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The Vagaries of Historical Research

I recently started working on a new project. It’s a set of three novels and a novella about four female friends who live and love in mid-nineteenth century America. My first recently completed manuscript is a contemporary and is set at a university, a world that I know intimately. This new concept is historical, however, which means that I have to do research.

Research doesn’t frighten me. I’m a Ph.D. student who’s writing a dissertation on 19th century print culture. I’m a database ninja. I’ve read in a number of archives, including the Special Collections at the Library of Congress, the Schlesinger Library at Harvard, and, next month, the New York Public Library. Hell, I’ve even made my peace with microfilm.

But as I began working on a outline for this project, I realized that the kind of historical research that I know how to do is not necessarily the kind that I need as a fiction writer.

For example, I needed to find a town in New England — I was thinking Connecticut — that had textile mills in 1860 but which was still fairly well-to-do and which contributed a significant number of troops to the Civil War. Whew.

Then, I needed to figure out which regiment an officer from that town who enlisted fairly early in the war might have ended up in. And it had to be a regiment that saw major action in approximately 1862 for a plot twist that I had in mind. Double whew.

Plus I wanted lots of pictures of said town, regiment, etc. for inspiration.

The coolest resource that I’ve found so far is the National Park Service Database of Civil War People. I was able to search all of the men from Connecticut who served in the Union and then, using the list, I worked backward until I found a regiment that met my criteria.

What are your favorite online databases for historical research?  Do you develop plot/characters and then try to find history to match it? Or do you research first and then develop plot/characters?

Why Write? Part 1

If you write — a blog, a diary, poetry, creative non-fiction, creative fiction — why do you do it?

I started writing the project I recently finished because I had dissertation-induced writer’s block. The writing project I was supposed to be working on was paralyzing me and I needed to get back to work, back into a writing rhythm.

I continued writing fiction because it allowed me to express something fundamental about my perception of the human experience. And if people read my work someday, it would allow me to make connections to other people. Writing is transcendent.

So my first answer to the “why” question — and there will probably be others — is that it’s about something larger than myself. Hence the name of the blog.

Please Like Me!

So once I finished that first manuscript, like that very instant, I proofread the first 30 pages. I walked away, I made some tea, and then I proofread them again. Then I submitted it in the Golden Claddagh.

Okay now, don’t laugh. I never claimed to be smart or insightful. Musings. Aspiring writer. Remember?

When I read back over my manuscript a few weeks later, it was clear what an enormous mistake that was. First because I missed errors and second because it simply wasn’t ready, at all.

After my initial attempts at editing, though, I entered it in two more contests: The Rebecca and the Indiana Golden Opportunity. What can I say? It turns out that I’m a contest junkie.

Look, I have no illusions about winning. I feel my inadequacy deep in my bones. But I want some feedback, specifically from people who don’t know and therefore love me and from people who know a thing or two about the romance genre.

In retrospect, The Maggie might have been a better choice than The Rebecca because it provides more feedback but thems the breaks.

From my perspective, and I haven’t received any feedback yet so this the rosy side, contests can serve several functions. Prestige if you win. Important readers if you final. Impartial feedback. A vortex that consumes time and money. I have no illusions about the first two and I’d like to avoid the last. So for this calendar year, I think I’m done with contests. The Golden Heart isn’t for me this go round.*

I know that when I get tough reader’s reports, I’m going to feel a little differently. But you can’t learn from what you don’t do. So if you go into them with realistic expectations, I think — I hope — that contests can enrich an aspiring writer’s journey.

* Though I reserve the right to change my mind if I final in any of the three that I’ve entered. Hey, we all have those dreams!

The Just Chronicles

I recently finished my very first novel. Like most aspiring writers, I think, I was so relieved to have completed this project that had been a dream of mine since forever. So I ignored the standard “put it in a drawer” advice and started editing right away. And like all people who ignore good advice, I was disappointed in completely predictable ways.

Namely, my manuscript — my beautiful manuscript that took five months and hours without number to write — was riddled with errors. Errors big and errors small. Characters who changed names over the course of the book. Pacing problems. Plot holes. And typos — oh the typos.

The most notable problem, however, was my over-use of one little word: just.

As I worked on my revisions, I realized how many things “just” can mean: only, merely, right now, fair/right, actually. And that’s not even counting its use as a filler word or general intensifier. It’s a useful word, but not to use on every page.

Once I fixed my “just” problem, I did manage to put that first manuscript in a drawer. Oh, I sent it to some contests and beta readers too. I couldn’t resist. But now I’ve moved onto something that makes me even more excited. But also nervous, just a little bit.