We Have a Problem

I have a problem with my writing. Namely, the 20,000 word threshold. My problem isn’t getting there. It’s wanting to keep writing once I do.

When I started writing a historical novella about three weeks ago, I was so excited about it. Why had I ever written a contemporary? Clearly I was born to write historicals! I love my characters! I love the conflict between them! I had learned so much from the first manuscript so I wasn’t making the same mistakes!

Then, about a week ago, I stated approaching 20,000 words and my enthusiasm just leeched out. I knew what I needed to do next. I just couldn’t get myself to do it. The entire manuscript began to feel blah.

So I wrote the scene that I had had in my head for about a month. Then I wrote the chapter that I needed to set it up. Then I started plotting. And suddenly … it’s so easy to write a contemporary! You don’t have to stop to do research! It’s so much easier to write fresh, sexy dialogue when you’re not worried about anachronism! I was born to write contemporaries!

The next thing I knew, I had 10,000 words.

But I’m worried. I’m worried that I’m going to hit a wall where I know what comes next and I can’t get myself to write it. I’m worried that I’m a dilettantish writer. That I only like the beginnings of things.

What do you find the most difficult part about writing? The beginning? The middle? The end? How do you get through it?

Daily Newspapers

The past two days, I’ve written about 4,000 words for my historical novella. The heroine is very loosely based on Catharine Beecher and the hero on Theodore Weld. (Which is sort of hysterical given the fact that Weld’s wife, Angelina Grimke, had a very public conflict with Beecher about abolition politics in 1836, but I digress.)

I love that stage in writing when you have a very loose plan but then you start putting words on the page and other things just work themselves out. In this case, a backstory point that I thought was settled is playing out very differently than I had intended. But the shift creates more conflict between the characters. Since the project will be shorter than 40,000 words, there’s no room for filler. Every scene has to count. I feel like I need to turn the stakes meter up to 11, so to speak.

One resource that I’ve become addicted to is the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. The paper was published between 1841 and 1955 and currently, you can access the period from 1841 and 1902 full-text, online, for free. Have I mentioned that it’s also fully searchable? If you want to know much women were paying for hoop skirts, what a recruit ad for the Civil War looked like, or how people discussed society functions, there’s no substitute for reading a daily newspaper.

Happy writing!

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?