Thursday, October 19, 2006

Confessions of a Non-historian

Since the publication of two historical novels, I frequently get variations of the same question:

How can you do so much research so fast?

The simple answer: I don't.

Frankly, if I were a dyed-in-the-wool historian, I wouldn't have a prayer of writing novels; there wouldn't be any time. So I don't pretend to be a true historian. I am, first and foremost, a novelist. I try very hard to make things as accurate as I can, and I would hate to find out I did something wrong (I haven't gotten wind of any errors yet, but that type of news is a historical novelist's lingering fear).

Since grade school I've read books set in or written during the 1800s, so writing about it myself isn't too strange. While I'm not an expert on the period, I do have a decent grasp on how people talked, what they did on a daily basis, and what the customs were. Some of the best compliments I've gotten on my books is that the voice feels real to the time period.

It was interesting to me to find that writing about the past actually comes easier to me than writing contemporary books like my first two. Go figure.

Since I'm NOT a historian, my credentials as one are rather spotty. Let's see . . . AP US History in high school was one of my favorite classes. Getting a 5 on the test wasn't hard for someone who loves this stuff. History was my college minor--that is, until I needed to graduate early and didn't finish the minor. It helps that my favorite books and authors are from the 19th century and that I focused on that era during my studies as an English major. My senior course was on Charles Dickens. (Do I get brownie points for the fact that I graduated cum laude?)

A dear late friend (who I credit with the existence of At the Journey's End), Linda Whiting, was a real historian. She wrote a biography on David Patten, the first martyr for the LDS Church. What began as a labor of love that she assumed would take a couple of years turned into a decade-long journey.

And that was researching the life of one man.

If I want to write novels--and have any reader remember me between books--I can't spend that kind of time on research and publish one book every decade. More simply, I can't be a "true" historian.

But I don't think I need to be. What I do is tell stories. I believe that the history in my books is the backdrop to the human drama that takes center stage. The history is not the point--although it certainly can and does affect the story in profound ways--but instead, the facts and details are the hanger on which the story is draped. So I don't need to know every tiny detail of what happened to whom, when, and how.

What consistutes my research? I do some primary research, but not much. For example, I spent time in the BYU library Special Collections for At the Journey's End, even handling an actual copy of the Book of Mormon edition that Abe gets in the story. I made ridiculously elaborate notes on the size, color, and formatting, and even noted where on the page certain scriptures showed up that I might want to use in the story.

But I also spend significant time digging up what others--those "real" historians--have already found. Those things are often in the form of article collections, a thesis, or books on specific topics. I collect any books I can find about Utah history (Currently I'm borrowing a great book from my in-laws that covers Utah history from the Deseret News since its inception. That thing is a gold mine that will be hard to part with.)

I've been fortunate thus far to find plenty of good stuff that someone else has painstakingly found in some dusty archive and then taken more effort to compile. Librarians are ready and willing to help; they do the hard work and send me the results. Likewise, I've emailed web masters at sites that cover a topic I need more information on--and I've been impressed with how willing people are to help a perfect stranger get the details right. For example, I exchanged numerous emails with a man at the Arizona Railway Museum and another with the Appalachian Blacksmiths Association. Both were gracious and helpful.

One tool I cannot live without is my trusty OED on CD. For those who aren't language geeks, that's the Oxford English Dictionary, the most comprehsive dictionary about the English language. The published version is some outragous length (twenty-something volumes and counting). It includes etymologies, quotations found in print using the words, and--most importantly for the historical novelist--the earliest known usage of each word. With the OED I can make sure that in 1884 people really used the word, "cookie." (They did.)

One other interesting aspect is how many realistic details I've gleaned from non-historical sources. Things about medicine, poisons, fire, herbs, plantlife, climate, and many more work their way into the storyline as well, and I find that information in totally different places.

So I'm not a historian and don't pretend to be. I'm a history fan, but I don't think I'd even go so far as to say a history buff. I enjoy learning about the past and weaving bits of it into stories. I do my best to make sure it's accurate, but when I'm done with the research for one book, I set it aside and begin digging for information on the next.

That means that as soon as I finish my manuscript set in the middle of the Salt Lake Temple construction (which opens in 1867), I'll turn my efforts toward finding information about the Manti Temple.

After that, we'll have to wait and see what piece of history draws me to it next!