Jasmine Stirling is the award-winning author of A Most Clever Girl: How Jane Austen Discovered Her Voice (Bloomsbury, 2021). Her next book: Dare to Question, about how undercover rebel Carrie Chapman Catt and her life partner Mary “Mollie” Hay made suffrage fashionable and fun, comes out in 2023. She’s now writing a book about a peasant woman who, while disguised as a man, became one of the world’s greatest botanists and explorers. Jasmine lives in an old house in San Francisco with her spouse, two daughters, and their absurdly adorable dog. She can often be spotted checking out enormous stacks of books from her local library.
What typically comes first for you: a character? An era? A story idea? How do you proceed from there?
All of the above. Thus far, I have written three nonfiction picture book biographies for publication as well as one YA narrative nonfiction title that isn’t quite finished.
I got the idea for one of my books from listening to a Radiolab podcast. For another project, I took inspiration from an adult novel I loved (The Signature of All Things, by Elizabeth Gilbert) and decided I wanted to find a real figure in history that was somewhat like Gilbert’s fictional protagonist. For my debut, I wanted to learn more about Jane Austen, and help make her work more accessible and intriguing to young readers. It took a couple years of reading and thinking before I figured out the story that I wanted to tell about Austen’s life and work.
All of these books began with an intuitive spark: the feeling of falling in love with a subject or story.
How do you conduct your research?
Where possible, I rely on primary sources, such as letters housed by the Library of Congress, newspaper articles in online databases like Newspapers.com, and books published by the person I’m writing about (or someone who knew them). I reach out to scholars who are experts in the subject I am studying to ask them questions, get their thoughts about points I’m struggling with, and get their feedback on my work. I utilize the NYPL Ask a Librarian service, having them pull up resources such as atlases for specific roads on specific dates.
I partner with my alma mater and local university, where I have a library pass as a visiting researcher, and thereby have access to a staff of academic librarians who collaborate with research institutions to get me materials that are otherwise challenging to acquire. I request materials that are on microfiche at the Library of Congress and have them transferred to my local library so that I can view the source material. I use Link+ in my public library system to get rare books from special collections. I use all kinds of online databases like JSTOR, and dig into oral histories in special collections. I work with local and regional centers dedicated to the person or topic that I am investigating.
I have hunted down and contacted living relatives closely related to people who made history at the turn of the century, and as a result have gotten access to materials that are not yet in museum collections or local archives.
I have contacted the staff at historic hotels and asked them to go into the hotel room in which I know someone stayed, and had them take a photo of the view from that room, enabling me to write accurately about what the person saw when they looked out the window. I’ve had the same staff pull documents from their archives (such as hotel brochures) and corroborate accounts of who stayed in which hotel rooms, used which conference rooms, etc. during events that took place 100 years ago.
I have hired researchers to go into archives that are not online, such as The Brooke Russell Astor Reading Room for Rare Books and Manuscripts at the NYPL, asking them to access specific speeches and letters and take photographs of them for me.
I’ve found that most of the time, people are excited to connect, help, and collaborate.
Do you have a specific system for collecting data?
I do not, except to say that if I want a piece of information so that I can tell my story in a particular way (by commenting on the weather at a key moment, for example), I go after it. If I can’t find it, I leave it out.
How long do you typically research before beginning to draft?
That depends on what is available and the length of the work. If know my story arc in advance, I will not spend too much time on researching ahead of time, because I don’t want to forget things and have to go back. I’m more likely to outline my project using chapter titles and then do the research for each chapter as I write, so that my work is as accurate as possible. If I am unsure what my story arc is going to be, I spend a lot more time doing broad research (sometimes months or longer) in an effort to figure out if there is a compelling story arc in the person’s life history that I wish to pursue as a book.
At what point do you feel comfortable beginning to draft? How does your research continue once you begin writing?
I might start a draft after reading a few secondary sources, or I might need more time, depending on how obvious the story arc and its themes are. I always research as I write. I always re-write, often extensively, and I often throw out whole drafts and start over.
What is your favorite thing about research?
I love getting lost in the colorful, jaw-dropping, and beautiful stories of people who led fabulous, meaningful, and impactful lives. I love imagining the worlds they lived in. I often feel like my subjects are my friends. They keep me company and offer me strength and hope in a world that can sometimes feel scary and overwhelming.
What’s your least favorite thing about research?
I agonize over getting things right, and nearly always worry (or believe) that I have missed things, misrepresented things, or not done my subject justice. I have many fears related to writing nonfiction, including concerns about my biases (as an educated, first world, White woman). I rely heavily on sensitivity readers and subject matter experts, but these issues keep me up at night.
I also struggle with the picture book format, because I uncover so many fascinating things during my research that simply cannot fit into this format.