On Writing and Research
Interview with the Grateful American Book Prize about 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! moment 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 joke!)
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 Thomas Edison said of his 1,093 patents, including the light bulb which forever changed mankind: "Genius is 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration."
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 whyquestions. The best writers can explain what he or she feels, but can also accurately decipher and describe what the person across the room might be thinking
There is no precise prescription for creativity, but these qualities can help build a writer:
- Read. Read a variety of genres, styles, and authors. Take note what type of writing best suits a scene. Remember that language has a music and cadence. If you particularly like an author's style or voice, try to write a few passages emulating it. Take note of things that capture your attention, incite an emotional reaction, or simply delight you with their beauty.
- Keep a journal. But don't just write down thoughts about your own life or inner turmoils. Write down what you see and what you hear. Go to the mall, sit down and watch for an hour. Imagine what the people passing in front of you have come to buy, where they are going later. See if their behavior tells you 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. Include as many senses possible —sight, sound, touch, taste, 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.
- 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 paints a far more comprehensive portrait.
- Read your writing out loud to yourself. Listen for the rhythm. It's the best way to hear if you have repeated something, have one too many beats of description, or meandering phrases. If I stumble over a passage, if my tongue trips up on itself as I read, I have some rewriting to do.
- 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 has! 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--but it's so important to take the risk if you have something to say. It's well worth the work necessary to writing well. Don’t just talk about it – do it!
Where do my ideas come from mostly? RESEARCH! That’s my most favorite part of writing. Research is the treasure hunt! Where I play detective! That’s where you find the gems of a story, and it makes the actual writing easier. Let me give you a few examples.
Let's start with A Troubled Peace. I always read reams of novels, biographies, newspaper articles, and memoirs from the time period before I begin writing one of my historical novels. I essentially report my novels just as I did my magazine stories. My research tells me what to write. When researching 1945 France, I read about the staggering price of eggs, about Parisians being rationed to one hour of electricity a day and a bath every three; about riots over strawberries and butter; 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 punished for it by angry mobs shaving their heads. These are details that really show what my characters, Henry, Pierre, and Claudette were living through.
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. It filled my head with the era's lingo like "getting soaked" for paying too much for something, a good-looking girl being "a dish" 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 pony that would usually pull the wagon for her? Killed? Stolen? Eaten? How would that affect a teenage girl and 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. 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 the Gare de l'Est railway station, 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.
Or take this example from Under a War-torn Sky. 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: The boys in those planes had to wear bright-blue long johns that were wired like electric blankets and plugged into the plane's circuitry because the plane's guns were shot through open bays, bringing the air temperatures in the bomber to 30 degrees below zero. If the gunners took off their fleece-lined gloves for a better grip their hands would freeze to the metal. Every 20 minutes they had to squeeze their oxygen masks to break up spit from their shouting that had frozen and could cut off their airflow. 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 "Heil Hitler," into four different languages. Not a whole lot to protect them.
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. 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 books like I Led 3 Lives, Herbert Philbrick’s chronicle of his experiences as an FBI secret-agent embedded in a communist cell. I 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.
When it came to my most recent novel, Hamilton and Peggy: A Revolutionary Friendship, one of the greatest sources on Peggy’s whereabouts and personality was Hamilton himself. 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. 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.
Upon receiving that letter, Peggy seems to have ridden 150 miles to Morristown, NJ, through territory patrolled by Loyalist scouting parties who would have reveled in capturing one of General Schuyler’s daughters. She braves the worst winter ever recorded in American history, with snowdrifts 6 feet high, and temperatures so low that NY harbor was covered by an 18-foot solid sheet of ice.
That bit of research completely established the independent and rather bodacious Peggy for me!
The opening paragraphs of Annie, Between the States provide a perfect example of how research can save a writer in one of those moments of blocked thinking, like that of the chimpanzee and typewriter in the New Yorker cartoon. One of the truisms 18 years as a magazine journalist taught me was how to drop the reader right into the thick of things. So, if I wanted my heroine, Annie, "between the states," caught in the middle of a terrible war, I needed to plop her right into it. So, I started with the First Battle of Manassas, cannons blasting, cavalry jumping fences, terrified men racing through cornfields to escape gunfire, wounded men groaning.
But how to insert a teenage girl into this? From my reading, I knew that the ill-prepared armies of North and South left behind hundreds of wounded on that battlefield. I knew that medicine was primitive—lint scraped from petticoats and sheets was used to staunch bleeding (think of that fluff you pull out of dryers). Wounds were stitched together with the long strong hair of horse's tails. I knew that society frowned on women dealing with blood, or touching men they didn't know, and yet, here were all these boys—blue and gray—lying on the ground before the women of Manassas. I knew that soldiers were often saved from death by bullets deflecting off the bundles of letters or books they carried in their breast pockets.
So here's my opening scene: Annie, whose brother is out there fighting somewhere with the Virginia cavalry, is confronted with a Union soldier lying on her aunt's front porch, bleeding, she believes, to death. Annie is trying to steal herself to cram a ball of lint into his wound. But first she has to unbutton his jacket, which she is afraid to do. Ultimately, her mother has to treat the man. And it is she who discovers that the Union officer has been saved by a book of Keats poetry that stopped a bullet from piercing his heart and instead simply tore open a gash along his chest. Annie, a voracious reader, is surprised to find her "enemy" would enjoy such gentle verse. It is the beginning of a young cloistered girl having to face the outside world, in a war on her doorstep. It is the beginning of her questioning the dogma of the war. It is the beginning of Annie, caught "between the states," –all within a few paragraphs.
In my newest novel, Across a War-tossed Sea, two young Londoners cross the Atlantic Ocean to escape the incendiary bombs Hitler’s Luftwaffe dropped nightly on Britain’s capital city. The youngest brother suffers pretty severe PTSD, post-traumatic stress disorder, from watching ships in his convoy be torpedoed by German U-boat submarines. I knew to write that because of the memoirs British evacuees wrote about their experience “in the States.” Many were heartbreakingly poignant—telling that letters from their parents could take months to arrive so children didn’t know for weeks at a time if their mums and dads were alive or dead, for instance. They were also very funny – 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 the WWII homefront.
And one final example from Give Me Liberty, which was really research-driven. I based most of my characters on real-life people and situations I read about in ads or articles in the 1774 Virginia Gazette. 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 was a 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," that compelling or thought-provoking--but research can lead you there. 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.
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, a chapter, a book. 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.