The Value of Research when Writing Fiction – Presented at the Greene County Historical Society, July 12, 2019
My name is Victor Hess. I was born at the McClellan Hospital in Xenia and spent most of my first thirty-six years in Xenia. A couple of those years we had moved to Dayton and a couple were in Sabina. I graduated from Xenia High School in 1964, went to Central State for a year, then Ohio University, and then the U.S. Army. I returned to Xenia and worked as a Realtor for Tom Welsh before moving to Louisiana in 1979 where I worked for GTE, which later became Verizon. Ever since my marriage to Melva in 1973, we have taught Sunday school, Bible study, Confirmation and sang in choirs. Most of this was in Methodist Churches. I say, this all because all of this history has impacted my writing.
I started writing in 2014 because I had a story I thought my boys would be interested in. So, it started as a memoir, and as I wrote it I thought it so profound, this story I had to tell, that I took my story with me to a writing workshop in St. Augustine
Since 2014, I have written two books and working on the third one in this tale about a young boy, his divorced mother, his abusive father, and his baby sister and their efforts to eke out a living and somehow find meaning in rural Ohio in the 1950’s.
Though much of the events in the two books are based on some fact, it doesn’t mean that it’s good fiction. The reader becomes the judge. So, in my books, some things are left out, others are made up, and all-in-all, it is a work of fiction based on some real events, told from the point of view of a child.
Today, I want to discuss the importance of research in writing fiction.
Some research requires that you dig deep in the bowels of the book you are writing. This is called editing. For example, in Stranger in a Strange Land, by Robert Heinlein, he manages to refer to the same character by two names, Alice and Agnes. In Robinson Crusoe, by Daniel Defoe, a naked Crusoe swims out to the shipwreck to gather necessities and manages to stuff them in his pockets. Some things will get noticed and some do not. The book is still a must read.
A good author owes it to his or her readers to provide accurate information but as the author weaves characters and setting into a plot, sometimes the imagination takes over and attempts to alter history. The reader that notices it may become distracted by the error and lose interest in book, and a once good story becomes soured and ignored.
In my book Jesse Sings I had started referring to the Cincinnati Baseball team as the Reds until I was reviewing news articles of this period around 1954, and everywhere they were referred to as the Redlegs. I went to Wikipedia, and learned that from 1954, the Cincinnati team was renamed the Redlegs after Senator Joe McCarthy of Wisconsin started his Communist hunt in the Senate. Senate hearings were televised as McCarthy searched for Reds. Nobody wanted to be referred to as a Red, including Wally Post, so they changed the name to the Redlegs. In 1959, they returned to the popular moniker of the Reds.
In The Clock Tower Treasure, Jesse Hall has a paper route and delivered papers to Helen Santmyer. One scene was of her giving Jesse a book as a Christmas gift. “Read the chapter about the Clock Tower,” she said. As I was doing the
Music helps us all bring back memories, but when you’re writing a book, you can’t have a song playing on the radio when it hadn’t been written yet. I had Jesse listening to “Volare,” “True Love Ways” and other neat music long before it was written, so, I changed them to “Que Sera,” and “Hot Diggity Dog Diggity.”
A piece of fiction should pay attention to events of the time.
Our Pledge of Allegiance includes the words, “Under God.” I learned the words were added while Jesse was in Sabina, in Jesse Sings. Let me read an excerpt (Page 166, Jesse Sings.)
Sabina was a small town of 1,600 people, and there were only thirteen fourth graders. The school was short on teachers, so they combined the third-grade class with the fourth graders, a total of twenty-five kids in a classroom that was designed for twenty. Four rows of five desks. Ten students would have to share desks. Lynn and I sat together right away, but the teacher moved her with another girl. Within minutes I was sharing a desk with Jeffrey Walker, one of the Little Leaguers who was a fourth grader, and also new to Sabina.
Mrs. Thomas instructed us to stand up and give the Pledge of Allegiance with our hands over our hearts, facing the flag.
“I pledge allegiance to the flag, of the United States of America, and to the Republic, for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”
A hand went up.
“Yes, Mike,” she said. Mike Stafford had the desk next to mine.
Lynn and I looked at each other, and she rolled her eyes. We glared at the kid who had locked us in with Eugene just a few weeks before.
