I’ve seen writers swear that research can ruin a book. Not true of historical fiction, and I’m amid the pleasure of researching the Progressive Era for my forthcoming novel Monsignor Dad.
My story takes place in Michigan and Ohio of the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, so I’m in luck. There’s great documents and resources for the period. This is an era where moving pictures were taking the world’s forefront of storytelling. But the best facts and cultural color from the period is in the writing. 5,000-word articles were commonplace in periodicals of the day like McClure’s, where many a muckraking article emerged.
I have a personal connection to some of the events of Monsignor Dad. In a way I’m working on filling in characters from that period, ones who are only legend in my family. But I’m not allowing those family facts to stand in the way of a good story. Nevertheless, there’s a lot to be said for knowing that Vicks VapoRub emerged in drugstores, or that railroads had become the dominant transportation vehicle because there were thousands scattered across Progressive America. Which leads to the trust-busting of the era led by Teddy Roosevelt and others. So there’s Doris Kearns Goodwin’s new The Bully Pulpit biography for me to enjoy. It’s a 914-page book. Something bigger than The Thorn Birds, which has passages that will tell you quite a bit about the life of a former parish priest.
Historical fiction writers, I am learning, lean on facts the way that journalists do: as needed to tell a story with authentic detail. But they’re not locked in to specifics like I was as a Central Texas reporter in the 1980s. We had a standing fine in the newsroom of the Georgetown paper in the county seat: 25 cents for misspelling a proper name. Or needing to gather a middle initial in any story about an arrest. A journalism degree has been deprecated a great deal since mine of 1981. But the fundamentals of research serve me in my work creating Monsignor Dad.