On Character

By Terri Alexander

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Last Friday evening, I found myself reading in Harper’s Magazine a short story by Joyce Carol Oates, “The Unexpected.” In the story, an aging, famous writer is attending a book event in her hometown when she is blindsided by the wrath of former classmates. In one conversation, a woman named Olive, or Olivia (the writer cannot remember), tells her, “You’re remembering wrong. In everything you write, you remember wrong.” And also, “That’s why you write such lies – to change the way things were, when you couldn’t change them any other way.”

The “all characters fictitious” legal disclaimer, boilerplate language for virtually all novels and story collections, states, in part, that “any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental,” and gives license to mine our lived experience for material. From auto-fiction to science fiction, writers’ real lives frequently co-mingle with their work. However, we are taught that to use an actual person in a work of fiction is an ethical no-no. Characters, then, are built in the gray area between the real world and the imagined.  

            Joyce Carol Oates does not reveal to the reader to what degree, if at all, the author acknowledges her characters were based on people from her past. It prompted me to wonder if the protagonist had a psychological blind spot, as hinted at in the story’s title, or if her characters were less veiled than she believed. Another possibility entirely is that the characters were erroneously making it all about themselves when the famous writer perhaps didn’t have them in mind at all.

The reader also doesn’t know how much of Oates herself is represented in the main character. It can start to feel like a psychological jigsaw puzzle. As a novice fiction writer, I have some underlying fear that my stories make my own personal issues transparent to the professors, students, and editors who read my stories. Today, we seldom allow a work to stand on its own, but insist on considering it through the lens of its creator. How much of it is true? Who hasn’t read a work of fiction so compelling that we’ve flipped to the author bio for clues as to how much of the story could be based in fact?

Writers of fiction have a rare freedom to build worlds and characters without limits, and yet there is the frequently recited advice to “write what you know.” My best characters tend to be shaped by snippets I take from a wide sample of relationships, interactions, and observations from my own life. I get an uneasy feeling when I recognize that a character I’ve written is based too much on one person. If that person read the story, would she recognize herself in it? If the answer is yes or maybe, I’ve gotten too close to that ethical boundary. In a 1983 interview with the Paris Review, Raymond Carver’s advice was this: “A little autobiography and a lot of imagination are best.”

            At the end of Joyce Carol Oates’ “The Unexpected,” the writer meets a former classmate who had a huge crush on her, and in fact still does. He discloses to her, “I’ve discovered enough of myself in your fiction to keep reading, and to keep hoping.” The protagonist is astonished at his words, and yet as the degree of his worship is revealed, she becomes more and more attracted to him, admitting to herself that he was meant to be her soul mate all along. In the last paragraph, the protagonist walks home with her admirer. Oates writes, “The sky overheard appears to be impacted with clouds, light comes from all sides, there are no shadows.” I finished the story and immediately googled, “Joyce Carol Oates personal life.” There was no obvious correlation, and I wasn’t surprised – the character in Oates’ story was completely alive on the page.


Faculty Spotlight: Jo Knowles

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Award-winning author and Mountainview MFA Faculty Jo Knowles has written several popular YA novels, including Lessons from a Dead Girl, Jumping Off Swings, and Read Between the Lines. Her newest book, Where The Heart Is, is set to be published in April 2019. She took time out from her hectic schedule to answer a few questions about her childhood, her career, and what motivates her.

—WL

You wrote that you grew up in a small NH town complete with all the trappings of farm life: dogs and cats, a chicken or two, horses, and a beloved pony (and here, being a city kid myself, I’m also imagining checkered tablecloths and sweating pitchers of iced tea, very-early mornings and muddy boots by the backdoor). How do you think growing up in that environment affected your outlook and your writing?

