I’m a cheater

Family photo
Me with two of my best sources for research.

I write historical fiction . . . but I cheat.

I only just realized this as my third novel was about to release last year. I’ve long struggled with genre and fitting what I write into a specific slot. Maybe it’s historical. Maybe it’s romance. Maybe it’s historical romance. OR it just MIGHT be women’s fiction.

Regardless of my dithering, my books are often characterized as historical fiction. Which is fine with me. But then I realized something . . . I don’t work nearly as hard as most other authors of historical fiction do.

I really enjoy the genre and often read it. Right now I’m listening to Newton & Polly by Jody Hedlund. It’s about John Newton–the author of Amazing Grace. The descriptions of clothing, social customs, and John’s time as a sailor are vivid. It all feels very real to me—I know Jody did her research.

Which brings me to cheating. I research very little. Oh, I look up timelines and newspaper headlines for context, but I’m not exactly immersing myself in 18th century England. I don’t have to research conditions aboard ship or the danger of opposing the slave trade. I don’t have to wonder about clothing and bathroom issues. And if I read someone’s diary, it’s just because I want to.

All I’ve really needed to do thus far in my writing journey is listen and ask questions.

The furthest back my novels have gone is 1948. My father was born in 1941 and he remembers a good bit. As did my grandmother who shared many a story before she passed.

It’s as though I’ve been researching my books all my life. In West Virginia, one of our primary forms of entertainment is sitting around telling stories. This drives my husband nuts. He’ll look at me as Dad launches into the story about a dog named Sloomer and mouth, “We’ve heard this one.”

Yes, we have. And hearing it again will only drive it a bit deeper into my psyche—will only make it that much more real when I translate it for my readers.

The upshot is, if you’re a writer, there’s more than one way to skin a cat. Digging deep into research—becoming an expert on a specific time period—is wonderful. I have deep respect for writers who spend at least as much time researching as they do writing.

But when I took a notion to write historical fiction, all I had to do was dredge up the stories I heard at my father’s knee. All I have to do is close my eyes and think back to those stories I heard sitting on the porch of an evening.

Common advice is to write what you know. I say, write what you wish you knew.

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