Digging in at the Archive

By Cam Terwilliger

In early December I discovered the email I’d been anticipating for months, now lurking in my inbox. It was the response to my application for a creative research fellowship at The American Antiquarian Society (AAS), a library of historical documents in Worcester, MA. I hesitated, unsure I wanted to know the results. Since 2007, I’d been working on (and struggling with) a novel set during The French and Indian War, a story I’d also peppered with elements of Faustian black magic, a decision that led me to refer to it as my “Satanic Last of the Mohicans (with a note of frustration, when writing went poorly).  If my application was accepted, I’d spend a month living at AAS. It would be a month to pore over journals, newspapers, letters, and broadsides from the period of my novel, allowing me to incorporate what I found into the book. It was the type of experience I deeply wanted. It seemed like something that could reinvigorate the project, not to mention the fact that AAS would pay me to do it, a prospect that seemed too good to be true. For so long I’d been alternately researching, writing, then shelving the book. I’d made some progress, sure. But it was starting to feel like it might take a decade to find my way. Now, looking at the email, it seemed impossible that someone could read my sample chapter and say, “Why yes! This is a book that should be written!”

I opened it and read. Apparently, I’d been accepted. Suddenly, an uncanny mix of elation and befuddlement set in. Like many emerging writers, I’ve spent years getting turned down for most things I apply for, leading me to adopt a policy of assumed rejection. But now, my dream application had succeeded. “Would I accept the fellowship?” the email posed, genteelly requesting an answer by the end of the month. I responded immediately.

To really show you what a fantastic boon this opportunity is for me, we’ll have to back up a little. We’ll have to back up over a year, to my most dismal period of tinkering with the book. Despite my novel’s supernatural qualities, I still wanted to develop a story that engaged with history in a necessary way. If I was going to use the past, I wanted to tell a story that could happen in no other time, to no other people. Otherwise, it seemed to me, all of my research would only amount to so much window dressing. Or worse: it might devolve into an exotic dog and pony show, an exoticism based on time rather than place. This possibility seemed downright immoral, and was something that caused me a few sleepless nights. However, in retrospect, the main reason these cerebral issues could unsettle me so badly was the simple fact that I still found it so hard to engage with my characters. No matter what I did, I couldn’t get excited about them. The more I wrote, the less they felt like flesh and blood people. More often they felt like a set of pawns that I jockeyed about as I prayed for some mysterious spark to ignite. Throughout this time, I read a lot of history books. I read. And read. And read some more. I was hoping to find a connection to the past that would animate the novel. But no… I never did. Something was missing.

Finally, last summer, I visited The American Antiquarian Society on a whim, to spend one day doing my first research with primary sources.  At my request, the AAS staff brought me a volume I’d found in the online catalog, a journal kept by a low-ranking British officer. To lay eyes on this book was to know, immediately, that something significant was about to happen. It was beautiful. Tawny leather bound its cover, and a tarnished clasp of brass held it shut, as though the contents might escape otherwise. Gingerly, I opened it, then set a velvet-covered chain across the first page’s corner, to hold the book open without the need to touch it. Before I read anything, I was struck—as though with vertigo—by the shock of what I saw. It was handwriting. Handwriting! What else had I expected? I don’t know.  But in that moment, after so many history books, to see the work of a human hand was nothing less than a revelation. Each page was filled to the borders with it, the irregular loops and swirls of cursive, the work of a specific individual. Looking at the sprawl of it, I knew my world had shifted. Instantly, the period I’d struggled to understand became so much more immediate. The people I was writing about no longer seemed like figments of my imagination. They felt real.

I went on to read the entirety of that journal, discovering life as a person of the time would have described it. Here in my grasp, I finally had all the daily rhythms of life, crystalized.  Even the the book itself was a testament to life in those days. There were pages discolored by raindrops, others smudged with red wax. Some passages appeared in ink that had faded to brown, others in ink that remained as dark as the day it was set on the page. And the prose itself…. It was all filled with those personal tics, the oddities of penmanship, of spelling, and of syntax that you might come to recognize in the writing of an old friend’s letters. By the end of the day, I was converted. I was a primary source junky. There’s simply no other way to meet the people of the past on their own terms, in their own words.


Research Tips for Historical Novelists

In light of this post, I thought I’d offer a few tips gleaned from my upcoming weekend seminar, Encountering the Past: How to Research and Write Your Historical Novel (May 14 - 15). If you’re at work on historical fiction, definitely think about signing up. We ran the seminar for the first time in the fall, and it was not only very productive, but truly fun as well!

When Researching, be Open: When you’re in the beginning stages of digging into your novel, you must be open to the research in an imaginative way. You may think you know what you want to write about, but you can never tell what stray bit of information will, in fact, become crucial to your plot. For this reason, read broadly and with curiosity. In my case, I thought I might want to include a plot line about a famous scout named Robert Rogers. In a book on Rogers, I discovered, completely by accident, the fact that Rogers had been briefly involved in a counterfeiting ring. The text noted that he was lucky not to be prosecuted for it, since the colonial punishment was to have a “C” burned into one or both cheeks, as well as a notch clipped into both ears. This information grabbed my attention in a way that the rest of the book failed to do. And now, two years later, the research I’ve done on colonial counterfeiting has become central to my novel. Meanwhile, the figure of Robert Rogers has become entirely peripheral.

When Writing, be Selective: When you finally get around to writing, you’re presented with a maddening problem. You’ve done a lot of work, and now you know way more about your period than you can possibly include. As a result, you have to get comfortable with the idea that most of what you’ve read will never make it to the page. This is not a bad thing. It's similar to Hemingway's notion of a story being like an iceberg (7/8 of the work is invisible, below the waterline). Similarly, when researching, you will find it best to resist using everything you’ve found.  Otherwise you’ll write something like a textbook (at worst), or a guided tour (at best).  Does that mean you shouldn’t spend as much time researching? Absolutely not. As Hemingway says, “If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about, he may omit things that he knows.  And the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them.”

Interview Experts: Interviewing an expert is an approach normally underutilized by newbie researchers. This expert could be somebody that lived in/during the place/time you're writing about, or somebody at a university or museum who knows a lot more about it than you. This way, you can ask very directed questions and get specific answers (something no book can offer). Still, make sure to do your homework before you approach an expert. Though many scholars are happy to share time with anyone passionate about their subject, it is not their obligation to digest years of research for you. Read up first, answering obvious questions beforehand. That way you’ll avoid wasting your expert’s time.


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About the Author

A 2014 James Jones First Novel Fellow, Cam Terwilliger's writing has appeared in a number of magazines, including West Branch, Electric Literature, Gettysburg Review, American Short Fiction  and Narrative, where he was selected as one of the magazine's "15 Under 30." His fiction has also been supported by fellowships from the Fulbright Program, Brown University, Massachusetts Cultural Council, the Virginia Center for Creative Arts, the Elizabeth George Foundation, and the American Antiquarian Society. A graduate of Emerson College's MFA, he teaches at NYU when he isn't teaching at Grub Street .

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