On Writing and Research
When I speak to schools about creative writing, I take two New Yorker covers with me. One shows a monkey at a typewriter. At first he’s baffled, then terrified and furious, until finally he arrives at that wondrous Eureka!—when the ideas hit and he starts typing. The other illustration is of a man putting pencil to the floor, literally writing himself into a corner. (That's what happens when the author doesn't have an outline!)
I try to make light of the writer's block pictured in the cartoons because so many students feel like failures if perfect paragraphs don't just gush out of them. Here's the deal. Writing is great fun, incredibly rewarding, but it takes work. As light-bulb inventor Thomas Edison said: "Genius is 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration."
Indeed, writing is about sweating it out—digging through your own life, of course, but also learning to “report a story,” carefully watching and listening and researching. Asking those why questions. The best writers can not only explain what he or she feels but also accurately describe what the person across the room might be thinking.
There is no precise prescription for creativity, but these qualities can help build the craft a writer needs:
1. Read. Read a variety of genres, styles, and authors. Take note what type of writing best suits a scene. Remember that language has cadence and tone and personality. If you particularly like an author's style or voice, try writing a few passages emulating it so you can absorb what creates its effect. Take note of things that capture your attention, stir an emotional reaction, or simply delight you with their beauty.
2. Keep a journal. But don't just write about your own life. Learn to decipher and depict what you see and what you hear. People watch. Go to the mall, a street corner, a library, or an art museum. Sit down for an hour and open your ears, eyes, and heart. Imagine why the people passing in front of you have come there, where they are going later, what they might be thinking. Their behavior will hint about who they are, what their dreams might be, what their mood is that day. Go outside and describe the sunset, how it changes the clouds it seeps across, or the sound of bird song, or the scent of tree blossoms, the feel of grass.
Include as many senses as possible when you write —sight, sound, touch, taste, or smell. Write down words you particularly like the sound of, quotes that inspire you, newspaper headlines that disturb you. Do little character sketches. These are all exercises to practice the craft of writing—just like musicians practice scales to build their ability to play large, harder works.
3. Write for the student newspaper or magazine. I firmly believe journalism is one of the best preparations for creating fiction. Journalism teaches you to make a deadline, to stop obsessing over that one paragraph, and to finish a story. It demands clarity. Your fiction dialogue will be far more believable if you interview people for newspaper profiles for a while first. I discovered how people really speak by interviewing them and writing down exactly what they said word-for-word. I also learned to look for that revealing detail that shows rather than tells what a person is feeling. Sometimes the way someone says something (if they shift uncomfortably, look away, or become more animated) is as important as the words they use. Including those descriptive details will paint a far more comprehensive portrait.
4. Read your writing out loud to yourself. Listen for the rhythm. It's the best way to hear if you have repeated something, or have one too many beats in a description, or meandering phrases. If I stumble over a passage, if my tongue trips up on itself as I read, I know I have some rewriting to do.
5. Take writing classes. Work hard. Leave arrogance at the door. But don't let anyone discourage you. Judgments on creative writing are subjective. I had one professor who definitely did not think that I had what it took to become a professional writer. I promise you I have written far more books than he. Even so, it took awhile—I received more than a dozen rejection letters before my first picture book manuscript was accepted. So have courage and determination if you want to write. Take the risk if you have something to say. Don’t just talk about it—sit yourself down and do it!
Where do my ideas come from mostly? RESEARCH! That’s my favorite part of writing. Research is the treasure hunt. Where I play detective, where I find the gems and truths of a story—that excavation makes the actual writing so much easier. I always read reams of novels, biographies, newspaper articles, and memoirs from the time period before I begin writing one of my historical narratives. I essentially report my novels just as I did my magazine stories. What I learn in my research sets my imagination soaring. Let me give you a few examples.
I’ll start with my most recent biographical novel, Hamilton and Peggy: A Revolutionary Friendship. One of the greatest sources on Peggy’s whereabouts and personality was Hamilton himself. Within days of meeting Eliza, Hamilton wrote Peggy, saying he’d already formed “a more than common partiality” for her “person and mind” because of a miniature portrait Eliza painted and carried with her. Hamilton playfully begs Peggy, as a “nymph of equal sway,” to come distract the other aides-de-camp so he can monopolize Eliza. To be his wingman, in essence!
