Friday, July 19, 2013

Uncovering Secrets in the Name of Research

By Susan

I graduated as a history major—and I remind myself of that every time I feel like I am spending more time on Book Research than I am on actual Book Writing. I'm truly an historian at heart. The research is half the fun. I've gone down the rabbit hole of the Internet and have traveled to hollers and hills just so I can write about them. A few years ago, I wrote here about firing a few guns for the first time, all in the name of Book Research.
My hometown, late 1940s
In truth, I am at the end of my revisions of this manuscript, and all the research I've needed to do has been done. I've spent a week in silence in a Trappist monastery. I've completed tours of the Kentucky Bourbon Trail. I've studied in the Kentucky Library, lost in the musty stacks for hours. I've read books on the history of Kentucky's covered bridges, I've walked the banks of the creeks and rivers that figure so prominently in my story. In fact, I'm giving this draft to my agent within a matter of weeks! Isn't my research complete?

Yet here I am, visiting Kentucky, and I couldn't help myself from digging a little deeper, which in this case, meant walking up and down my mother's street, asking questions.

Many of the people here have lived in these homes since the 1940s and 50s. Several are well into their 80s. One dear neighbor just celebrated her 95th birthday. What could I find out about 1950, I wondered, by asking the politicians, businessmen, and housewives of the day?

Quite a bit, I found out.

I spent a full day in interview mode, asking questions and teasing facts from the memories of the octogenarians on Sterling Avenue—those who remembered when Harry S Truman came through town on the train, or who could tell me about moonshiners and bootleggers (all hearsay, of course,) and whose memories spanned dirt roads and county lines and voting booths in country stores where the precinct man told you how to vote for a half pint of bootlegged liquor.
My hometown, today

I've spent the past twenty-four hours trying to assimilate all the information, thinking of ways to integrate small nuggets of fact into my novel. And then I realized that my research had been more than that.

Yes, the stories have helped me add a layer of detail to my novel that I wouldn't have had otherwise. But the experience of sitting with men who could tell me the secrets of the past without worry is something I'll never forget. It's not so much about fiction, and writing, or even about selling a novel. It's about living, and passing things down from one generation to the next. It's about asking questions and finding a wealth of information, right there in front of you, if you only think to ask.

I'd originally thought that no one would want to talk to me, or tell me anything interesting. Or perhaps they wouldn't even remember. Instead, I had a wonderful afternoon and left with far more than I ever expected, all because I asked questions. 


  1. Not only did you gain a lot, but I can only imagine how the people you interviewed felt--knowing that someone cared enough about their experiences to ask. What a gift you gave them! And I can see our kids, trapped behind iPhones and computers, not daring to look up from a screen and missing oh, so much!

  2. I've had so much fun this week. Tonight, after a neighborhood street party, I sat with the 95 year old neighbor and held her hand while we watched the moon rise over an arch of tree branches with my eleven-year-old daughter. We talked about my recently deceased grandmother. We talked about this street. We talked about the moon. It was lovely.


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