word craft


Researching the details

Way back in the 1960’s, I was work­ing at try­ing to become a play­wright, when I became a librar­i­an. It hap­pened this way. 

My wife (at that time) was seri­ous­ly ill. In those days, liv­ing in NYC, the two of us hob­bled togeth­er a sim­ple and some­what pre­car­i­ous liv­ing. She was a mod­ern dancer. Me, I was any num­ber of things, car­pen­ter, short-order cook, etc., the usu­al jobs one did to stay alive and learn to write. I didn’t do any of them well, which meant I had to find new jobs all the time. My wife earned more income than I. 

But when she became seri­ous­ly ill, I knew I had to do some­thing steadi­ly, some­thing I could do well, that would sus­tain us. With just such a hope in mind, I wan­dered into the main branch of the NY Pub­lic Library, the one with the lions on Fifth Avenue. I dis­cov­ered that the res­i­dent The­atre Col­lec­tion was look­ing for a low­ly clerk, but that in a few years they would be mov­ing to Lin­coln Cen­ter and expand­ing their pro­fes­sion­al staff. 

The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts

I was offered and took the clerk job, applied to Colum­bia University’s School of Library Sci­ence, and began class­es all with­in a two-week peri­od. I would stay with the NYPL for about ten years, dur­ing which time (night school) I became a librar­i­an. Then, with an expand­ing family—and no longer involved with the theatre—and my wife no longer ill or a dancer—I took the library posi­tion of Human­i­ties Reader’s Advi­sor at what was then called Tren­ton [NJ] State Col­lege

Trenton State Public Library

How did I get the job? I applied. But when I heard noth­ing I called up and informed them that by sheer chance I was going to be in their neighborhood—which was not true. “Since I will already be there, would you be will­ing to inter­view me? No oblig­a­tion.” They said yes. I got on a train, had an inter­view, and short­ly after got the job. 

Things That Sometimes HappenNot long after I arrived there, in 1970, I was in the room where new books arrived. Low and behold there was a copy of Things That Some­times Hap­pen, my first children’s book. That was the first time I saw it. 

I would stay at that library for fif­teen years, dur­ing which time I was not just lit­er­a­ture and ref­er­ence librar­i­an but taught many class­es in research meth­ods to myr­i­ads of stu­dents. Of course, I was still writing—weekends and nights. 

I also began to write his­tor­i­cal fic­tion, and the library, being a good one, allowed me to do research. By then I knew how to do it. 

If one both­ers to read the reviews of my his­tor­i­cal fic­tion or the let­ters that my read­ers write to me, you will note the con­stant com­ments about the many details I put in my books. Review­ers appre­ci­ate them. My read­ers seem to love them. 

I came upon those details because of my skills as a research librarian. 

I could give count­less exam­ples. One of my favorites: when writ­ing City of Orphans which deals in large mea­sure with a Dan­ish immi­grant fam­i­ly liv­ing in 1890’s New York City, I want­ed to reveal the father’s sad­ness about liv­ing far from his Euro­pean home. To achieve this, I was able to track down a doc­tor­al dis­ser­ta­tion which con­sist­ed of a vol­ume ohttp://cityf songs com­posed by Dan­ish immi­grants who came to Amer­i­ca in the 1890’s. The father sings one of those sad songs in the course of the story. 

In one of my Crispin books, Crispin is dash­ing through an Eng­lish for­est. What was a Medieval Eng­lish for­est like? I found a book that described them. 

LoyaltyIn my new book Loy­al­ty, there are many exam­ples of such details. A key part of the book is a prayer the protagonist’s father—an Angelicin pastor—shares with his fam­i­ly. The prayer calls for a bless­ing on King George. The Sons of Lib­er­ty hear that prayer and decide to tar and feath­er the pas­tor to teach him a les­son. He is treat­ed with such bru­tal­i­ty that he dies. That moment is the start­ing point for the novel’s plot. 

I had known that in the 18th cen­tu­ry it was com­mon for col­lec­tions of prayers to be writ­ten and pub­lished by min­is­ters I tracked down one such book, so the prayer in the book is quite correct. 

Dur­ing the siege of Boston, the Eng­lish army issued—for a while—passes for cit­i­zens to get out of Boston. That pass, word for word, will be found in the book. 

My hero, Noah, wears a coat. I did my research and found a pic­ture of just such an unusu­al­ly rare coat, as dis­played in a small New Eng­land muse­um. Noah wears it. 

I could give many more exam­ples from Loy­al­ty. 

My point is, when writ­ing his­tor­i­cal fic­tion, I always want to bring vibrant details to my sto­ries. Being a librar­i­an taught me how to find them. 

You’ll see the results in Loy­al­ty. 

3 thoughts on “Researching the details”

  1. Hel­lo! I am eager to read the new adven­ture! I admire your atten­tion to detail and how you use mul­ti­ple resources to take the read­er on an authen­tic jour­ney through time. And I appre­ci­ate how you do not seem to rush the process so that you “write read­ing” that is beloved by many.

  2. Tar­ring and feath­er­ing was some­thing I learned about a lit­tle when i was quite young. I could not imag­ine the cru­el­ty. My son is an his­to­ri­an. A researcher, too, specif­i­cal­ly in the time of the ear­ly Repub­lic and also revolv­ing around Thomas Jef­fer­son. It is both inter­est­ing but can be exhaust­ing when you are on a quest, but so worth it when your book turns out to be so authen­tic. Thank you for your amaz­ing work. We go to the Col­lege Of NJ to watch The Nut­crack­er. I know it is not the Tren­ton cam­pus of Rut­gers but in the vicin­i­ty. PS I love librar­i­ans. I think I could have lived hap­pi­ly as one.

  3. As always, I read about this part of your life enthralled. Your pas­sion for detail and accu­ra­cy, part­nered with your abil­i­ty to craft an amaz­ing sto­ry, have blessed so many readers!


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