Upon receiving that letter, Peggy seems to have ridden 150 miles to Morristown, NJ, through territory patrolled by bands of Loyalists who would have reveled in capturing one of General Schuyler’s daughters. She braved the worst winter ever recorded in American history, with snowdrifts 6 feet high, and temperatures so low that New York City’s harbor was frozen solid, 18-feet-deep. Heavy cannon were being pulled across the ice without a crack.
Soldiers encamped in Morristown described the hardships of that winter in vivid detail. Roads were impassible so supplies could not get through. Wild animals—squirrels, rabbits, birds—that the soldiers might have hunted to feed themselves all but disappeared, frozen to death. They often didn’t have anything to eat for days at a time. A young private, named Joseph Plumb Martin, wrote in his diary about eating bark, roasting shoes, and killing and cooking pet dogs to survive.
Those haunting facts really point up Peggy’s daring, her independent and rather bodacious personality! It also established for me her tightknit relationship with Eliza—I think she braved those dangers to check out this flirtatious, silver-penned aide-de-camp to insure he wasn’t just dallying with her sweet-natured middle sister.
After a harrowing 3-day journey, Peggy arrived in Morristown in time for the Winter’s Ball, Feb. 23rd, 1780. Roads were “so shocking,” the snowfall so heavy, only 16 women made it through to dance with 65 officers that night. With a ratio of 4 men to one lady, I’m sure Peggy (called by one peer “a favourite of dinner tables and balls”) danced a lot that evening.
Probably even with George Washington, who absolutely loved to dance, BTW, and was renowned as a graceful, impressive partner, especially for the minute. GW was a good friend of Peggy’s father (who happened to be GW’s right-hand man for espionage because of the spy rings he ran out of the Schuyler Mansion). He and Peggy would become co-godparents to the youngest Schuyler baby, whom Peggy also happens to save from Redcoat capture by dashing into the fray of an attempted kidnapping of her father!
I can include all these important and amazing truths in Peggy’s character arc and the plot twists in her story because of RESEARCH! It’s like a magical jigsaw puzzle.
Because Hamilton and Peggy is a biographical novel, it was crucial that it be as factual as possible. Peggy left behind no letters of her own, so I had to research around her, finding mentions of her in the Schuylers’ wide circle, in letters and memoirs, in footnotes and references in other people’s biographies. Here’s what I found:
Peers described Peggy as a “wicked wit;” as “endowed with a superior mind and a rare accuracy of judgment of men and things;” as “lively and generous.” She was fluent in French, and taught herself German by reading her father’s engineering manuals. A. Ham called her “spritely,” and Ben Franklin, the king of one-liners, even dubbed her “wild Peggy.”
One of Hamilton’s closest friends, James McHenry, criticized Peggy as being “like Swift’s Vanessa, ” referencing a Jonathan Swift poem. It was 18th century code for a whip-smart woman who was too insistent on talking politics with men to be entirely likeable. “Tell Peggy so,” McHenry wrote Hamilton. “I am sure her good sense will soon place her in her proper station.”
Ha! I don’t think so. Peggy seems to have been as much the Revolutionary thinker as her eldest sister Angelica. She truthfully is a wonderful real-life role model for today’s smart-girl—the young woman who wants to join our nation’s political debate or speak her mind against women being labeled.
I’ll end this segment about Peggy by “showing rather than telling” why PRIMARY DOCUMENTS are the BEST! Letters, like Hamilton’s, give you the feel of someone from long ago whispering into your ear all his or her longings and fears. Regarding Peggy, Hamilton’s immediate affinity and big-brother-affection comes through loud and clear. In his long, impassioned letters to Eliza, he often dropped bits of gossip about “My Peggy,” as he called his soon-to-be little sister. Like this one Hamilton writes just a few weeks after meeting Peggy. He dismisses a potential suitor of hers, saying he will not consent to “Capt. Beebe being Peggy’s favourite. He is not clever enough for her—he sings well and that is all.”
I learned about a romance that did take for her, and which Hamilton may have approved, because of his goosing Eliza that Peggy might beat her to marriage: “When your sister (Peggy) returns home, I shall try to get her in my interest and make her tell me of all your flirtations. Have you heard any thing more of what I hinted to you about Fleury? When she returns, give my love to her and tell her, I expected, she would have outstripped you in the Hymenial line.”
There’s so much in that letter to unpack, including that final double-entendre, but my immediate thought who the heck is Fleury?
