As a professor of literature I often ask my students to consider the distinctions and similarities between fiction and non-fiction. As the author of work that uses elements of both, what do you find to be most enjoyable—the research and discovery of historical information, or the imaginative construction of a narrative that develops from those discoveries?
—Michael Given, Nacogdoches, Texas
That’s an interesting turn in that question, Michael. First and foremost, I’m a writer, so I’ll say the feeling I’ve drawn an evocative picture of a scene or captured the emotional essence of a particular moment or experience through language is the very best high. Far and away. Not that that construction of a narrative you mention is easy. As someone who writes yourself, I’m sure you know it’s sometimes a struggle to get things as you want them. But the rush is real when it happens.
When it comes to research, a lot of it is just pure tedium and slog and, if you’re talking about microfilm of old documents, blindness inducing. But I do admit to having been hooked on the detective aspect of research when I wrote Suite Harmonic. I loved it when I made finds, particularly ones that solved what had seemed to be an intractable problem. Also, some of what I discovered, particularly in pension files, was extremely moving. I can’t say what a moment it was when I came across John Given’s affidavit—practically from his death bed—in Charlotte Boren’s petition for a widow’s pension. (Part of it is the epigraph for the book’s final chapter). That was as specific and vivid an experience as I had in doing research though, more generally, I realized from those pension files how many Civil War wounds lasted a lifetime.
There’s another aspect of research that has been great, and that’s going to so many of the places that exist in my books to absorb them firsthand. It’s really been the form of most of my non-family-travel for decades, starting with trips to Washington, DC and Greenwood, South Carolina when my daughter was a baby and Will Wheelock of Time Stamp first appeared in my head. The research shaped that trip, as it did so many later ones. I looked for what my characters knew or needed to know, which was a very different travel experience from doing routine tourist things. That’s been the case repeatedly. I discovered Guadeloupe in the Caribbean because I needed to know more about the character Roland, who appears in The Second Magician’s Tale. And while I was there, I encountered some of the wonderful writing from Gaudeloupe that I would never have found otherwise, particularly the amazing work of Maryse Condé. That part of research can be absolutely fascinating.