Digging Deeper – How Far Should You Go?

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by Connie Stevens

Most authors-at least the ones I know-love research. Whether they write contemporary or historical, long or short, romance or suspense, a writer wants to know their characters intimately. The best way to do that is to delve into their background, their roots, their hidden past. Are there ghosts from their past that haunt them? What defines their passion? Where do they find their inspiration and what (or who) provokes them? In order to answer those questions, one must dig for details. For it is from those details that our characters emerge.

I’m currently constructing a manuscript set in 1877 in south central Missouri. However, one of my characters came from the mountains of North Carolina where he was connected to the establishment of a hot springs resort. So I traveled to the little town of Hot Springs, North Carolina, and found a gold mine of information at the tiny county library. Archived maps, survey records, copies of old deeds, even a list of real estate sales going back the mid-1800s, including the number of acres and the price paid. In addition, I learned how the War Between the States affected the formation of several counties, the importance of the livestock trade, the locations of the many stock stands and trading posts in the area over a period of several decades (and which ones were most notorious), and an accurate timeline for the formation of the railroad.

All these details, regardless of how disconnected they might seem, came together in a tapestry to form my character’s background. While most of the facts and figures I uncovered will never make their way into my story, when I piece them together, they make this character come to life and help me better understand what captivates him, repels him, ignites his anger and fuels his passion. These are the threads that make up the fabric of this man’s character. I learned why he struggled with honor and deceit, and how historical events carved the pathway for his future. Only after I become acquainted with his background can my character tell me his story.

I also found a 93-year-old woman whose body was frail but her mind was sharp. She regaled me with stories that had been handed down through five generations of her family. Her great-grandfather worked at one of the trading posts that was put out of business when the railroad came through, and her great, great uncle helped lay track for that railroad. The two brothers took their feud to their graves. What a story that would make! This sweet woman gave me a drink of water taken from the springs near her house. I expected it to taste of iron or minerals, but it was some of the sweetest water I’ve ever tasted. Will the character in my story remember how sweet the water from the mountains of North Carolina tasted? You bet he will.

Of course, since my character was involved with a hot springs resort, I also “partook of the waters” while I was there. Oh, the things we authors must endure in the name of research!

Connie Stevens was introduced to ACFW (then ACRW) in 2000, and credits the organization as playing a major role in her path to publication. Her interests include gardening, collecting vintage linens and teddy bears, and browsing antique shops. Visit her website at www.conniestevenswrites.com and look for her books on Fiction Finder.

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