J. Kasper Kramer is an author and English professor in Chattanooga, Tennessee. She has a master’s degree in creative writing and once upon a time lived in Japan, where she taught at an international school. When she’s not curled up with a book, Kramer loves researching lost fairy tales, playing video games, and fostering kittens.
What typically comes first for you: a character? An era? A story idea? How do you proceed from there?
I think this changes with each book for me. Right now, I’m working on a ghost story set in 1910, and it was actually the location that I found first—a quarantine island in New York City. I often incorporate folklore and fairytales into my novels, so sometimes the first piece of the story comes from there, such as a book I’m revising right now that’s grounded in Polish changeling lore.
With The Story That Cannot Be Told, I found the era first, while listening to stories from my Romanian friends. I knew the book needed to be set right before the Romanian Revolution. From there, I discovered Ileana and her family, then the journey she’d have to go on. It’s funny, because I actually knew the title right away, but I didn’t know the titular “story” itself till pretty late in the first draft.
At what point do you feel comfortable beginning to draft? How does your research continue once you begin writing?
I often say that I need to “think” about a book for a good year before getting serious about it. I might do some casual research or chat out the ideas with my husband, but I very rarely take any notes or write anything down during this phase. I don’t want anything concrete that I might get attached to while I’m letting the story find its shape.
After that, I’ll start seriously researching—reading books, conducting interviews, collecting photos, and scouring the internet. How long this stage takes depends on how much I already know about the era and location. Once I start drafting, I always continue to research, though. And if I hit a question I don’t have the answer to, I pretty much have to stop writing till I figure it out.
What is your favorite thing about research?
I absolutely adore it when my research takes a book in a direction I hadn’t planned. For instance, while I was working on the first draft of Story, I found myself struggling to find propulsive conflict in the third act. Then, while researching something entirely unrelated, I came across “systemization”—where Ceausescu, the Romanian Communist leader, was destroying villages and sending villagers to go work in the cities. Suddenly, I had a major new conflict for my book.
What’s your least favorite thing about research?
I hate it when I forget if I researched something or not. Sometimes, I’ll be reading through a draft and go, “Wait. Is that right?” And then suddenly I’m down the rabbit hole, trying to skim through my sources to double check a date or recipe or other (often insignificant) piece of information that I already confirmed a long time ago.
Because life isn’t always clear cut, the motives behind our actions don’t always make sense. But stories need to follow a logical path. What sorts of decisions have you had to make about “muddy” historical figures or events in order for your book to work?
At the end of the day, the story I’m telling—about the characters I’ve created—is what matters most. That’s what will keep a reader engaged and result in the most meaningful emotional impact. Often, historical events might steer the plot of my novels, and historical locations, of course, help build setting. When I’m really lucky, all those things line up thematically with the motivations and choices of my characters. When they don’t, it gets complicated. With Story, for instance, there was a lot of confusion in the history books about what exactly happened during the Romanian Revolution in Bucharest. It wasn’t even clear who was fighting whom by the end. Ultimately, I just addressed that confusion up front, which fortunately worked well in a book about the nature of storytelling.