A great story cannot achieve excellence unless it has been faithfully and completely researched. Trying to make due without is rather like sewing a fabulous gown only to tuck the bottom hem into your underwear the night of the ball. The dancer comes off looking utterly ridiculous.
This hasn’t been too much of a dilemma for me, mostly because I love research. (And I can’t dance.) When I have a story in mind, my search for information becomes a treasure hunt; every fact is a nugget, every note a gem. Old volumes, crinkly pages, the musty smell of years – I thrive on it! I even like those microscopic insects that creep across the type, because then I know I‘ve entered a place that’s lain untouched for a long time. It’s a rediscovery, like finding pictures on a cave wall, and I relish it. (It‘s okay, my husband thinks I’m nuts, too.)
But research isn’t all about books. Sometimes, to really nail a description or lend legitimacy to my writing, research boils down to experience. After all, how can I convince my readers that sleeping on a straw tick mattress really sucks unless I’ve tried it? How do I describe the view from a mountain if I haven’t seen it for myself? I suppose both can be done, but if it’s possible, I’m going to try it, see it, experience it, before I write about it.
This week has been very entertaining as my kids and I have merged our vacation with my research. My current project takes place in a lumber camp, so we visited Hartwick Pines near Grayling, Michigan. This state park includes some of the only old-growth forest still found in the state, and a walk beneath the majestic giants gave me a proper sense of awe and the vocabulary necessary to do justice to such a setting.
Hartwick also has a logging museum, with costumed interpreters and exhibits that include full-size camp buildings and actual equipment – not just peaveys and cant hooks, but logging wheels, road sprinklers and snow-rollers restored to their original condition. I was frantically jotting down impressions while the “lumberjack” gave my kids instructions in washing lice out of clothing as they scrubbed long johns on an old-fashioned washboard.
A few days later, we attended the annual Lumberjack Festival in Wolverine, Michigan. It was a little more entertaining and a little less educational; nevertheless, I collected a few treasures. For starters, we took in a program by a folk artist who shared his wealth of knowledge on the lumber camps, throwing in several old songs and a tall tale or two. Then I hooked up with the Michigan Forest Association, which made available some of their fabulous resources. Next, the kids and I watched a weight-pulling competition between massive draft horses. I don‘t know yet if they were the same working breeds so indispensable to the industry long ago, but it was an awesome display of power. The sight of those bulging muscles, straining hindquarters and thrusting necks was an unexpected gift. Until I witnessed them, I didn’t know I was unprepared to describe them. Finally, we observed some modern lumberjacks at their games, and I took the opportunity to try my hand at the cross cut saw and my feet at log-rolling (which is far more difficult and wetter than I had imagined).
I’m still only a quarter of the way through my rough draft, but I’m well on my way to a legitimate setting and the important details that make a work of historical fiction feel authentic. Besides that, I can check off one homeschool lesson that I won’t have to teach out of books next year.