word craft


Where Research Takes Me

Lost in the Empire City

When you write his­tor­i­cal fic­tion, such as I do, my research can take me any­where and gen­er­al­ly does. Such search­es are helped by a won­der­ful truth: there seems to be a book, an arti­cle, or a mem­oir about any­thing and every­thing. Search, and you will find, some­thing the research librar­i­an in me loves to do. Indeed, I have a fam­i­ly rep­u­ta­tion for spout­ing odd facts that have no par­tic­u­lar rel­e­vance to any­thing, oth­er than to fill a lull in the table conversation.

When writ­ing about the 1911 sub­ways in New York City, (Lost in the Empire City) I locat­ed an engi­neer­ing guide to the then-recent build­ing of the sub­ways, which enabled me to dis­cov­er that the first sub­way cars were built of wood.

If you were rid­ing one, you sure­ly would notice that.

Crispin The Cross of Lead

When research­ing the Crispin books, I found a book about Medieval curs­ing, which was help­ful when try­ing to have the main char­ac­ter, Bear, express him­self. The curs­ing wasn’t scat­o­log­i­cal as much as mild­ly sac­ri­le­gious, such as “I swear by the bones of Christ.”

Then, for the same Crispin books, I found a book about the medieval forests of Eng­land, which was help­ful when describ­ing Crispin try­ing to escape his pursuers.

More recent­ly, the mem­oir of a Mid­west high school prin­ci­pal delin­eat­ed the cur­ricu­lum of 1920’s schools, which helped me write my The Secret Sis­ters. How else would I have learned that the teach­ing of Latin was con­sid­ered essen­tial? Or that if young women played bas­ket­ball using men’s rules — lots of run­ning — it was con­sid­ered bio­log­i­cal­ly harm­ful to their repro­duc­tive func­tions. 

City of Orphans

City of Orphans is, in part, about Dan­ish immi­grants liv­ing in Amer­i­ca at the end of the 19th cen­tu­ry. A col­lec­tion of songs pub­lished by the Uni­ver­si­ty of Min­neso­ta Press, songs writ­ten by Dan­ish immi­grants, helped me express the sor­row of the father in the fam­i­ly when things became hard.

Did you know that 19th-cen­tu­ry sticks of dyna­mite used in min­ing oper­a­tions were col­ored orange? Use­ful in my sto­ry for the main char­ac­ter to see — from a dis­tance — what the vil­lain of the sto­ry was carrying.

Speak­ing of Orange, the Hud­son Riv­er was once called The Orange Riv­er. The House of Orange being the rul­ing fam­i­ly of the Nether­lands, who once con­trolled that area.

What was served by way of food in eigh­teenth-cen­tu­ry tav­erns? I need­ed to find out when writ­ing Loy­al­ty. For the same book: Could a boy of thir­teen join the British Army? Nope.

Gold Rush Girl

For Gold Rush Girl I came upon a descrip­tion of a nine­teenth-cen­tu­ry ship sail­ing about the south­ern­most point of South Amer­i­ca — Cape Horn. It was so cold and wet that the beard­ed cap­tain of the ship bent over a hot wood stove so the ice in his beard would melt.

For that book, I also came upon a con­tem­po­rary man­u­al of eti­quette that delin­eat­ed how girls should talk to boys when learn­ing to dance.

Recent­ly I learned about the lack of salt in the Amer­i­can colonies dur­ing the rev­o­lu­tion. At that time salt had been import­ed from the Caribbean Islands, but they were con­trolled by the British. Why was that impor­tant? Salt was cru­cial in the preser­va­tion of meats. Dur­ing the war enter­pris­ing colonists — includ­ing the state of Penn­syl­va­nia — set up salt farms near the sea to extract salt from the ocean waters.

True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle

When writ­ing The True Con­fes­sion of Char­lotte Doyle I had to learn about the names of the mul­ti­tudi­nous sails on a sail­ing ship. That was vital when the first mate sang out orders. While research­ing that I learned that there was a way of get­ting a sail­ing ship to sail back­ward! That’s not some­thing in the book, but I found it amaz­ing. It is sort of like teach­ing a teenage dri­ver how to back up a car.

Cur­rent­ly, for the book I am writ­ing, I came upon a His­to­ry of Amer­i­can Hotels.

Invite me to din­ner and I’ll be hap­py to share what I dis­cov­er. But only when there’s noth­ing else to talk about.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.