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JK— When you describe it this way, my life sounds so quaint! I guess in some ways it was. But underneath that, there was a lot of financial instability. The muddy boots were not fancy ones from LL Bean but most likely hand-me-downs times three. My parents ran a restaurant when I was young and it seemed they were always working and struggling to make a go of it. Then, there were various other business ventures my dad tried that didn't always pan out. As a quiet kid who observed and absorbed just about everything, I took on the worries of the people I loved. I don't know that what appears to be a simple life ever really is.

 

You decided pretty early on that YA (young adult) literature was the genre that most interested you. What was it about YA you found so appealing?

JK— Of all the literature I read, I find YA the most honest. I like words that bite and challenge and tell the truth. Realistic fiction for young adults is probably the most brave I've read. I also think it changes the most lives. I know it changed mine for the better. The books I read as a teen helped me be more thoughtful, have empathy for others, think more about people outside my own small world, and consider how to live more kindly and with more purpose.

How are you able to get into the minds of teens, both male and female, so convincingly?

JK— That feels like a heady question to answer. I try hard to be honest--as honest as the books that moved me as a teen were. That's the key, I think.

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Your first book, Lessons From a Dead Girl, the story about a challenging and somewhat fraught friendship, was published in 2007. How long did it take you to finish, from idea to completion, and what are some of the lessons you picked up along the way?

JK— It's been so long I'm not sure how long it took, but I'm going to guess it was several years from the start to the completion and sale. One editor who showed interested asked for revisions and provided encouragement over a two-year period, but ultimately she passed. There was a similar time table with the editor who ultimately bought the book and published it. So yes. SEVERAL years. But I learned a lot about revision in this process. I learned how to work with an editor, to process feedback in a way that kept the book "mine" even when massive changes were required.


Your books, filled with humor and pathos, explore some intense subject matters: abusive friendships, eating disorders, unwanted pregnancies, and more. How do you navigate these complex issues and distill them for your core audience of teens and pre-teens? Or is age even something you consider?

JK— I really don't think about the age of my readers. My goal is to tell a story as honestly as possible. Awful things happen to kids of all ages, yet until fairly recently, books for younger readers rarely reflected that reality. The real world is far, far more cruel than the world of fiction.

As both an established author and writing teacher, is there one mistake or area for improvement you see consistently in new writers that you would like to caution them on?

JK— I think sometimes people get ahead of themselves and get publishing on the brain before doing the necessary hard work. Like any fine craft, it can takes years to learn to write well and find your own unique voice. Subbing to agents for a six months is nothing. It's not unusual for 5-10 years to pass before a first sale! But I've seen so many students give up after sending things out for just a few months. This is a tough business and the only way to succeed is to keep working—whether that means revising and rewriting, or starting new projects while subbing out a current work. Always be writing and creating. When you need a writing break, read a ton, learn, get inspired, and get back to it.

Who are some authors who have inspired you?

JK— The most influential author in my early days was Robert Cormier. His books were achingly true. They made me feel less alone. He seemed to know and not be afraid of telling his readers what life was really like.

You’re a best-selling author, adored by young readers , so it’s obvious you’ve found your calling, but in a parallel universe somewhere, what would a Jo Knowles be doing if she had taken a different path?

JK— Haha. I love that you have such a view of my "success." I don't think I've ever seen myself that way! Someone asked me recently what the perfect life looked like and I guess I don’t really believe in perfection that way. I try instead to be grateful for the people in my life, the opportunities I have to do good work  (whether that's speaking with kids and hopefully inspiring them to be their best selves and help shape a better world for themselves, doing volunteer work, or writing stories I hope will resonate with kids who need them). I hope that in a parallel universe, I'm essentially doing the same thing, even if via a different approach.

credit: Twin State Derby/Lazy Lobo Photo

credit: Twin State Derby/Lazy Lobo Photo

Okay—and thank you for doing this—one last thing I just have to ask: Roller Derby?

JK— Yup!



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Thanks, Jo! And be sure to pick up her much-anticipated novel Where the Heart Is, on sale April 2, 2019.

