(Today we asked Maine Literary Award finalist Janis Bolster to be our guest to talk about using history and historical research in a contemporary story.)
Janis Bolster: I don’t remember how I stumbled into writing a series that combines historic crimes with contemporary ones. If you asked me, I’d say I don’t really enjoy research. Still, when I manage to track down the exact obscure nugget of information I’m looking for, I feel the same burst of satisfaction I get from something like rewiring a lamp all! by! myself!
Some writers who use historic materials do complete immersion research first; some just start writing and fill in the gaps as they go. My problem with the “immerse first” approach, which is the one that makes me comfortable, is that I can get so caught up in the background that I postpone the book indefinitely. My advice to myself? Start the research and start the book at the same time. The press of needing answers speeds the research, and the developing story of the book focuses it.
Do I take my own advice? Sort of. One of the things you risk when you verify information after the fact is having to rewrite whole scenes if one of your basic premises is wrong – and yes, that has happened to me. With my first Sally Jean Chalmers mystery, Murder in Two Tenses, I did a lot of research on the Irish immigrant experience in the US, but after I’d finished the “final” draft, I rechecked my facts in what turned out to be a more authoritative source. That meant some last-last-last-minute rewriting. In my current book, Emily Dickinson in the Attic, which starts with Sally finding a stash of letters written to Dickinson, I’m trying to write and check more or less simultaneously. If I’d waited until I felt comfortable with all the necessary background, I wouldn’t yet have written a word. Sadly,I’m getting lots of rewrite practice as I find the mistakes in my assumptions and then have to recast chunks of the book that I thought were tight.
What it comes down to is the relation between real history and plausible history. My kind of book needs both. The reader who likes history with her mystery wants something tangible she can take away from her reading, and that means the book has to be built on real, documented facts. There’s probably no such thing as too much background knowledge, but by focusing on story and suspense and drama, I find out which parts of the real past will give the mystery solid roots.
It’s plausible history, though, that gets me where I want to go. My characters are my own creations, not actual people. If I say a character wrote a certain letter, then that becomes one of my fictional “facts.” The historic plot in my books is always based on old documents of some sort. Writing those documents – letters and diaries and newspaper stories and anything else that occurs to me – is the most fun I’ve ever had with a keyboard or a pen. I love the very non-contemporary way our ancestors shaped the language they used. I love finding a character’s voice and vision, so that Sally (and the reader) can see the world through another pair of eyes.
What I aim for is a web of plausibility wrapped around an accurate view of the way things really were a hundred or more years ago. At the end of the day it’s still a mystery: a mouthful of entertainment with – I hope – real teeth.
Bio: After stints at things like checking off boxes on insurance claim reports and performing for a blind professor those tasks that his Seeing-Eye dog couldn’t manage, Janis Bolster found her way to a job in publishing that has become a career. She got the idea for the Sally Jean Chalmers Editorial Mystery series when she discovered that copy editors and proofreaders almost always share her enthusiasm for mysteries. The second book in the series, The Lost Daughter, was a finalist in the 2012 Maine Literary Awards in Crime Fiction. She lives in an old shipwright’s house in Bath, Maine, that is making its way into the third Sally Jean Chalmers mystery, Emily Dickinson in the Attic.