By Suzanne Woods Fisher
Desktop research is a wonderful tool. At a writer’s fingertips is a complete library, filled with information. So how important is it for an author to seek out primary sources? How valuable is it to visit places, to walk the roads where characters might have walked, to breath the air, to soak up the topography?
It’s not just valuable. It’s vital.
There is nothing-absolutely nothing!-like original sourcing to take a story from black and white to full color. The more an author invests herself in a story, the more readers will get out of it.
Here’s an example: As I started to research material for Anna’s Crossing, I studied merchant ships of the 18th century. I learned nautical lingo, studied ship’s records, read old diaries, watched documentaries on historical ships. It was all invaluable information and I thought I had a plan for the direction of the story.
But then I traveled back east to visit some historical ship museums and actually walk onto some old ships. As much as I had studied via desktop, it didn’t make up for the experience of how it felt to be tucked away in the lower deck. Dim, dark…with a very low ceiling. Tall men would have to stoop so they didn’t bonk their heads.
I wanted Anna to have an unlikely love interest and had a dashing and honorable fellow in mind-Bairn, the Scottish ship’s carpenter. But when I stood on the upper deck, it was obvious that passengers belonged below deck, out of harm’s way. Ropes crisscrossed all over the upper deck, booms swung, passageways were narrow. There was precious little space to “be,” particularly with sailors running from bow to stern. The chance of a passenger getting tangled in a rope was high, as well as losing his footing and falling overboard.
So back I went to the drawing board. How could I get Anna to have a legitimate excuse to go above deck? A young woman-especially a Plain young woman-wouldn’t be the one to speak to the ship’s officers…unless she was the only one who could translate English into the Palatinate dialect of the German passengers (later known as Penn Dutch).
Voila! I found my loophole.
That was just one of the aha! moments that occurred after I explored a few old ships. Some firsthand observations corrected potential blunders, others gave me new ideas.
Here’s another example: In the captain’s quarters of an old ship, I had a vision of a curious young boy, snooping around unseen. I could imagine him panicking as he heard approaching footsteps, diving into the captain’s bunk and pulling the curtain closed. That inspiration became one of my favorite scenes in Anna’s Crossing, as young Felix’s stomach growled loudly while he cowered behind the bunk’s curtain, hiding from the ship’s officer.
After all, there are some things you just can’t Google.
Suzanne Woods Fisher is the bestselling author of ‘The Stoney Ridge Seasons’ and ‘The Lancaster County Secrets’ series, as well as nonfiction books about the Amish, including Amish Peace. Suzanne hosts the blog Amish Wisdom, and has a free downloadable app, Amish Wisdom, that delivers a daily Penn Dutch proverb to your smart phone. You can find Suzanne on-line at www.suzannewoodsfisher.com.