Maybe it's my lifelong interest in history and historical fiction, or maybe it's the relentless snooper in me, but I love the research part of writing--so much so that I run the risk of just researching and not getting to the writing!
I think of writing historical fiction as a connect-the-dot picture. The dots are the facts I am building my story around. The lines connecting the dots are the fictional characters, scenes, and events I create to make my story come alive. I know I must begin with research and finding more facts than I'll ever need for the story. Then I must verify the facts for accuracy and consistency, knowing that even one small mistake* makes me lose credibility as a writer. (*Several years after Broken Drum (aka Drums of War) was published, I went up in a hot air balloon and realized a fundamental mistake my co-author and I had made about Charley King's adventure in the observation balloon. Can you find it?)
The two faded photographs above (Charley King, a 12-year-old Union drummer boy in the Pennsylvania 49th Volunteers, and Nancy Hart, a 16-year-old Confederate spy and rebel raider) were the inspiration for the two Civil War middle grade novels I co-authored with my friend Jacqueline Shields. We were fortunate to live in Maryland, an area steeped in Civil War history and within easy driving distance of Gettysburg, Antietam, Harpers Ferry, as well as countless other Civil War battlefields and museums.
We began by reading background books on the Civil War to get the big picture, overall facts and strategies. But we concentrated on the daily lives of the common soldiers. How did they fill the long hours of boredom? What did they eat? Where did they sleep? What did they wear and carry on their backs? We looked for diaries, letters, and first hand accounts. Above all, we were inspired by the eloquence of the common soldier. We also went to re-enactments and talked to the re-enactors, listened to the music, the cadence of the drums, tried on the clothes. Can you imagine wearing the same itchy, wool uniform summer and winter and having no change of clothing? Can you imagine running in the long skirts and petticoats the women wore or riding a horse in such a dress? No wonder Nancy Hart preferred men's britches.
We also traveled to every place our characters traveled, studied the lay of the land (mountainous, flat, swampy), looked at the trees and vegetation of the area, walked the length of the battlefields, and even lay down in the redoubts (trenches). In the midst of writing Rebel Hart, we ran into a lack of information about the rebel raiders during the winter months of the war. I decided to go back to central West Virginia in January. After looking at the rugged mountains with their humps and dips and spiny ridges, clearly defined by the white of the snow and the starkness of the bare trees, I realized no one, not man nor animal, could travel undetected in the wintertime. No wonder the raiders went into hiding.
The biggest reward for our research came from our readers. After finding Rebel Hart in the Harpers Ferry bookstore, the great great grandson of Nancy Hart contacted us and invited us to lunch so we could fill him in on information he never knew about his great great grandmother. Broken Drum triggered such interest in Charley King that a boy scout, with the help of a regiment of re-enactors from Charley's hometown of West Chester, PA decided to dedicate a memorial stone to Charley as his Eagle Scout project. We were invited to speak at the formal dedication ceremony.
For my first "solo" middle grade novel, Road to Tater Hill (forthcoming from Delacorte Press in September 2009), set in the more modern 1960s, I spent hours researching the craft of weaving and learning to play the mountain dulcimer.
As for my current research--my novel-in-progress is set on the Island of Vinalhaven, off the coast of Maine. If you can't find me at home in Maryland, I may be sifting through the books and old photographs in the Vinalhaven Historical Society, interviewing the 7th and 8th graders in the island school, or kayaking the basin, hoping to catch sight of the harbor seals lounging atop the rocks at high tide.