It’s hard to unearth much on the French Marquis de Fleury. Yet, he showed such valor at the Battle of Stony Point he was 1 of only 8 people awarded a Congressional Medal of Honor during the Revolution. He was praised not only for successfully leading what seemed to be a suicide, bayonet-only charge up cliffs, but for sparing the lives of British soldiers during the battle, and sharing his reward money with his men.
An engineer as well as officer, Fleury seems to have been quite enthusiastic. He wrote Washington in excited, clumsy, badly-spelled English about self-propelled, exploding boats he wanted to build and launch at the British fleet floating outside Philadelphia. That letter displayed his wonderfully geeky scientist personality. But I CORROBORATED that—journalists always require a 2nd source and you should too—with a collection of letters/memoirs of people living in Newport, Rhode Island when the French army wintered there. According to the town-resident who housed him: Fleury was “sociable, jocose, very agreeable in conversation, of a free, liberal turn of mind.”
So... So Fleury was brave, ingenuous, humane, generous, open-minded—someone who should appreciate a “Swift’s Vanessa.” Definitely Peggy’s kind of guy. Hamilton also gossips about a kiss by a carriage, and Fleury writes Hamilton, joking that they may soon be related because he is quite fond of Miss Peggy. All I’ll say is for any student who thinks primary documents are boring???? They just need to read some of these letters, Hamilton’s especially….
Because I wrote Suspect Red to explore the trickle-down effects of national politics and rhetoric on the thoughts and friendship of two teenage boys from opposite sides of the political spectrum, the novel’s backdrop setting and cultural references were as important as the characters. I read 1950s newspapers and magazines, scholarly analysis of the Cold War, and bios on McCarthy, Hoover, and journalist Edward R. Murrow. I watched YouTube clips of McCarthy’s speeches, Murrow’s See it Now broadcasts and witnesses’ testimony in front of McCarthy’s committee. I re-read The Crucible, Fahrenheit 451, and Lord of the Flies—all written during the Red Scare—as well as nonfiction books like I Led 3 Lives, Herbert Philbrick’s chronicle of his experiences as an FBI secret-agent embedded in a communist cell. I put my reporter hat back on and interviewed former State Department and Congressional officials. I watched 1950s TV shows and movies, plus current works about McCarthyism like Good Night and Good Luck, to get the lingo and pop culture details to make my dialogue, clothes, food, music, and settings authentic.
That’s how I discovered the fact Robin Hood was banned from schools and libraries. (Yup—Robin Hood. He and his merry men took from the rich to give to the poor, a theme dubbed “subversive” and sympathetic to communist philosophy.) That stunning fact—which so exemplifies the extremes, the paranoia, of the Red Scare—became a pivotal plot point and quick-defining brushstroke for my character’s realities and personalities.
My life as a novelist began with Under a War-torn Sky, a story about a B-24 pilot who had to bail out of his plane onto Nazi-occupied France, barely evading capture and only with the help of French civilians who risked everything to do so. Henry Forester was inspired by my father’s experiences but my research grew the character into an everyman for the 4,000 British and American boys who survived that ordeal thanks to the French and Dutch Resistance. BTW, the British SAE estimates that for every flyer saved, one French person died. One-for-one. That heartbreaking statistic—cataloguing the sacrifice of real-life souls—really comes alive when portrayed not only with numbers but through characters that embody them, characters that readers care about and worry about and walk with through the journey of a novel. Responsible, well-researched historical fiction—(the key word being well-researched)—humanizes history.
Under a War-torn Sky is still my best-selling and best-known work, nearly twenty years after publication. That has everything to do with how riveting and inspiring are the anecdotes of people who survived WWII and the “revealing” show-rather-than-tell details that make scenes so palpable and human.
For instance, I wanted to show the reader how cold, how scary those B-24 mission flights were. Research gave me the details to do that vividly. Rather than stating the temperatures could plunge to 30-below-zero in those tin-can-bombers—(because the plane's guns were shot through open bays)—I simply dressed the crew in a scene. The flyers had to wear bright-blue long johns that were wired like electric blankets and that they plugged into the plane's circuitry. If the gunners took off their fleece-lined gloves for a better grip their hands could stick, frozen, to the metal. Every 20 minutes they had to squeeze their oxygen masks to break up spit from their shouting that had frozen into ice-pellets and could cut off their airflow.
