Half of Therese Walsh’s upcoming novel The Moon Sisters is from the point-of-view of a young woman with synesthesia. (I’d never heard of it either until reading the book.) In The Painted Girls, Cathy Marie Buchanan brought to life the underbelly of the Paris Opera Ballet during the 1870s in gritty detail. Alyson Richman took readers into a concentration camp in The Lost Wife. Jodi Picoult tackles controversial topics in all of her novels, which requires insight into the minds of characters ranging from school shooters to stigmatas to modern day witches.
If you’re writing a novel, chances are you'll have to do research in order to make your story believable and compelling.
As a writer of historical fiction, I’m neck-deep in it. Each new piece of information I dig up potentially comes with a deeper story; sometimes that story can change the whole trajectory of a scene. Today I’m going to show an example of what I mean by this, and how taking the time to scratch beneath the surface can enhance your work.
This past week I received an e-mail from David Menary, an Ontario writer penning a book called Literary Landmarks of Cambridge. He intends to include a profile on my great-grandfather, Carl Ahrens, who did write, but was better known for his painting. While researching Clara Bernhardt, another author he will feature, Menary discovered a journal entry about a visit Clara made to Carl’s home in December of 1934. Here is a shortened excerpt of what she said:
“There’s a man I shall not quickly forget. He looks more completely the artist than anyone I've ever seen. Tall, thin, emaciated from long illness, with eyes so deep-set and piercing you felt all your disguises penetrated by one glance…Pain has not only touched his face – it has carved it…As he talked I was surprised and disappointed and desperately sorry to find him cynical and bitter. Yet he is risen to the peak of his profession artistically if not financially. He said if his life were his to live over, he would not choose painting. As to his illness: “It is all very well to tell yourself it is for the best, but I feel I am not getting a square deal. I resent it.” How dreadful to live that way, and to die like that…for he looked mortally ill…No doubt he believes in [God] – any creator has to – but if I am not mistaken, God does not mean anything to him in personal relationship…He is keen, and witty, but quite unsmiling. Very weak physically, sometimes his voice would blur out, and he mentioned he had to use drugs all the time and that he rarely slept.”
If you were to write a scene illustrating this visit using only this passage as a guide. what information can you glean about Carl and Clara?
Carl: He is an artist of some acclaim who has been sick a long time, lives in great pain, and will probably die soon. He’s grumpy about this. His eyes, height, and frailty are his distinguishing physical features. He takes medication and may or may not believe in God. The line about living his life over again implies an older man, but he could just as easily be young and dying too soon.
Clara: She's insightful and has a way with words, suggesting a good education and wisdom that comes with either age or experience. While she has sympathy for the artist’s plight, she’s frustrated that he refuses to see the good with the bad in life. She believes the best way to accomplish this is through God.
There are a lot of unknowns here. Why is Carl cynical? Why does Clara make such assumptions about Carl's religious beliefs? With fictional characters, an author can invent a back story and motivations, but both of these people in question actually lived. Let’s dig a little deeper to see if we can flesh them out a bit. Bonus points if we can tell the truth.
|Carl Ahrens in 1934|
Let’s start with Carl. A simple Google search of his name will reveal that in late 1934 he was 73 years old and that he'd had a tubercular hip since his youth. His name is mentioned in several art history books and he has a painting in Canada’s National Gallery, but by 1934 he had already been overshadowed by a younger group of painters and his house had just been foreclosed. His wife’s memoirs (available to view at several libraries) describe a man of boundless energy and an adventurous spirit cut down by illness, destitution and bitter enemies. The “drug” in question was codeine. Side effects of large doses include sleeplessness and extreme irritability. His medical records, also available publicly due to his association with a prime minister, show Carl was admitted to the hospital a year later. They describe him as being six foot tall, eighty-five pounds, and suffering from a condition “of a most uncomfortable nature.”
And now for Clara. I was shocked to discover that she was only 23 in late 1934 and quite pretty, too. Had you pictured her in a wheelchair? I hadn't, though she had been in one since age 11, when she contracted polio. Her formal education ended after 8th grade because she couldn't take that wheelchair on the streetcar to get to the high school, though she continued to study on her own and was on her way to becoming a well-respected Ontario writer. A year before this entry was written she had spent months in a rehabilitation facility where she did extensive physical therapy and, with the help of her religious faith, came to terms with the injustice of her own childhood illness.
|Clara Bernhardt by Stephen Jones|
With the addition of these details, our hypothetical scene has grown much more compelling. We no longer have a simple dialogue between a grumpy artist and an insightful but slightly self-righteous woman. We have two people, both immobile, one at the end of his life and the other in the prime of hers. We understand his bitterness and why she finds it disappointing. Perhaps she perceives he sees through all of her disguises because on some level she realizes they are kindred spirits, that he was once much like her.
What are some ways you have dug deeply in your own research? Have you learned anything that shocked you and changed your story for the better? What stumbling blocks have you run into?