FACULTY SPOTLIGHT: Richard Adams Carey

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Richard Adams Carey, or “Rick,” as we call him, is located in a town that is sandwiched between The Lakes Region and the White Mountains, which is probably where it got its name: Sandwich, NH. Because this interview was conducted bicoastal, me in Los Angeles, CA, and Rick in Sandwich, I imagine him sitting at his desk, allowing me to interrupt his “stubborn, maybe-it’ll-never-pan-out short story”—his words not mine—to answer questions for Assignment about his books, his writing and editing process, and more. 

—Jemiscoe Chambers-Black



Jem: Rick, you write both non-fiction and fiction. Is there a different writing process for writing each?

Rick: Not so much a different process as a different feel in the pit of the stomach. Nonfiction is always preceded by research into lives or subject matter where I know story material exists. In drafting I might have trouble finding the right way to tell the story, but I’ll know there’s a way—if not Plan A, then Plan B. In fiction, I’ll start with a character or situation and hope that these lead into a sequence of plausible events and a real story—with no guarantee that they really will, and it’s always a more tortuous first-draft process than in nonfiction. I think nonfiction is like jumping out of a plane knowing that somehow, sooner or later, your parachute will open; no such assurance in fiction.

 

Jem: To those of us students that have worked with you, you are known as a polishing technician. Do you edit chapter by chapter or write a large chunk before you start editing?

Rick: As people who have taken my revision workshop know, Kent Haruf is my hero. The author of “Plainsong” and other novels would sit at a manual typewriter with a stocking cap pulled down to his chin and type without peeking until he had reached the end of the story. Only then would he revise. Me, I can’t abide not seeing the words, and since I can see ’em, I can’t help fiddling with ’em as I go along. Which is too bad, because I can’t fiddle with real purpose and precision until I reach some version of the ending. So I try to write as much as I can before editing, but never write as much as I should. And that’s because first drafts are sheer drudgery for me. It’s only in editing and revising—when you know what the story is, beginning to end, and what it needs to shine brighter—that the glory is within reach.

 

Jem: This may seem random, but you lived a pretty nomadic life for a while. Also, worked a multitude of jobs. Did this have an effect on your writing, do you think?

Rick: I guess I have lived in a bunch of different places and done a bunch of different things—and sometimes I think that still wasn’t enough, because first-hand experience of any sort is so important in what a writer brings to the desk. On the other hand, you can’t go everywhere and try everything; duration and depth and commitment matter a lot as well in anyone’s experience of a given place or a certain relationship. It comes down to the right sort of balance, perhaps, given your subject matter. Some of us need to and should sail the world for material. But Emily Dickinson did just fine sailing around her room.

 

Jem: When you were contracted to write Raven’s Children, Against the Tide, and The Philosopher Fish, I’m imagining rough waters, rougher terrain, and deadly missions in pursuit of season hunting, fishing, and tracking the sturgeon and their mysterious golden eggs. Am I being too dramatic here? Since they were contract jobs, how long did you get to live the experiences and then write?

Rick: I think each of those books involved two-year contracts—so a year for the research, a year for the manuscript. And no, you’re not being too dramatic. Okay, “deadly missions” would be hyperbole, but in extreme environments you do gamble sometimes on the weather, and if your research touches on criminal activity, you do roll the dice on people sometimes. There were times when I got nervous, but only a few occasions when circumstances got more or less harrowing. In each case it ended well, so all’s well, and I so treasure the people I met and all that I experienced in doing those books.



Jem: You’ve written many things, but I wanted to ask you some questions about your book, In the Evil Day: Violence Comes to a Small Town. This book is a piece of narrative non-fiction, and spans twenty-five years, recounting the lives of the citizens in Colebrook, NH (and the towns surrounding it) that led up to August 19, 1997, when Carl Drega shot and killed four people. What made you want to write about this day?

Rick: After three books that required lots of travel and absences from home, I was ready for subject matter that was more local and also different from what I’d previously done. And with that incident, I was beguiled by the setting (the North Country’s a special sort of place), the intriguing people involved, and the rich narrative contours of all that happened that day, the intricate chain of events.