And if they had to bail out of a burning plane onto Nazi-occupied territory all their survival kit contained was four syringes of morphine, a can of rations, a candy bar, an escape map of France, a few bills of French money, and a small pamphlet that translated phrases like, "I am in a hurry" and "I am hurt” into four different languages, with a headline in red saying: Not To Be Produced in Public. A sobering reminder that these boys would be on the run, trying to hide the fact they were Americans and negotiate a country speaking a language they wouldn’t understand.
Readers were so taken by Henry Forester and so worried about what happened to the French civilians who had saved his life, they kept asking for a sequel. So in A Troubled Peace I went back to post-liberation France to find out. I was stunned by how much we had to destroy France to free it. Three out of four bridges, for instance, had been blown apart either by the retreating Nazis, the French Resistance, or our advancing troops having to fight village-by-village on our way to Germany. So, too, railways and train cars.
This meant supplies couldn’t move. I read about the staggering price of eggs, about Parisians being rationed to one hour of electricity a day and a bath every three for more than a year after VE-Day; about riots over strawberries and butter because of scant supplies; and about catch phrases such as "la femme au turban" for women who wore scarves on their heads to hide the fact they had been collaborators with the Nazis and then punished for it by angry mobs shaving their heads. These are details that really show what my characters, Henry, Pierre, and Claudette were contending with.
I discovered a Q and A pamphlet titled "112 Gripes about the French," issued in 1945 by the Information and Educational Division of the U.S. Occupational Forces to help our GIs better empathize and understand the French they were trying to help. It filled my head with the era's lingo like "getting soaked" for paying too much for something or a fancy restaurant being "swank." Photographs of the time inspired characters—like a gaunt girl who sold milk from a cart being drawn by a large dog. Looking at the photo I started wondering, imagining—what happened to the horse that would usually pull the wagon for her? Killed? Stolen? Eaten? How would that affect a teenage girl, her emotions or sense of hope, and how would that influence how she might interact with Henry? You'll meet the character that photo sparked in my imagination in Chapter Thirteen.
Two lines from the preface to the novel Suite Francaise spawned many of the plot twists of A Troubled Peace. Suite Francaise is about the German occupation of France and was written by Irene Nimerovsky, a well-known Jewish author. It is unfinished because, tragically, she was deported and died in Auschwitz. Her small daughters managed to carry the manuscript with them as their governess hid them. The two lines had to do with her daughters standing at Paris’ Gare de l'Est railway station following VE-Day, holding up signs with their names, hoping Irene or their father would be among the thousands of returning concentration camp survivors stumbling off those trains. That image of Nimerovsky's children haunted me and told me that was where Henry needed to look for Pierre. Until I read those two lines, I had had no good idea where to begin.
Readers kept asking about the characters in Under a War-torn Sky, so for my third and last take on Henry’s saga I delved in Patsy’s homefront world. In Across a War-tossed Sea, two young Londoners cross the Atlantic Ocean to escape the incendiary bombs Hitler’s Luftwaffe dropped relentlessly on Britain and are taken in by Patsy’s family. The youngest brother suffers PTSD, post-traumatic stress disorder, from watching ships in his convoy being torpedoed by German U-boat submarines. I knew to write that because of the memoirs these child-evacuees later wrote about their experience “in the States.” Amid their worries for parents and deep homesickness were also funny diary entries—telling of the “vomit songs” they wrote to survive sea-sickness, their expectations of meeting cowboys and Indians and gangsters because that’s what they’d seen in the movies, their dislike of peanut butter, their joy at ice cream and refrigerators and hot showers, their confusion with American football and practices such as segregation, their fury at the German POWs working American farm fields. All these little details helped me paint a very authentic and, I hope, engrossing portrait of our WWII homefront.
I love the research I do for ALL my books, but I have to say that Peggy Schuyler and Da Vinci’s Tiger are my favorite experiences of deep-diving into a real person’s life. Ginevra de’ Benci is the young poet portrayed in Leonardo’s first solo commission and his only work permanently housed in the United States (at D.C.’s National Gallery of Art). The painting is Leonardo’s first work in oil and his first portrait, but is also truly revolutionary in the world of art: the first Italian portrait to turn a female from being objectified and bejeweled in modest profile—an advertisement of her family’s wealth—to an outward, engaged gaze at her viewer. As such, hers is the first “psychological” portrait meant to reveal an individual’s soul and personality, what Leonardo called the “the motions of the mind.”
