United States in 1979 without having some knowledge of Watergate and the Vietnam War. To understand Chicago in 1899, I had to know about the Pullman strike of 1894, an important development in the labor movement; to understand how my Polish immigrant arrived, I had to learn a little bit about how the Germans and the Irish arrived first, and what happened to those Germans and Irish. Just as a character’s personal family history makes them who they are, so, too, do world events.
Number 4. Variety. As I said, I started with a lot of broad histories, almost textbooks, to get a big picture. Then I narrowed my scope, looking at more specific publications that offered information on—for lack of a better word—lifestyle: etiquette books, cookbooks, some old Time-Life books called This Fabulous Century with lots of photos. One of the best resources I found online was a city directory and yellow pages for Chicago’s “elite” called The Chicago Blue Book (of 1898) which also contained advertisements, leading me to learn that rich people had water delivered, leading me to have my affluent young woman worry that the water delivery is going to be late before her dinner party.
I also read some novels set in the time period, and thanks to the fictional trend of realism—these novels were immensely helpful in showing me daily life in this world: Sister Carrie and The Jungle. And narrative works of history like The Devil in the White City, about the 1893 World’s Fair, gave me a strong sense of Chicago.
Photos are incredibly helpful—what are people wearing? What are the details of the environment surrounding them—I have a photo of immigrants in their tenement apartment, and they have a wall calendar in the background. Boom—a wall calendar can be a detail in my book, something I’m sure I wouldn’t have thought of on my own.
Number 5. The value of the tactile. At the Chicago History Museum’s research library, I looked through a box of possessions entitled “Lucy McCormick Blair Linn Collection, photos & keepsakes relating to Linn’s boarding school days & honeymoon, 1900–1930.” This stuff didn’t exactly match my time period, but I was curious about the everyday life of a rich young lady, and just holding her dance card—with its little pencil attached by a ribbon—gave me a tingle and made me feel as though I were connected to a place and time. When I was stuck, I thought about that dance card from 100 years ago and was reminded that in one sense, these people I’m writing about are real.
Number 6. Get out your pen (or if you’re in an archive, pencil). Don’t rely exclusively on photocopies or computer cut and paste or scanning or highlighting books. Handwrite notes—that will force you to choose what really feels important. It’s easy to drag a yellow hi-liter across a paragraph, which means it’s too easy to mark everything. When you have to write something on a notecard, you learn to pick and choose.
Number 7. Start writing even when you think you’re not ready. That’s the only way to discover what it is that you need to know. You can fill in details as they arise (i.e., once they actually get into a carriage, then you can go look up what kind of carriage it is).
And then, remember, too, the other reason you’re researching: not just to find out facts about what carriages look like, but to learn things that ultimately will shape the direction the story will take: things you didn’t know you had a question about, but that provide direction for your story as it’s taking shape. If you don’t start in on the writing you won’t recognize when something can be useful to the story. I alluded to an article in Vanity Fair that surprised me with some information about late 19th-century divorce statistics. Upon reading that, I saw that a whole new ending was possible for the book. If I had learned these facts early on, before writing, the information wouldn’t have stuck with me because I hadn’t fully developed and discovered the characters. But because of where I was in the writing of the fictional story, this information was quite helpful.
Number 8. Make stuff up. I saw Edward P. Jones read from and speak about his book The Known World, set in the pre-Civil War south about African-American slave owners. He claims to have done no research, telling us (paraphrased), “I had a sense of what slave cabins looked like.” Maybe he didn’t get every last detail, and maybe he was wrong about a few things, but he wrote a compelling story and made us believe it.
On several occasions I put in my best guess, and later when I did the research, I discovered that I was right. Did people need a marriage license back then? My story wants this to be the case…and it seems to be so, according to a number of marriage records that I found online between what appear to be Polish immigrants.
So, trust yourself. If you’re a smart person, if you’re both careful and bold, if you’re a writer: you can make it up. You can make it up and we will believe you.
Leslie Pietrzyk is the author of two novels and the short story collection, This Angel on My Chest, which won the 2015 Drue Heinz Literature Prize. She has two novels forthcoming, Silver Girl, from Unnamed Press in 2018, and Reversing the River, on the Great Jones Street literary app (available for free download for Apple/Android). Short fiction is forthcoming in The Southern Review, Arts & Letters, and Shenandoah. Twitter: @lesliepwriter Website: www.lesliepietrzyk.com