My Obsession with Research
By Michelle Shocklee
I often wonder what my high school history teacher would think if he knew I grew up to become an author of historical fiction. He would no doubt be quite surprised considering my utter lack of interest in bygone eras while spending time in his classroom. Dates, facts, ancient events. Blah. Who cares? I often wondered as he droned on and on about wars and people whose names were faintly recognizable . . . although I couldn’t tell you why.
Fast-forward to my late twenties, when I discovered that I not only enjoyed reading historical fiction but found deep satisfaction in writing it as well. And, as every historical author knows, it’s the research into those once-dreaded dates, facts, and ancient events that breathes life into the story. I can’t get enough of them now.
You might even say I’m obsessed with research.
My latest novel, Count the Nights by Stars, is a split-time story. With each of the settings being historical, I had the wonderful task of researching two vastly different time periods. When I’m in the throes of writing a new novel, research books litter my desk and the floor surrounding my chair. Websites on historical happenings are constantly open, articles are printed, and I find there simply isn’t enough time in each day to read and research all the fascinating facts about my chosen topic.
After my husband and I moved to the Nashville area in 2017, I was like a sponge soaking up Tennessee’s captivating history. I grew up in Santa Fe, New Mexico (which has a captivating history of its own I plan to write about someday), and lived in Texas for thirty years after marrying a Texan, so I’d never given much thought to Tennessee. Sure, I knew Nashville was famous for country music and the Grand Ole Opry, but after moving here I discovered a rich history that had nothing to do with music. Those discoveries would eventually inspire me to write my Christy Award‒nominated novel Under the Tulip Tree. But because I’d learned so many interesting things about Nashville’s history through my research that weren’t included in that book, I knew I had to write another one. This time the two historical stars would be the Tennessee Centennial Exposition of 1897 and the famed Maxwell House Hotel.
To help readers envision the exposition, I needed to go beyond mere description. I had to make the expo grounds come alive with sights, smells, and sounds. This is true in any novel, but it is especially true in historical fiction because modern-day readers can’t place themselves in the setting the way they can with a contemporary story. Historical authors must, must, must bring history to life, and to do that we need to know the facts. Yes, those dry, boring facts we despised in history class now become lifeblood to our books. Without them, readers can’t experience the setting with the characters, which becomes a real problem for both the author and the reader.
One of the methods I used to help bring history alive in Count the Nights by Stars was to study photographs of the exposition grounds. Every black-and-white photograph—and there are hundreds of them—reveals large and minute details I incorporated into the story. For instance, while describing Vanity Fair, the amusement area of the fairgrounds, I let my heroine, Priscilla, and her group enjoy spicy pork sandwiches from the Cuban Village while sitting on the banks of Lake Watauga in the warm June sunshine. They discuss what they see—the Parthenon, the Egyptian pyramid-shaped Memphis building, and the giant seesaw—while feeding crusty ends of their sandwiches to the ducks. In those few paragraphs, the reader not only visualizes the setting but imagines the flavors and sounds as well.
Historical photographs also allowed me to place Priscilla and Luca under the newly invented electric lights of the fairgrounds at night, which was especially vital for a pivotal scene. Had I not known electric lights had been employed throughout the fairgrounds, my characters would have been wandering around in the dark. My research also provided schedules and routes for electric streetcars running to and from the exposition, which was essential information at different points in the story. I hope readers of Count the Nights by Stars will truly experience the exposition in their imaginations.
The Maxwell House Hotel is the other main location that appears in both time periods. Priscilla and her family stay at the hotel during their visit to the exposition in 1897, while Audrey and her family live in the hotel manager’s apartment in 1961. Even though it was the same hotel, I might as well have been writing about two separate places. Time had not been the old hotel’s friend, and by 1961 it was a run-down residential hotel rather than the grand dame of Nashville as it had once been. The detailed language I used to describe the magnificent hotel in 1897 was not applicable in the 1961 story. That’s where extensive research came in. Using old newspaper articles, firsthand accounts, and archived pictures, I was able to accurately describe the once-gleaming hotel as it was in 1961.
Writers often ask this question: When do you have enough research?
My answer: Never . . . but you eventually must stop researching and start writing!
Have you read a book where the setting positively came alive in your imagination because of the author’s description? Tell me about it!
(Comment below for a chance to win a copy of Count the Night by Stars).**
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
ABOUT COUNT THE NIGHT BY THE STARS
Count your nights by stars, not shadows. Count your life with smiles, not tears.
1961. After a longtime resident at Nashville’s historic Maxwell House Hotel suffers a debilitating stroke, Audrey Whitfield is tasked with cleaning out the reclusive woman’s room. There, she discovers an elaborate scrapbook filled with memorabilia from the Tennessee Centennial Exposition. Love notes on the backs of unmailed postcards inside capture Audrey’s imagination with hints of a forbidden romance . . . and troubling revelations about the disappearance of young women at the exposition. Audrey enlists the help of a handsome hotel guest as she tracks down clues and information about the mysterious “Peaches” and her regrets over one fateful day, nearly sixty-five years earlier.
1897. Outspoken and forward-thinking Priscilla Nichols isn’t willing to settle for just any man. She’s still holding out hope for love when she meets Luca Moretti on the eve of the Tennessee Centennial Exposition. Charmed by the Italian immigrant’s boldness, Priscilla spends time exploring the wonderous sights of the expo with Luca—until a darkness overshadows the monthslong event. Haunted by a terrible truth, Priscilla and Luca are sent down separate paths as the night’s stars fade into dawn.
Count the Night by Stars releases on March 22, 2022.
**Giveaway prize courtesy of Tyndale House Publishers. Subject to Seekerville and Tyndale House Publishers' Giveaway terms. US mailing address only. Thank you.