Honoring the Critical Link between Research and Creativity
How the discovery of a vintage matchbook changed the trajectory of my novel and its success
The process of writing my latest book (a historical novel entitled Hermit: The Mysterious Life of Jim Whyte) required quite a bit of research. I knew that it would, because the story was set in the period between 1852 and 1934.
Fortunately, I was able to find the bare bones of the story by doing standard research — reading through records kept by historical societies, town halls, the Library of Congress, etc.— factual records, if you like.
But factual records by themselves aren’t compelling enough to make a story appealing. For that you need to do contextual research. Digging into the global and local events that were happening at the time of your story and weighing their influences on the life and times of your characters is the kind of work that can make your story come alive, whether it’s fiction or nonfiction.
Not enough material for nonfiction
When I complied all the factual information I could find about my main character, Jim Whyte, I realized I had a problem. There were large gaps between the known aspects of Whyte’s life — we know he ran away from home and joined the German Navy in the late 1850s and that he came back to his native New York City in the early 1890s as a wealthy young man. We also know that he spoke six languages fluently and was a pearl diver for a while. Interesting material to be sure, but not enough to satisfactorily lead readers through a thirty-plus year hiatus from the USA. In order to fill the holes, I would need to take a sharp turn into the world of fiction.
I decided to tell the story of Jim Whyte through the eyes of a young man who discovered the tale little by little as he spent time in the rural Maine town where Whyte had settled in 1895 to build a cabin and a new life while he hid from his illicit past (one so checkered that the FBI came to Maine to question him twice).
The first thing I wanted to know about Monson, Maine is what had happened there when Jim Whyte was living just outside of town. Turns out, something ominous happened there just over one hundred years ago — a head-on collison between a freight train and a passenger train that killed 35 people. The Onawa Train Wreck, as it was called, would have been an unforgettable event to anyone living within scores of miles. Naturally, I wove that event into my narrative.
“Good stuff”, I thought. But the story needed more
The protagonist of my book, Ben Harmon, discovered clues about Jim Whyte (and about his own uncle, who died when Ben was sixteen), during his visits to Monson. All well and good. But, Whyte spent his final days in a New Jersey home for the aged and made a confession that was both true and stunning. How could I foreshadow that event, which would become key to the plot?
Match Made in Heaven
I knew that one of Whyte’s few dear friends from Monson went down to New Jersey to visit “the hermit” shortly before his death (the scene when Whyte shared his closely held secret). What little clue from New Jersey could I leave early in the book to raise reader interest and suspicion?
I reasoned that “Campbell” would have stayed in a hotel on his way to visit Whyte by train in 1933. When I started looking for lodging that would have existed then, I discovered the Hotel Robert Treat in Newark (a place that, incidentally, still exists today). While I was looking at vintage photos of the place, I began wondering if they had used matchbooks as promotional tools, as had most hotels and restaurants of the era.
I googled “Robert Treat Hotel matchbook.”
Jackpot! I leaped out of my chair, fist pumped the sky, then immediately dove back into my manuscript to add Ben’s discovery of the matchbook in his uncle’s belongings to my plot. How had his uncle, who had often proudly declared that he never left Maine, acquire a matchbook from New Jersey? What, if anything, did it have to do with Jim Whyte’s past?
Suddenly the matchbook became a potentially important clue to discovering what Whyte had been up to for the nearly 40 years he lived above the railroad tracks.
If I hadn’t been digging for contextual underpinnings to my story, I wouldn’t have come up with the idea to add the matchbook, a critical detail that added the level of depth and mystery that keeps readers engaged.
The big takeaway
When I stopped looking at research as solely a means for gathering facts and began seeing its potential to make my stories and characters more interesting, my writing improved significantly. What’s more, my story gained a level of page-turning urgency that it was lacking before. My editor was the first to notice and my readers weren’t far behind.
That’s enough incentive for me to do as much digging for contextual material as I can lay my hands on before I sit down to draft my next book.
P.S. I was able to buy the matchbook (shown above) online as a tangible reminder to keep sifting for contextual nuggets whenever I start down the path of writing a new book.