Life doesn’t get much better than the five days I just spent in Nashville and East Tennessee researching my historical novel. At my first Hamline residency I gave a talk entitled “Addicted To Research.” And I still am. The adrenaline rush I get uncovering a new fact or insight gives me shivers or laugh out loud delight. But for this novel, my first historical one, I feared bringing in too much research and not enough character-driven story. So I put off a research trip. I read books and articles and interviewed people by phone. I checked out historical documents and photos online. I wrote two drafts of the novel. But finally it was time to visit my settings, especially when you’re a Westerner and have grad student Elizabeth Schoenfeld saying, “Come on, Claire. I’ll meet you in Nashville.”
Please excuse my effusiveness. But we moan so much about the bad times of writing, that I just have to wax about one of the great times. Last Sunday I flew to Nashville. I walked up the steps from downtown to the capitol. I hung out in the historic Hermitage Hotel where in 1920 Jack Daniels flowed like water. I ate breakfast at the Union train station (now a hotel) where suffragists and antis pin-holed legislators coming into town. I visited the state library and state museum, meeting with curators.
Elizabeth drove me around her former town, showing me the sights and talking about southern life. We noshed with novelist Helen Hemphill, a Vermont grad and former Hamline grad assistant, at a new Nashville hangout. Then I traveled by car to East Tennessee to soak up my main character’s roots and visit the archives at the East Tennessee History Center. Everyone, amateur and professional historians and regular folk, were gracious and supportive, even to an outsider. They seemed to appreciate that I had already conducted a lot of research and was ready for the deeper questions and smaller details about a huge historic event. To meet historians like Carole Bucy who loves suffrage history as much as I, and to read telegrams and letters from 90 years ago – pure joy.This trip also gave me a greater appreciation for those who support historic restoration. To visit historic buildings after driving past strip malls and chain stores was a relief and a delight.
I even got a chance to talk to liberal and conservative Tennesseans about politics and Al and Tipper, too. But most importantly, I made the trip at the perfect time for this project. What I needed at this point in revision was to experience the real places I had already written about, not the broad sweep of information as I have been wont to do with other projects. I have returned today to my manuscript with energy and excitement, dropping in specific details, fine-tuning sensory descriptions and with a deeper understanding of time and place.
Take those research road trips. They can boost up a sagging story or a waning writing life. But know when to go. It can vary depending the project and how much research can be done from home. And if at all possible, throw in some writing buddies along the way. Thanks, Elizabeth. You’re the best.
I’m off on another research trip – to a slice of Minnesota. Prairie Home Companion’s live broadcast this afternoon from little old Spokane, my hometown. Yippee.
Sounds great, Claire. Makes me want to write about Nashville so I have an excuse to go there with Elizabeth as a tour guide!
Good idea to think about the timing of things. Sounds like you got the energy of this research at just the right time in the writing.
And it's great to have a tour guide handy, too!
I have to say, though, I'm always mad that the residency falls right when A Prairie Home Companion takes its vacation. I've been wanting to see a live b'cast from St. Paul since 1985! Oh well, them's the breaks.