Erica George is a writer of young adult fiction. She is a graduate of The College of New Jersey with degrees in both English and education, and is currently an MFA student at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. She resides in scenic northern New Jersey, but spends her summers soaking up the salty sea air on Cape Cod. Many themes in Erica’s writing rotate around environmental activism and helping young people find their voice. When she’s not writing, you can find her exploring river towns, whale watching, or engrossed in quality British drama with her dog at her side.
What typically comes first for you: a character? An era? A story idea? How do you proceed from there?
I think that a character definitely comes first for me. For Words Composed of Sea and Sky, I knew that I wanted a contemporary poet on Cape Cod writing about someone from the past. I’ve always been fascinated by whaling (with complete and total disgust), and I thought it might be interesting to combine whaling with a mid 19th century poet, thus the relationship between Leta Townsend and Benjamin Churchill was born. Leta’s words are what matter most, and her discovery that she never needed to hide behind the name of a prominent male sea captain really is the arc of her story.
How do you conduct your research?
Again, it all starts with the characters. First, I need to know what my historical characters must accomplish within their own stories. Once I know their storyline, I’m able to narrow down what historical elements I have to research. In the case of Leta, I was constantly researching the style of 19th century American poets. I researched the fashion of the 1860s. I needed to know what the etiquette was for people attending high society balls. For Ben, I did a lot of research about what it must have been like for a young man who spent his life whaling. I visited the houses (now museums) of actual whaling captains, I read books and firsthand accounts of whaling in the 19th century. I studied what whales frequented the shores of Cape Cod in the 1800s, and I’ve gone on more whale watches than I can count. I climbed the real Highland Light and learned about the life of lighthouse keepers. I think the more one can literally immerse themselves in the lives and history of their characters, the more authentic the story will be.
What kinds of sources do you use? The more specifics here, the better!
I start with the internet, just to get a surface level idea of what the time period I’m researching, or the specific elements being featured in the book. Once I know what I don’t know (which sounds funny, but it’s so true!), I can do a deeper dive into the research. At that point, I head to the library and take books out, or I find primary sources. One of my favorite sources I stumbled across was a reprint of a book written by a whaler to his son, describing his whaling journeys. Along with books, I love firsthand experiences. As I said earlier, visiting lighthouses and whaling captains’ houses across Cape Cod was instrumental in my research.
At what point do you feel comfortable beginning to draft? How does your research continue once you begin writing?
I’m a very dedicated plotter! I start by writing a very general synopsis of the book, then move on to outlining chapter by chapter. At this point, hardly anything is researched. I might leave myself notes within the outline in order to remind myself of what needs to be researched in order for the book to make sense. Once I know where the story is going, I begin drafting, again leaving myself notes throughout to remind myself during revisions what needs more detail or which facts I’m still uncertain of.
What is your favorite thing about research?
My favorite thing about research is stumbling upon a fact or a story that I didn’t expect! I go into the writing process with a general idea of how the book is going to go, but there are always bumps along the way. It’s one of the most exciting things to find a historical fact that alleviates a plot hiccup, creates an exciting twist, or helps a character complete their journey.
What’s your least favorite thing about research?
My least favorite thing is when I come across a topic that I can’t seem to find enough detail about. For example, there’s a ballroom scene in Words Composed of Sea and Sky, and I had no idea what the proper etiquette was for ladies and gentlemen at a ball in New England in the 1860s. There are plenty of online resources describing Victorian ballroom etiquette, but did that pertain to America or just England? I knew the rules to Regency ballroom etiquette, but were they the same some fifty years later? Probably not. At that point, I choose to include the details I’m certain about, knowing that ultimately, the reader is more interested in the story rather than every rule of the ball (I hope!).
Steve Cromwell says
This is what I call research! I tried researching whaling ships a few years ago, but I got only a third of the way through Three Years Before the Mast, and a few chapters into Moby Dick, so I’m very impressed with how far Erica went in her research. And it definitely helps to have a plot and know what you need to learn than to simply try to learn everything before you start writing.
Joanne R Fritz says
Wonderful interview, Caroline! Erica is a fellow 21der and I’ve always loved her title. Loved learning more about her here and more about her novel. I admire her dedication to plotting and outlining. Definitely ordering WORDS COMPOSED OF SEA AND SKY!