“Mrs. Thomas, in Indian Guides we learned a new way to say the pledge.”
“What is this new way?” she asked. “Can you recite it?”
“Yes, ma’am.” He stood up, put his hand on his heart and said, “I pledge allegiance to the flag, of the United States of America, and to the Republic, for which it stands, one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” And then he plopped down in his seat that he did not share with anyone. His huge eyes looked directly at me.
“Mike is right. Between the time we left school this past May and today, the United States Congress added two words to our Pledge of Allegiance. What are those two words class?” she asked.
“UNDER GOD.” Most of the class caught it, including me. She took a paper from her desk.
“Let me read to you what President Eisenhower said: ‘From this day forward, the millions of our school children will daily proclaim in every city and town, every village and rural schoolhouse, the dedication of our nation and our people to the Almighty. In this way, we are reaffirming the transcendence of religious faith in America’s heritage and future; in this way we shall constantly strengthen those spiritual weapons which forever will be our country’s most powerful resource, in peace or in war.’” She set the paper back on the desk.
“Alright now, everyone stand up and face the flag again. Repeat with me.” After two times, everyone had learned the new pledge.
The information for this scene was found in a newspaper article on Newspapers.com. I learn a great deal from that resource alone.
What resources are available to the author who wants to accurately portray setting and time? Here is just a small list I’ve put together solely based on my experience with these two books.
Visit Museums and Libraries. My related resources for these two books were: Greene County Historical Society; Dayton Metro Library; Sabina Historical Society.
Use the Internet. I subscribe to Newspapers.com and have found articles from many papers about Eugene, one of my beloved characters. He was a man found dead in Sabina in 1929 and kept on display until 1964. Wikipedia helped me keep my information about Helen Hooven Santmyer as accurate as possible. I wondered how Jesse and Lynn learned about certain things, like sex and thought the library would have been a resource but I could not find a set of encyclopedias date in the 1950’s, so I bought a set on Ebay. It was the heaviest box ever delivered to my house. I grabbed the volume where sex would be and guess what. The word wasn’t there. This explains how I remained so ignorant about certain things for so long. I do talk a lot about the cost of things and the popularity of things and found that a copy of the Sears Roebuck Catalog from the 1950’s that I purchased on eBay was perfect. Grocery ads in newspapers were informative. I ordered a Boy’s Life magazine and a Scout manual online from eBay and used them to assure my scouting scenes were accurate.
Visit your setting. There is nothing wrong with a good field trip especially if it takes you back to your hometown. When I visited Sabina, I went to the shed where they kept Eugene on display, the store front where Jesse first met the five and dime clerk, and to Eugene’s grave. A recent visit to Xenia led me to the acquaintance of Catherine Wilson for research regarding the Tecumseh and Rebecca Galloway legend. Some legends, like the Tecumseh – Galloway romance, have little basis of fact. I chose not to challenge the story but to keep the question alive. Seeing the fireplaces and authentic furniture was very helpful. Everywhere I went, I took pictures.
Interviews. If your writing is based on your life or another’s, arrange for interviews. Recent discussions with my brother and sister offered some colorful facts which make the fiction more interesting to the reader. The first chapter of Jesse Sings recounts Jesse’s encounter with chicks. A recent discussion with my cousin confirmed the event took place. Maybe, not word for word, but the event happened.
Read. The acknowledgements page on the Clock Tower Treasure let you know that it was important for me to read other person’s accounts with polio that hopefully made scenes more realistic. The Dayton Metro Library sent me copies of pages from a pamphlet about Barney Convalescent Center which was part of the recovery process for many people suffering from Infantile Paralysis. The book Old Chillicothe by James Galloway and the Allen Eckert books gave me the historical and personal background that helped me with scenes regarding the hunt for the treasure. Legends come alive in these books.
So, in order to keep background factual in a fictional book, visit Museums and Libraries; use the vastness of the internet, just use it with caution; visit your setting, take a field trip, take pictures; interview resources to certain events; read similar books, stories and firsthand account. If you do all this, you give your reader an authentic feel for time and place.
The third book of Jesse Hall is currently titled One More Funeral. It takes Jesse through High School and graduation. It will involve more research and most certainly, a lot more fiction.