Honoring the Critical Link between Research and Creativity

How the discovery of a vintage matchbook changed the trajectory of my novel and its success

Jeff Ryan
Jeff Ryan
Feb 8 · 4 min read

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

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).

Contextual Gold

“Good stuff”, I thought. But the story needed more

Match Made in Heaven

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

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.

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Jeff Ryan

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Jeff Ryan

The Startup

Medium's largest active publication, followed by +582K people. Follow to join our community.

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