 

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Jem: Before writing this book, did you know how you were going to do that? Specifically, did you know that you wanted to show each person’s story: who they were, snapshots of their families, and past? If so, did you do this on purpose or did it show up organically?

Rick: I knew that in narratives of almost all mass-shooting incidents, the killer becomes the star of the story while the multitudinous victims are consigned to relative anonymity. Here, however, the killings were not random—each victim was targeted because of who he or she was—and there were only four of them. So I saw that this as a story in which, uniquely, each of the victims could share equal billing with the killer. With that sort of broad and mindfully balanced canvas in mind, I did indeed approach the story in the way you describe.

 

Jem: I have to agree that this worked because it showed how very connected this small town and the neighboring towns were, how even Carl Drega himself crossed paths with John Harrigan’s father. Were you at all surprised with this?

Rick: Drega did indeed cross paths with Fred Harrigan, but with hardly anyone else in the area outside of local government, the courts, and law enforcement. So as I got to know the North Country better, I found myself surprised in two different ways: first, that cranky loners such as Drega could be invisible to such an extent, more so than our obstreperous odd ducks in the rest of the state; and second, that for those not wanting to live under the radar, there were hardly any degrees of separation in these small and remote communities, that the connections are so very tight and intimate. This, of course, only aggravates the harm wrought by a mass shooting.

 

Jem: After reading your book, I know, because you point this out in your preface that you ran into several contradictory pieces of evidence. How did you combat that in your writing?

Rick: The narratives in my first three books were built out of a combination of the historical record and my first-hand experiences as I described unfolding events. In this book, where the event was already part of history, it was my task to fill in the gaps in the record by cross-referencing documents and interviewing witnesses. And because of the conflicts and contradictions I sometimes found, I learned what probably any historian knows—that writing history is a bit like sausage-making. You try to find evidence to resolve those conflicts. Absent that and needing to connect some dots, you go with what in your judgment seems more plausible, and you hope your biases aren’t distorting that.

 

Jem: What advice would you lend to any student or fellow writer when they meet this type of researching issue?

Rick: Enlist your subjects as proofreaders of your copy. Sometimes this is what provided the tie-breaker in regard to conflicting testimony. Much more often, though, it saved me from the sort of mistakes and misinterpretations all humans are prone to. The sausage could have been a lot funkier than it is.

 

Jem: When do you say enough is enough with research, and decide just to write?

Rick: With my first three books, I packed as much research as I could into a year, and then had a year just to write to hit my deadline. So it was decided for me, built into the contracts. With “In the Evil Day,” I had no deadline, since I was writing that book on spec. In a way, it was good to have no deadline. I had time to slowly build trust in the community and then to follow every lead. But the downside of that involved the sheer number of leads—it was such a complex event, with so many people involved, that I could have gone on interviewing forever. Earl Bunnell, the father of one of the victims, was the godfather of the whole project, and I very much wanted him to hold the finished book in his hands. When he died in 2011, that prompted me to finally pull the plug on the research and go with what I had. Even so, it was another four years until publication. All told, I devoted thirteen years to that book. That still astonishes me.

 

Jem: In your writing, it would seem, in my opinion, that you combine a fluidity of prose and a journalistic narrating style. Again, I wonder if this was done on purpose or if this came out organically?

Photo credit: Susan Carey

Photo credit: Susan Carey

Rick: Well, I guess it came about commercially. I began as a bad poet and always feeling guilty (in reference to my wife) about the amount of solitude that my writing required. I found I could assuage that guilt, though, if at least I earned some money. So I began by publishing humor, essays, and journalism in newsstand magazines. The twig just got bent that way, and it stayed like that as I began working on more ambitious stuff.

 

Jem: Well, it seems that your creative intent, commercial or not, has become even larger since I’ve heard talks of a movie option for In the Evil Day: Violence Comes to a Small Town. Can you tell me a little about that?

