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Writing Historical Fiction (5): Research

Langum Prize for American Historical Fiction for 2010 has gone to Ann Weisgarber for The Personal History of Rachel DuPree. This book does not tell the story of murder or hidden treasure or scheming viziers, but  is about black settlers in the American West. This is not my cup of green tea, but here is a snippet from an interview with Ms. Weisgarber on how she did the research.

Next I had to learn about the issues that shaped Rachel when she was a child and a young woman. This called for history lessons about black culture. I discovered popular music, slaughterhouses in Chicago, and race riots in East St. Louis. I discovered Ida B. Wells-Barnett and admired her greatly. So did Rachel. Absorbing the culture was another step toward my seeing the world through Rachel’s eyes.

Last, I had to learn about the mindset of the time period. I read novels and diaries written before and after the turn of the 20th Century. I discovered Rachel’s story was not unique; most women in the West, including Indians, struggled to feed their children. Many women lived with determined men. Heartache and homesickness were not unique experiences, but shared by many women. Rachel was one woman among many

My background in sociology pushes me think about my characters as people of their times. I believe it’s important to include references to literature, to music, and to popular culture. Characters don’t live in vacuums but are influenced by the news of their day as well as by events in the past. Newspaper headlines impact lives.[An interview with Ann Weisgarber]

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