Climbing Curiosity’s Trail

My best definition of research: “Climbing curiosity’s trail.”  One of the greatest perks of being a writer is the absolute freedom—even endorsement—to investigate a topic to your heart’s content.  To creatively indulge in life detours and to assert, with a straight face, “Oh, yes, I must do this or go there or experience that because I’m researching a new book”—well, it’s a lot like slipping through dark tunnels to unlock the mysterious door to a giant candy store—only with permission.

Don’t get me wrong.  Research can be demanding, exhausting, grueling, even dark, and sometimes expensive.  But, it can also be delightful, exotic, and thrilling.  Truly, there’s not much I’d rather do.

Research for Band of Sisters took me twice to the Big Apple—but a lot of reading (histories, periodicals, map studies, newspapers) needed to happen first.

Once I knew where the story was going—and this changed over time—I began by specifically investigating late 1800s and early 1900s immigrants who poured through New York’s gateway to the New World—Castle Garden and later Ellis Island.

That led to research on the social conditions of New York’s poor, including Jacob Riis’ work exposing the extreme poverty of tenement dwellers.  Disadvantages to those who did not speak English and the specific problems of women and children immediately surfaced.  That led to the settlement house movement—a fascinating world of its own.

The economic desperation of women without a male provider, and how difficult it was for women to make a living wage outside of prostitution startled me.  Threats made to them and their families to coerce women and children into sexual service, coupled with women’s few legal rights and the unfair treatment they received in court painted a bleak picture.

Predators were rarely prosecuted, and men and boys were not educated re. the human rights and intrinsic worth of women.

It didn’t take long for that research to lead me further up the mountain, to issues of human trafficking and the needed fight for abolition.

NYC’s Irish community fascinated me—their history, their music, their cultural and social strengths and weaknesses, their views of family, aptitude for employment and reception in Manhattan.

That’s when my characters, Maureen and Katie Rose O’Reilly were born.  Because I’d done the broader research and gradually narrowed it down, I knew my characters inside out—knew their backgrounds, their parents’ backgrounds, understood their hopes and dreams and the limitations of their horizons.

The storyline emerged from the timeline of history. I mapped out locations of the story and trekked through Manhattan, exploring old sites, especially between Mid-town Manhattan, through Washington Square and the surrounding NYU area (including the site of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire), the Bowery and the Lower East Side.  As I walked, photographed the city, explored, and talked with residents, the voices of my characters erupted.  I gladly followed their lead.

By the end of my second stay in New York, the story and characters were alive and thriving—all talking at once in my head, each desperate to impact the novel with their point of view and their part of story.  That’s when research threatened to become overwhelming.  I’d learned so much—collected so many bright and golden nuggets—that I wanted desperately to share those gems.

But that’s just when a writer must sit down and rein in her story to ensure that everything and everyone within the manuscript works toward a common goal—a central premise—and embraces a common theme.  It can be hard to stay on track when the buttercups in the field look so enticing.  But that’s a writer’s job.

And sometimes, if we’re lucky, we get to share some of those extra shiny nuggets that couldn’t find a place in the book with readers, anyway—through our websites, blogs,  Facebook posts, or in conversations.  They might even be seeds for another story.

We’re officially facing the last week of summer.  Let’s indulge in the last of the peaches.  How about a warm peach muffin, and a pot of ginger peach tea?  We’ll sit at the picnic table beside the garden and lay our plans for autumn.

Looking forward to seeing you here, in the garden, next week.

God’s rich blessings for you,

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  • Carrie says:

    Hi Cathy, I loved this post! You have taught me so much about the importance of research and how the story will spring to life as we dig in deep and soak it all in. Thank you! Thank you!

    Today I wish so much that I could sit on the porch with you and enjoy a muffin and some tea. But I am looking forward to ACFW and our time there.

    I am thrilled to read all the wonderful reviews of Band of Sisters and will continue to talk it up and spread the news!

    Thank you, my dear friend, for sharing the journey!

    • Cathy Gohlke says:

      You are a treasure, Carrie! I can’t wait to hear about your own research in merry ole England!
      Research is one of the many great joys of the writing life!

      Looking forward to seeing you in Dallas–Safe travels and God’s blessings, my friend!

  • Peach tea sounds lovely! Might just brew up a cup right now!

    And sometimes it seems there’s TOO much info to find and it can be overwhelming deciding which elements to keep! I’ve found that integrating the timelines from the Icelandic sagas in some kind of meaningful story structure is tedious.

    I would LOVE to make a trip to my characters’ setting (Viking settlement at L’Anse Aux Meadows in Newfoundland, or even over to Greenland!), but in the meantime, there’s a wealth of info available, even for a lesser-documented time period like 1000 AD. The key, as you said, is letting those characters come to life and tell the story through you.

    And I really need to incorporate more of those factoids on my blog or FB page. I think readers love learning about other time periods!

  • Hi Cathy –

    What a comforting thought! All those gems we can’t use in the story can be shared on blogs, websites, and in interviews. I thought of all the fascinating behind-the-scenes shows that were almost as good as the original movie/drama.

    I had some yummy nectarines and peaches last week. I’ll miss the summer fruit once the season ends.

    Susan 🙂

  • Cathy Gohlke says:

    I agree, Susan! I LOVE watching those “behind-the-scene” takes–special little insights into the story.

    The peaches have been WONDERFUL this summer! Yes, I’ll miss them, too, but am looking forward to some yummy, crisp apples.

    This week I bought purple prune plums from our local Mennonite market. We only find them here in September. I made little turnovers with them–a recipe I’m using in my next book. What a great form of research–YUM!!! : )

    Blessings to you!

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