Rick: Island Pictures is a London-based studio that does the “Doc Martin” series on PBS and also does book-to-film adaptations. They’re thinking in terms of perhaps a feature film or perhaps a TV miniseries. Of course most of the time nothing at all gets done with a film option, but I’m optimistic about this one because the studio co-head and a producer have come to America and traveled up to Colebrook with me to meet John Harrigan and some of the other important people in the story. In December we’ll do it again to meet still others. They want to honor the tone and spirit of the book, and Jeezum, they know it backwards and sideways—better than I do at this point.

 

Jem: Okay, one last question; I promise. Rick, I wonder, when you first started out as a writer, did you see yourself one day becoming a teacher, a mentor, helping students master what you have mastered yourself?

Rick: Wow, I sure didn’t—because writing a good piece is so hard by itself, and then finding an audience even harder. I’ve had more good breaks than bad, but it’s still really, really hard to write a good story, whether fiction or nonfiction, and I feel like I’m even yet on the learning curve. Teaching in itself is a way of moving up that curve, though. I love working with people I like on behalf of a pursuit that I love, and there’s no doubt it’s made me a better, more intentional writer.


Jemiscoe Chambers-Black is a current degree candidate at The Mountainview Low Residency MFA in Fiction and Nonfiction.

AUTHOR SPOTLIGHT: Daniel Charles Ross

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Daniel Charles Ross is a retired U.S. Navy Reserve chief petty officer as well as a former military police investigator. He was also a student for a time at the Mountainview MFA program. His education and experience are both on full display in his debut novel, ‘Force No One,’ a military-thriller which he self-published in 2018. Daniel was kind enough to let me ask him about his new novel, his writing process, and tips he has for self-publishing.

-W. Leander

So, tell us a little about yourself. Where are you from?
I'm a Detroit boy living in Lima, Ohio--home of the nation's only remaining main battle tank plant. We moved here in 2006 when we had our third child under three, and we needed to live near grandparents, cousins, and babysitters.  I'm the oldest of seven--six boys and a girl--none of whom are writers but me. And the jury is still out on me.

Have you always wanted to write?
Writing is evidently imprinted in my DNA. In elementary school, I was drawing fake newspaper stories and layouts on large sheets of paper, complete with a comics section. In middle school and high school, I was always on the newspaper staff, ending up in my senior year as the co-editor of our bi-weekly paper and student literary magazine. I went into the Army not long after high school (since color TV but before the internet. Or cellphones.) as a military police investigator, and didn't write a word for seven years that wasn't a police report. But then the bug returned and I had a few pieces freelanced in the Army's European Stars and Stripes newspaper, and sold a fiction story to a men's magazine. That's when I decided to get out of the Army and freelance full-time. I didn't know then that the definition of "freelancing" was "unemployment without the tax advantages." But after a time, I was privileged to write on staff for Popular Mechanics, Motor Trend, and Car and Driver.

Congratulations on the publication of your new book. Can you tell us a little about it? And how did the idea come to you? Thanks! Force No One grew out of work that was to have been my Mountainview MFA thesis, guided along by Merle Drown and Rick Carey. Regrettably, I only completed the first year of the program when my VA edu-bennies ran out. But in that time--including wonderful feedback from the likes of Jo Knowles, Mark Sundeen, Ann Wertz Garvin, Diane Les Becquets, Amy Irvine, Craig Childs, Katherine Towler, and my amazing cohort--I got what I was there for: Affirmation, and actionable guidance. It's sort of a hybrid crime/military thriller with two overlapping narrative circles that come together in the last "act." A homicide in Detroit usually doesn't raise many eyebrows, but a victim is found with a business card from a Department of Homeland Security enforcement cell no one's ever heard of. FBI Special Agent Amber "Corvette" Watson and Detroit Police homicide detective Sgt. Tracey Lexcellent are a joint task force who catch the case. With a disgraced U.S. Army Ranger who can forget nothing and a black-budget CIA team in tow, they must solve the murder before terrorists parachute into open-air Comerica Park during the opening ceremonies of the World Series to blow themselves up and kill thousands on live television. Yes, of course it's fiction: I have the Detroit Tigers in the World Series.

