Kerri Maher, author of WD Books' This is Not a Writing Manualand the new historical novel The Kennedy Debutante, offers research advice—or rather, NOT research advice—explaining how diaries, letters and books she read made their way into her fiction.
I like learning. I like to watch documentary shows on TV, I like to find out the best new way to make iced coffee, and I like to read nonfiction books about interesting subjects I don’t know anything about, like a certain men’s crew team from Washington state that got all the way to the 1936 Olympics. Following my interests has had some pretty excellent pay-offs, too—for instance, I got the idea for my debut novel, The Kennedy Debutante, from watching a show on PBS about great English manor houses. While watching the hour-long episode about Chatsworth, the seat of the Dukes of Devonshire, I learned that for a brief moment in the 1940’s, Kathleen “Kick” Kennedy—an American and a Catholic—stood to inherit this most English and Protestant of estates.
And I thought: There’s a story there.
It turned out to be a really good story, too, one that could be best told with historical fiction—a genre I’d only dabbled in before.
No one told me how to research and write a historical novel. I let myself be led entirely by instinct and interest—and writers should always trust those twin voices inside ourselves, because they will always lead us to the most unique and textured book that’s in us. In my case, instinct and interest led me to learn a lot more about Kick and the amazingly eventful time in which the major events of her life occurred, 1938-1944. Much of this reading and research happened before I started writing the book itself, though I took copious notes in a Word file and on my phone, which would eventually become my outline.
I pulled a few threads and let them lead me from one book, article and archive to the next. Sometimes footnotes were my guides, other times a particularly juicy quote or summary of an event made me want to know more—then I’d have to go in search of another source. Very often, it was the little details I would find most interesting, and even distracting. For instance, I had to go on something of a hunt for a needle in a haystack to verify that Kick’s love Billy Hartington had indeed attended Trinity College at Cambridge. In the process of sniffing out this detail, I learned some very cool details about the way English titles like Duke and Marquess are inherited (so I had to include it in some dialogue—check out Chapter 4!).
The nuts and bolts of this research was pretty much exactly what I’d done for papers in college, but because this process was directed by a project that was entirely mine, nothing ever felt like a requirement. One of my favorite “tasks” was going to the JFK Library in Boston to paw through boxes of original clipping, cards, letters, and diaries that Kick herself had organized. I was entranced by the life she had pieced together with scissors and glue and short, handwritten entries in a decidedly un-fancy lined notebook. The way she had put things together, and the details she’d left out that I uncovered elsewhere, said as much about her as what she actually had written down.
Research also fundamentally changed my writing process. Before this novel, I was a devoted pantser, always writing scene to scene by the seat of my well-worn britches. But amassing all those notes about Kick and the time period and the setting meant I desperately needed bring some order to the chaos before I started actually writing scenes. I wound up creating a loose outline, a list of major events that I need to maneuver Kick through. And thus, I was a pantser no more. Now I was a plotter. And I loved it.
When I did finally start crafting the scenes that would become the book, I found I needed to do yet another kind of research. I’d be writing a scene that takes place at a party, and I’d want to mention the music they’d be dancing to, so I’d have to Google “songs 1943,” and I’d look at the list, listen to some tunes, then go back into the scene much more in the swing of things. It was like refresher research, and these little glimpses into historical moments and popular culture never failed to enliven me. Wow, I’d realize, 1939 was an amazing year for movies! (Goodbye Mr. Chips, Wizard of Oz, Gone With the Wind, to name just three.) Was there a way I could fit that in? Sometimes yes, and sometimes no, but I always relished the challenge and my newfound knowledge.
I never would have predicted this six years ago, before I started writing this book, but it turns out my brain likes having facts wrap fiction around. Instead of making everything entirely up, as in the other novels I’d written (which shall remain nameless, in the attic), research made me grapple with real life in a new way—and isn’t real life what fiction is ultimately about, anyway?
Kerri Maher is also the author of This Is Not A Writing Manual: Notes for the Young Writer in the Real World under the name Kerri Majors. She holds an MFA from Columbia University and founded YARN, an award-winning literary journal of short-form YA writing. For many years a professor of writing, she now writes full time and lives with her daughter in Massachusetts where apple picking and long walks in the woods are especially fine.
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