It is hard to imagine that a direct gaze from a woman was that controversial, but during the Renaissance—when women were supposed to “learn the virtues” and only one in ten were taught to read—it was staggeringly so, dangerous even in the mind of moralists of the era. (One leading philosopher of the time wrote that a women looking directly into a man’s eyes would corrupt him.) So it took profound courage for Ginerva to let herself be painted in that pose—a defiance even—that was certainly hinted at by the only remaining line of her poetry, “I beg your pardon, I am a mountain lion.”
As a one-time reporter specializing in women’s issues and feminism, boy oh boy, did I want to write about her once I learned those bare-boned facts. My research took me to jousts and festivals and poetry readings, to Florence during a time it was THE mecca for artists, to the lavish palace of the Medicis, and to Verrocchio’s vibrantly alive and busy bottega, where Leonardo had apprenticed.
There are too many delightful details to share here (look at the page dedicated to Da Vinci’s Tiger for more) but I will tell you to heed these three things if you want to be a writer, especially of historic fiction:
First, never swallow whole the status quo or traditional interpretation of a piece of art or of historic figures. Scholars are constantly discovering new things with improved digitized collections of primary documents. With Ginevra, for instance, her painting has been described for decades as an “unhappy” marriage portrait. But it is far more likely that it was commissioned by the Venetian ambassador who had taken Ginevra as his Platonic Muse, also commissioning many poems to celebrate her beauty, virtue, and intellectualism. Some feminist scholars now speculate that she, Ginevra, this 17-year-old poet, might have been the one to inspire Leonardo to create human portraits and active Madonna’s—females of agency. These facts and new hypotheses instantly make Ginevra a far more complex figure and her life story endlessly fascinating.
Second, when you can, use the exact words of real-life people you are including in your novel. Leonardo was a prolific writer, so I could pull directly from his actual notebooks for his dialogue.
Last, don’t forget to read the footnotes! I swear that’s where you will often find the most wonderful anecdotes that an academic writer just doesn’t see a place for in his main narrative. (During a dinner scene at the Medici’s house, I describe a spectacular “armeggeria,” a mini-parade and pseudo-joust in honor of one particularly beautiful young woman, a float with a bleeding heart set on fire, and a snowball fight. I swear! All found in a long footnote in a book about daily life in 15th century Florence.)
One final example—this from Give Me Liberty, which was spawned entirely by real-life situations. In a two-paragraph description (in a rather dry historical journal), I discovered a little known but crucial battle in December 1775 at Great Bridge, just outside Norfolk, Virginia. In this battle, local volunteers stood up to well-equipped, professional British soldiers and sent them running after only 20 minutes of fighting. The battle has been characterized by some historians as equal in importance to Lexington and Concord and proved the perfect climatic ending to my book.
It also pushed me to create two characters with very different experiences in their quest for liberty. Here's why: runaway slaves fought at the Battle of Great Bridge, not for the Americans, but for the Redcoats, as part of the Royal Ethiopian Regiment. They mocked Patrick Henry's galvanizing slogan "Liberty or Death," which the Virginia regiments embroidered on their hunting shirts—by wearing a sash that read: "Liberty to Slaves." That terrible irony insisted that I create two characters with opposing story lines, a slave (Moses) with the British Ethiopians who had to face off with a close friend (Nathaniel) fighting with the patriots.
A writer can't make-up something that "good," i.e. that compelling or symbolic or thought provoking. Life is your best source. Discovering that one little battle provided me with an action-packed ending, two main characters, an important and surprising plot twist, a moral dilemma, and an important secondary theme. I joke that I wrote the novel backwards. I had everything I needed in its ending, I just had to create a storyline to get me to it. I found it and my characters to fit it by reading the 1774 Virginia Gazette, page by page, in digitized archives at the Rockefeller Library in Williamsburg.
In the end, when you get stymied, remember this: Writing is really as simple as building a drip sand castle—detail layered upon detail makes a sentence, a paragraph, a page. You create those drips by research, mixing what you find there with your imagination, just as you stir together sand and water, grab handfuls of it, and use that wonderful mess to build a castle.
Good luck. Have fun. Keep the faith in yourself.
Interview with the Grateful American Book Prize about writing and research:
Guest Blog about the connection between journalism and historical fiction: