A lot of people think fiction writers have it easy. Pick a plot, have a set of characters, go for it.
Having written fiction, I know better. But somehow, people do think it’s easier to write fiction than nonfiction. Having written nonfiction, I think so, too.
I’ve written before about my obsession with the disappearance of George Kimmel (see past posts ad nauseum; I’ll post links at the end of this one), but in the past few months, I’ve actually started drafting some chapters. It’s not that I’m done with the research; not by a long shot. Never, in fact, probably, will I be done with the research. But it’s because of something historical writer David McCullough said in the introduction to his book The Johnstown Flood.
He said: “At the beginning of the work, I had thought the best procedure would be to do all the research necessary, then write the book. Quite soon I had come to realize that, for me at least, it was best not to put off the writing, but rather to begin sooner than later, because it is then, in the writing, that you begin to see more clearly what you don’t know and need to find out.”
Also in his introduction, McCullough discusses his research, noting that it’s a dangerous downhill slope sometimes. “The more you know, the more you want to know. So the research went on right to the end.”
After reading this, I suddenly realized that I had two shelves full of research – and that’s what I had printed out; that didn’t include what I still had on my computer, or the newspaper.com articles I had yet to print, and the hundreds I had yet to even look for – and every time I put this project down and picked it back up again, I was retreading the same territory over and over.
It was time to start writing.
So I started. The first chapter, as it turned out, wasn’t even about Kimmel; it was about another banker, a guy named Stevenson from Nebraska, who disappeared about a decade before George did. Because the similarities were so striking – a bank president who takes out insurance on his life, then disappears – I wanted to follow it, especially since it was cited by the insurance companies in their arguments. Like George, Stevenson was never found. So I spent abut a month researching and drafting that chapter. It turned out well, so I turned next to the chapter that most fascinated me, the one about John Boone Swinney and his fantastic tale of gold and murder along the Oregon coast. That one isn’t done yet – it’s based on Swinney’s deposition, and since he also gave testimony in court, I want to be sure to add things from those articles – but it is drafted.
Then, I drafted another chapter, and . . .
Now, there’s about 40 pages that didn’t exist eight or nine months ago.
Of course, I’m starting with the easy things. As I explained to a friend last night, I had to start with the things that I didn’t have a ton of research for. For the early chapters about Arkansas City and George Kimmel’s life here, there just wasn’t that much information. I had a limited number of newspaper articles that detailed a little about his movements (a buggy wreck; starting a new grain elevator; Masonic gatherings), and bits from depositions and affidavits from his friends and family that talked about his life here. Pulling together that information into a coherent chapter was tedious, but not that difficult. It would obviously be better if I had more sources. It would obviously be fantastic if I had letters from George to his family, for example. But as I don’t, I have to make do with what I have. If the universe decides to be kind and let me find them one day, I will certainly add them in!
It’s the later chapters that will be the toughest ones, but I am not thinking about them quite yet.
But as McCullough said, you don’t know what you don’t know until you start writing. For example, today I wrote about the Midland Hotel in Kansas City, which was the hotel George always stayed in while in Kansas City, and the hotel from which he disappeared. I wanted to describe it. There are very few photographs of the Midland available online (as it was in 1898), so I went down a bit of a rabbit hole. I found an article about its design and building. I found a huge article from the Kansas City Times detailing every single amazing thing about the hotel, from when it first opened. Do I need all of that? No. But I can pick and choose my details now. I can talk about the pure white marble columns and floor that would have greeted George every time he walked into the front lobby. I can talk about the shops that occupied part of the first floor (including the Palace Diamond Parlor, which sold diamonds that cost “from $10 to $5,000”). If I pick the right ones, readers should figure out quickly that this hotel was not just expensive; it was exclusive. Now. I spent so much time researching that today that very little writing got done. But. Again, like McCullough said, you don’t know what you don’t know until you start writing.
Fiction writers need to do this, too. Some novelists think they need to have all their research done before they start writing. WRONG. Sure, there are some novelists out there who can probably do that – the ones who write from formulas, the ones who know from the time they first put fingers to keyboard what will happen on every single page. For the rest of us, figuring out what we may need to research ahead of time is difficult, if not impossible.
Will it be good? Well, maybe not all of it, not at first. That’s what rewrites are for. And you may put things in those drafts that are erroneous. You may think one thing is correct, then find out later it isn’t. Been there, done that. But you can fix it later.
The one bit of advice I have is to be sure to cite everything in that draft! Don’t think you’ll remember where that quote or information is from. You won’t. Cite it in the text (or if you prefer, in end notes or footnotes), but don’t leave a single paragraph without citations. Believe me, you will not magically recall where you got it from later! If you have a lot of different sources, you can create shorthand for them (NYvR is New York v Rankin 1908, for example, so a shorthand citation for me might look like this: (NYvR MH testimony 83). That tells me it came from Margie Hunt’s testimony, in that case, on page 83. Don’t stray too far from MLA or Chicago (or AP) formats; know what you’re talking about.
Just start writing. Until you do, you don’t know what you don’t know.