Research for new novel

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In past novels (never published), I researched the topics first and wrote later. This led to more information than I needed, took more time than was necessary, and put more emphasis initially on what I learned than in where the story should go.

In this work-in-progress (working title: Three Prayers) I switched things around. I was playing with creativity and this novel began forming itself. I already knew enough about chimney swifts and runaway slaves to have a vague idea of where the novel could go. But once I got to a certain point, I realized I needed more. Because, for instance, I had no idea what a typical house in Indiana in 1850 looked like. I didn’t know enough about tracking dogs. I didn’t know enough about the underground railroad in Indiana and beyond.

So I began to research in my own haphazard way. I began by visiting a house in Vandalia, Michigan that was supposed to be the home of an underground railroad conductor. I didn’t learn as much by my visit as I’d hoped, but I did get more of a feel for things than I’d had. It gave me a more concrete sense. The house has actually been remodeled since the 1850’s, but the inside half of the house is pretty much the same, so I soaked in my surroundings as I walked around that space.

The James E. Bonine House in Cass County, Michigan

Of course I did a lot of researching on the Internet. But there’s only so much that can give you. Then I found a book in the library about the underground railroad in Indiana. Ah, much more specific! And then I found myself only an hour away from the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati. Fortuitous. So I dragged my fellow trip-goers with me and got a very wide view of the whole topic. Below is one of the exhibits. One of the most evocative parts for me was a short dramatic film showing a slave escaping by crossing the Ohio River and the conductors who helped her to the first station.

Model wagon with false bottom for transporting freedom-seeking slaves

The problem with this method of research is you may run into problems with what you’ve already written. (For example, scent hounds are better at finding people than I had hoped. Although this does make things worse for my characters, which is what is ultimately best for the story. So I just need to find a way to get my character free again.)

But the strength of this method is the story comes first. And the story should always come first. So, for now anyway (until I get caught in a research-related fiasco plot-wise), I’m loving this method.

By the way, if any of you have a picture (or link) of an 1850’s house in Indiana or close by, I’d love to see it. Still having problems getting enough sensory detail on that one. Thanks!

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About Judith L. Roth

When I was about ten, it occurred to me that books are written by people and I was a person. I could create my favorite things–I could write books! I got a B.A. in English. My first poem was accepted for publication before I graduated. I had some success with poetry, but my real dream was to write fiction for children. My first fiction piece was accepted about 25 years after the first submission. Things you might want to know about me: I know how to persevere. I’m a third-generation California native, living in Indiana. I have two remarkable sons who are now young men,and a husband who’s supported my writing for over three decades. I love cats and currently have three of them. I love being near water–oceans, lakes, rivers all work for me. Chocolate is probably my biggest downfall. I’m exceptionally curious. (Or nosy, as my family calls it.)

4 responses »

  1. Judy, The home of Levi Coffin, called the president of the underground railroad, is open for touring in Fountain City, Ind. (east of Muncie). Our family toured it a few years ago. It’s been restored to much of the way it was when the Coffins lived there. A biography of Levi Coffin is in the church library, in case you’re interested.

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