Doing Research

Readers like to know how writers do research. Do you visit the places you write about? How do you come to know so much about slavery? Where do you find the detail you put in your books?

When it comes to research, I don’t always have the luxury of visiting the places I write about. As much as I know about Atlanta and northern Georgia, I haven’t been there. As a historical novelist, I have a weird problem. I can visit a place where the story happened, but I can’t visit the real place where it takes place—the past.

So I have to content myself with an old-fashioned form of time travel. I once wrote a novel with a chapter set in the Budapest of 1976 that harked back to the 1940s. It was in the days before everything was accessible online, so I hied myself to my local bookstore and bought travel guides and maps of Budapest and Hungary. The clerk made the obvious assumption and said to me brightly, “Have a nice trip!” And I thought, I will! And I won’t leave my living room to do it!

I learned the history of slavery in graduate school, but writing fiction means knowing the kinds of mundane everyday things that you’re unlikely to read about in a scholarly monograph. What did antebellum Georgians, black and white, eat for breakfast? How did they hitch a mule to a plow? How many bushels of corn did an acre of land produce, and how many pecks of meal was that? What was the latest in ladies’ fashion in the Georgia Piedmont in 1856?

Finding the period details took digging. I rely on genealogical records all the time. The 1850 and 1860 slave schedules for Cass County, Georgia taught me volumes, as did the census itself (I’ve written before about the only Jew who really lived in antebellum Cass County (link), whose name I borrowed, Sam Levy). As with my time travel to Budapest, I looked at maps. The 1856 map of Georgia came in handy, as did the map of General Sherman’s March to the Sea in 1864. I looked at photographs, too. It’s eerie to find a photograph who looks like a character you made up.

As careful as I tried to be, a missed a few things. I had described a wedding ring as “diamonds ringed with tiny sapphires and set in platinum.” My copyeditor, a Victorian jewelry aficionado, sent me pictures of something period-appropriate: a sapphire ringed in tiny diamonds in a rose-gold setting. Which is now in the book.

One of the harder tasks in doing research is in getting inside the frame of mind of the past. Certain things are human and universal, but others are period-specific. I like the observation of Robert Darnton, a cultural historian who wrote a book on pre-revolutionary France called The Great Cat Massacre. In it, he describes a group of apprentices who murder their mistress’ cat in an atmosphere of jollity. Darnton points out that whenever you find something that seems wrong or crazy to you, by your contemporary standards, you’ve probably out your finger on something crucial about the past. The central question of my book—how could a woman own her sister?—is like that.

Research is a pure joy. I have to restrain myself, because it’s endlessly fascinating to find the photographs and letters and newspaper articles. Sometimes truth is better than any fiction. That’s a moment I savor—finding the truth that gets my mind going on the transformation into fiction.