When you’re researching historical fiction, it would be so much easier to just rev up the Time Machine.
My Time Machine was in the shop, again, so I had to do my research the old-fashioned way — digging through mountains of books, reading moldy old newspapers, listening to oral histories, finding data in long-forgotten government reports, scanning old maps.
But that’s among the many perks of writing historical fiction: Researching, researching and researching some more and immersing yourself somewhere else. Finding out arcane details about the obscure events from the past, scratching your voyeur’s itch, getting that sneak peek through a smeary window into everyday life. Finding the words of someone whom history has little noted, and finding that her words stir your imagination — making you crave more, and more, as you piece together your image of how that era was lived. Really lived. By the kind of ordinary folks you’re conjuring an entire novel about.
Locating the archival photographs and silent moving pictures that bring the past into black-and-white focus becomes a mission when you’re researching. My novel-in-progress begins during the drought of the Dirty Thirties [working title: Dust] on a Texas Panhandle farm. The photograph made by Dorothea Lange for the Farm Security Administration in 1938 was just the way I’d pictured it . . . a humble farmhouse encased in dirt blown in by the hideous dusters and black blizzards, lonely and forsaken, yet somehow surviving.
Farm north of Dalhart, Texas, 1938 by Dorothea Lange, Library of Congress
It was the great Depression. All across the country, folks were desperate for work. And the drought couldn’t have come at a worse time for farmers in the High Plains states. They were already reeling from plummeting crop prices, and with their farmlands transformed into the American Sahara, they couldn’t get a crop up. Thousands of men and boys — and even women and girls — took to the freight trains, riding the rails to look for work elsewhere. Except elsewhere had no work, either, and freight-hopping got to be a way of life with little hope.
Another one of the many benefits of researching the past is opening yourself up to finding inspiration wherever you find it. When you have so much research that your research has research, you eventually get more creative about what constitutes research. You can picture scenes and people, you think, but how does the era sound?
Cue the atmospheric music. I researched what you’d hear on the AM radio in those hard times, and I put together a Spotify playlist. I named it DUST — Riding the Rails in the Dirty Thirties to Escape the Dusters and the Depression. Gathering the songs, and listening to the musicians, blending in some contemporary renditions, is one of the more evocative research tools I’ve found.
Ride along with me. Have a listen to DUST on Spotify.
Got a suggestion for another song to add to my DUST Playlist? I’d like to hear it.
When I’m not riding the rails, I’m writing:
For more on the art of writing, look HERE.