What was your writing process like? How long did it take for you to write the book? Did you outline the whole story ahead of time?
I had a no-kidding important running start with the boost I received from my MFA year in 2015; there is no substitute for exposure to people who know more than we do, and I didn't know jack. I hammered away at it, in addition to writing other things that are still pending, but the constant novel revision and revisions of revisions drastically slowed my pace. Better to get it down first and then revise; I was "smoothing" as I went along, at least I thought. That was a monumental time-waster, when the real smoothing would come in later drafts. I wasn't an outliner, either, which I'm changing for the sequel. I "pants" it as if watching a movie unspool in my head, seeing the scenes that came one after another and just transcribing them. The fallout of this was having to go back several times to plant justifications for what I'd written much broader later in the narrative. I believe strongly in letting the story go where it wants, but I now believe that process wants adult supervision, too.

What was the path to publication like for you? Was it different from what you expected?
"Path to publication" is a fun term; yes, different than I foolishly expected. When I thought the mss was ready, the first agent I queried was a guy who reps a long-time, very successful thriller writer I read and admire. I thought, He must get what we're doing; surely he's My Guy. Following submission guidelines, I sent the Q-letter and the first five pages about 4:30 on a Friday. Before 6:30, he emailed me back from his phone asking for the full. Sheesh, I thought, freaking out, who says it's so hard to land an agent? I sent him the full--and he had it five months, finally declining in a thoughtful email the gist of which was he didn't connect with the characters. One hundred and three additional queries later, I formed a small press (ForcePoseidon.com) with Mike Hancock (09) to put out our work and that of our talented friends and equally under-represented authors. My thriller is the first "artisanal" result of this process and a proof-of-concept that seems to be working out well. We're reviewing additional projects for publication in the first quarter of next year.

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Now that you have completed your novel and published it, looking back is there any advice you would give to aspiring writers? Do the work first, the work being the writing. Finish it in the smooth in Word or Scrivener or in ballpoint on legal pads, whatever works for you, before you seek representation, if that's your goal. Only query once your work is final-final, because when that email comes back two hours after you sent in your Q, you want to respond instantly. If you decide to self-publish, you will still tweak and line edit (sometimes just for typesetting reasons) and maybe even make big changes once your words are laid into InDesign or Vellum, but don't hurry that process. Keep learning. And just write. Getting it down is the foundation of everything that follows. Edit ruthlessly, because that's what the gatekeepers (and readers) will do. That doesn't always mean "trim." When that first agent said he failed to connect with my characters, I plowed back in there and turned up the wick on almost everything. That mss submitted to him was 97,000 words. The novel on Amazon today (bit.ly/ForceNoOne) in print and pixels is 113,000. I expect the sequel, Force Majeure, to roll out at about 90,000 words.

As a self-publisher, do you have advice on that process? We've all seen self-published work that is, charitably, not ready for prime time. Simply uploading a Word doc to Amazon or IngramSpark or wherever, slapping on some low-resolution stock art, and pushing the Send button may be psychically satisfying to you and your mom, but few people who don't know you will respond that well. It just doesn't look like a professionally produced book. Our Force Poseidon was established to be as utterly professional as the Big Five, but with a broader view and less bureaucracy. I've been a writer, editor, photographer, and designer for decades, but we still sought input from beta readers and other pro-grade editors. That said, the editing, cover, and book design were ultimately my responsibility: My name is on the cover. If you don't have those skills, do not be shy about seeking help from professionals who will only make your work shine. If anyone has questions about the process of querying, self-publishing, or anything else, I can be reached at DCR@genuineDCR.com. I never close. Finally, have the confidence in your work that you want an agent or publisher to have. We're writers, creators, and self-doubt is encoded in us at the cellular level. The Mountainview MFA is one of the best ways to access the training and expertise from genuine, published authors who will make your journey better.


