Michele L. Hathaway has an M.A. in Social Anthropology and is a freelance editor and writer. Her stories are in various stages of emergence.
What typically comes first for you: a character? An era? A story idea? How do you proceed from there?
My stories vary tremendously, but at their core is a love of culture, past, present, and even mythical. The era and story idea come first, the characters emerge later to make the culture come alive. Sometimes the landscape is the starting point. This is the case for the Navajo stories I am writing. I spent quite a bit of time in the North American Southwest as a child and an adult, so it occupies a large swath of my inner landscape. I feel more alive here than anywhere else on the planet. Sometimes I am captivated by an entire era, such as the first 400 years A.D. of Mediterranean history, along with key historical figures from this period. Then again, I have a story idea that takes my characters around the modern day world, but the research involved with getting these cultures right is almost identical to historical research.
How do you conduct your research?
At the beginning of a project, especially one where I don’t have a large body of knowledge already in place, I’m like a child at a carnival. I careen from one amusement to another until I find myself breathless at the top of the Ferris wheel. From here I look down on the whole journey. When I get back to earth I filling in the blank spaces on a need-to-know basis.
If you are wondering what I’m talking about, here’s the general plan: I go to the library and load up on as many books as I can get my hands on. I scan these, usually finding I am attracted to some more than others. Resources that are most helpful I might buy so I can mark them up and keep them near for reference. I copy the bibliographies of the most helpful to see what inspired the author, where their research originated. I’ve found gems this way. From there I follow trails that branch further and further. If a source is mentioned by several authors, I look at that. I never stop researching, I always have a book or two going as I write. This keeps me in the story, inspires, guides, and corrects. One thing to be aware of is new research coming out. Since I began my Navajo stories, I’ve found a few new books that are gems. So check back with your library from time to time.
Do you have a specific system for collecting data?
No unless you count the carnival method mentioned above, and the aftermath.
What kinds of sources do you use?
I use any and all resources that apply. I use books, the Internet, travel, experts and interviews. Books may include academic, historical fiction, and picture books. Picture books should not be underestimated. They are great for researching folk tales and imprinting visual details. When I was researching for a forest fire scene, I needed the photos to help me with concrete details.
The Internet is also helpful for visual images as well as hunting down an obscure fact, like the name of the owner of the Thunderbird Trading Post in 1945—Leon Hugh “Cozy” McSparron, by the way. I couldn’t have thought up a better name. Sometimes you need to hear coyote song or the crackle of a forest fire, or see Mexicans harvesting vanilla beans, or Navajos playing string games.
If I find a book that does more than inform, but inspires, I contact the author. This has led to great help and a friendship or two. You’ll find that people who are passionate about their topic are happy to talk about it.
Finally, if I can, I travel and observe the setting of my novel first hand, be it Navajoland or Egypt—what a great excuse to travel, eh?
At what point do you feel comfortable beginning to draft? How does your research continue
once you begin writing?
An author, whose name escapes me, once said, “Write sooner than you think you can.” When I feel, not quite saturated, but too impatient to wait any longer, I begin. Usually my characters are coming alive within the history, the culture, the landscape, or the myth. I write until I find a hole in my knowledge. Then I stop and research until that hole is filled. I continue on as quickly as I can. When I find new information, I add that or rewrite if I need a course correction.
What is your favorite thing about research?
I love to learn new things, and I love to put these things into the framework of a story. Writing historical fiction allows me to be a perpetual graduate student without the exams—the book is my thesis. I haven’t graduated yet, but I can see the day, shimmering in the distance.
What’s your least favorite thing about research?
I wonder if I have done enough, if I am missing something important. I don’t have time to read every book cover to cover, so I worry that I have missed something. Or missed the “right” book.
What’s your favorite thing about writing historical fiction?
Studying history is time travel. I am transported to places and times I can’t go to any other way. It is one of the most thrilling rides of my life.
What are some obstacles writing historical fiction brings?
