Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Dazzling Obscurity

As fiction writers we enjoy mixing words into a scrumptious story that entices readers to read our books again.  Our books are dog-eared, worn, passed on to friends, and resold.  What makes best sellers as enticing as Jacob's stew?

I recently chose to enter a historical fiction contest for tweens.  I facebooked a few of my former students and asked what part of history intrigued them.  They chatted for a few days then messaged me back, "the Civil War." 

Great topic, maybe.  A bit overdone. How could I write anything fresh?  

I asked my husband, who must have read every Civil War book in print, if he knew any obscure fact.  He smiled. "I read somewhere that the Battle of Gettysburg happened because of a pair of new shoes."  Perfect. I set out to prove it.  

I drove to used book stores, libraries, waded through my husband's collection, researched my high school daughter's AP US history textbook, and of course, read numerous sites on the Internet to gleam every detail and point of view offered on this topic.  Conclusion:  yes, the confederates gathered in Gettysburg because they heard there were new shoes and boots. Unfortunately for them, the Union also happened that way.

I wanted to picture the city of Gettysburg at the time.  Most maps included the battlegrounds, but I wanted the town proper.  Days and days of research later, I learned the booming town of Gettysburg had only ten streets.  

My last question wrapped around one I had mistakenly woven into my story before gathering proof. Several resources implied, a couple downright stated there was a shoe factory in the town.  I contacted the chairman for Civil War studies at Gettysburg University.  Sadly, he said Gettysburg did not have a shoe factory, the rumors were incorrect.  Gettysburg was the "Detroit of the time. It had a carriage factory."

I'm glad I spoke with him before submitting my work!  I tweaked the story, put in the carriage factory, and left in the Confederates desire for shoes.

Obscure details make our stories fresh.  The unexpected detail will catch the reader's eye, hopefully that reader is an editor.

BUT readers expect to find truth in fiction.  Abraham Lincoln can't cut down cherry trees, and St. Valentine cannot deliver Christmas packages.  Readers notice if a story states or illudes to a person or event incorrectly. 

I'd like to mention a few more resources and methods to find the obscure detail in my next post. Until then, what obscure detail did you find and/or write into your WIP?  Don't forget to include those trips to UK, Africa, etc! 

8 comments:

Angie said...

Great post, Mary! It's so much fun to research knowing that your making your story stronger and more believable.
Angie

Mary Vee said...

There is a certain thrill when discovering confirmation of obscure details:)
Then again, I'm OK when the detail is proven false because I know my work has been improved.

Julia M. Reffner said...

Ooohhh...I can't wait to hear your resources, too. What grade level did you teach, Mary?

Mary Vee said...

The group of students I asked were my fifth grade students. They are now in 9th grade...still enjoying contact with them through FB:)

Casey said...

How fascinating about your research! I didn't know what you mentioned there (and I loved to study the CW) and oh so true about making sure what you write in your work is accurate, because there ARE readers out there that will notice, my dad among them. :)

Pepper Basham said...

Oh Mary,
You are speaking to my heart today. In fact, just over the past two days I've been in contact with a WWI nursing specialist from the UK. Things I'd had planned for my historical are now being redirected to make them more historically accurate. Tough? OH YES!!! I love it though. But I think so often it's easy to overlook the finer details.
I had to do some major research on whether my heroine could travel across the Atlantic unescorted without causing too many whispers about her character.
Then there's the clothing. Sigh. So much to check.
And not just historicals either. Contemporaries too, especially if the story takes place in a real town.
Thanks for the post.

Mary Vee said...

Casey,
Thanks. My kids have used information found in fiction books to back up things they say.
So have my students, come to think of it. As readers they know what is suppose to be truth and what is the fiction part.
Your dad would be a great editor for facts:)

Mary Vee said...

Pepper,
Thanks.
I thought of you when I mentioned the UK. I know you have a WIP located in the UK and the fantastic trip you took there.
The research is fun when you pick an era and location you are willing to plunge into.
Have scuba gear?