Daniel Charles Ross—DCR—attended Mountainview MFA in 2015. The thriller, Force No One, was to be his thesis. Visit his website genuinedcr.com.

The Little Things

by Jillian Avalon

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As writers, we make our worlds real through details. Part of asking a reader to trust you is reassuring them with little things that feel right, familiar, accurate. Even a small mistake can throw a reader out of the narrative. We can’t get everything right for every reader, but we do have some responsibility to find solid details that suit the story and the setting, to inhabit the world fully.

The novel I’m working on is recent history, but most of it is before I was born, while my parents were still young, and not what I “know” from my own experiences. I do my best to learn as much as I can. I read books. I watch documentaries and miniseries. I listen to podcasts about politics and music in the era. I make special Pandora stations. I interview my mother for everything I can get and look around for people with longer memories, so I can interview for more.

I have come to realize that this kind of research gives me an overview, a big picture, and it’s helpful. What it doesn’t give me, necessarily, is details. A few do pop up. I did learn from Pattie Boyd’s book that models in the sixties were responsible for their own makeup and bringing their own accessories. I wondered about bus lines in 1956 and was able to find certain stops on a long-running line that had stayed the same. But the most interesting details of research take me by surprise and remind me how much I don’t know.

I watch a lot of British mysteries, and lately I’ve been plowing my way through the Endeavour series, set in Oxford in the mid-1960s. In a small scene where a secretary decides to say something she’s remembered, she places a call to the main character by first pulling off her earring and then dialing the phone—starting with letters, then numbers—to pass on her information. I had three thoughts fly through my brain.

1.     Women took off their earrings to make phone calls? That would be so inconvenient.

2.     Did she just pull off her earring? Is that like how in movies people tug off necklaces instead of using the clasps without breaking anything, or were clip-ons the main earrings in the sixties?

3.     I wonder what the history of telephone numbers in the UK was. When did they switch to numbers-only dialing?

My mother was able to answer the first two, but she admitted she’d never have thought about a detail like that when she was telling me about the sixties. Women didn’t really pierce their ears, and thus pulling off an earring for comfort before making a call wasn’t a big deal—it was the norm! But those kinds of details are the ones that make something feel real, feel period. It threw me out of the piece because I didn’t know people did that, but it might have thrown someone else out of the piece if she hadn’t pulled off her earring.

She didn’t know when they changed to all-digit dialing, so I had to dip into a two-hour hole of research to learn all the particulars of phone numbers in England from the late fifties to 1995 (when the area codes were changed to the most recent usage). But if I hadn’t watched that show, I wouldn’t have dreamed of doing the research.

While revising this post, I happened to be listening to a BBC News podcast from earlier in the month discussing the new all-digital format of a magazine called New Musical Express. I’d never heard of it, and the bulletin almost flitted across my conscious mind while I pondered the merits of cutting or deleting a particular paragraph. When the broadcaster announced that NME made its fame in the 60’s by following the big bands of the era, I paused the podcast, cursed myself for not keeping my notes handy, and scrambled around the house to find the journal in which I was keeping detail tidbits for the novel. When I pressed play, I took down particulars and jotted down a few questions to dig into later:

What were some of their most famous covers of the period? What sort of “following around” articles did they dig up in the 60’s? Who were some of the more obscure new artists they promoted in the 70’s?

I saved the podcast episode, organized the questions in order of relevance, and made two promises to myself. First, I will now keep dedicated journals anywhere I might consume accidentally useful media content, including next to the tv remote, right beneath my phone cord, in the glovebox, and in my purse. Second, I’m scouring the internet for anything I can find about NME this weekend. Probably a sliver of it will end up in the novel, but that might be what it takes to find those key details.

Do you have to know everything about a time or a topic to write? No. You just pay attention to the world and be willing to dive into the deep end of a detail for research. So, to amend an old favorite:

Write what you know; learn what you don’t. Repeat.