I believe the most difficult thing about writing historical fiction is getting the psychology of the period right. It is easy to fall into the trap of dressing a modern American in a toga and calling him a typical Roman. Critics will jump all over that. As they should. A 1940’s Navajo girl in boarding school will not talk back to her teacher, no matter how spunky she is. A Greek-Egyptian Boy from 345 AD is probably not going to see slavery as extreme injustice. Making your story true yet accessible to modern readers is tricky. Check out Connie Willis’ Doomsday Book for a good example of grasping the psychology of medieval England. (warning—this is a devastating book, a Hugo-Nebula Award Winning, wonderful, devastating book. I love it.)
Sometimes it is helpful to read a stratified selection for research. Read writers from as many decades or centuries as you can find to help off-set bias. This is complex and yet fascinating. The reality is there is no way to see history through a pure lens. We bring ourselves, our culture, our social bias to any historical interpretation. We have to do our best here. We have to work hard, work honestly, write the truest story we can.
What’s one of the most interesting things you’ve learned while researching?
Wow! It is hard to pick one and hard to think of one, because at some point the research goes internal and becomes a part of me, transforms me. I can think of one or two things that stand out though. One is the complexity and beauty of Navajo myth and legend. We hear so much about Greek and Roman myth, but have no idea how deep and interwoven Native American literature is with history, culture, creativity, beauty. I could go on and on. Part of why I write these stories is to share this body of wonderful literature.
Has your research ever affected the overall trust of your book? How so?
My research has shown me where I have gone off track, but most often where I need more depth. I find the feedback from “experts” most helpful. Research has not caused me to have to abandon the work, rather it provides course corrections and transforms it, always transforms it, so that I am following a truer path. Not a perfect path. Not a path everyone will agree with, but a truer path. And that is the best all of us can do.
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?
When retelling myth, there are almost always different versions of the story because it is from oral tradition. At some point, the writer of fiction has to choose one version (or even blend versions, which does not change the truth of the story, but that is another topic). For example, in Navajo legend, the Hero Twins are sometimes born of one woman, or sometimes they were born of two women but are still twins. This does not present a problem for the Navajo, but the rest of the world can’t reconcile the dissonance. To avoid confusion, I have chosen to have them both born of one woman.
If a historical figure is famous enough, there will be problems. No question. One of mine is a saint. He is revered by millions. I cannot presume to write a biography; few are qualified to attempt it. Therefore, I am writing about him through the eyes of a young protagonist. This way the story is about the boy, but I can open a window on this amazing historical figure, allow for his flaws, but not presume to offer a complete biography.
Why is historical fiction important?
Historical fiction is not only important, it is fantastically important. It is obviously important for its historical content, but there is so much more. I believe, historical fiction is a safe environment to explore modern issues. For children this is critical. Because the story is set in another time, it is not so close that it generates anxiety, but it brings up situations and issues children may have to deal with now or in the future—a sick sibling, an absent father, or even the trauma of war. All of this can provide them with tools to help them cope with their situation, help them discover who they are and who they want to become.
One day I was on a bus driving along the waterfront in Alexandria, Egypt. Two women in head scarves were sitting on the sea wall talking while their toddlers played nearby. It struck me in that moment, in that one scene as the bus sped by, that I was more like them than I was different. They were two friends, with children, having a chat. I’ve been there. They are me and I am them. I’d like others to see the world that way. That we are more alike than we are different.
Leanne Sowul says
Thank you both for shedding light on the historical fiction process! I recognized many elements from Michele’s process from my experience of researching and writing historical novels. I love reading about how other writers work, and it’s a very special treat to find someone from my preferred genre. I look forward to checking out Michele’s work. Thank you!
Happy this resonated with you, Leanne. This series has been such a treat for me, seeing how others conduct research and do their writing. True affirmation there is no one way to go about things.
Amy Sonnichsen says
Thank you for this! I needed to hear, “Write sooner than you think you can.” I became impatient while researching and am in the process of filling in my holes as I draft. It hasn’t been easy, because most of my sources are in a different language *weeps* — but this blog post encouraged me. Thank you again!
I’m intrigued, Amy!