MFA Update: Falling Down the Rabbit Hole

I’m a week late putting together this update, but there’s a good reason. I fell down the rabbit hole.

I realize that in the midst of writing short fiction, novels, serial fiction, participating in a writing contest, reading and writing craft essays–oh yeah, and let’s not forget work for money–that might be vague. The rabbit hole in question is the research rabbit hole.

Genealogy

Let me back up a bit. Back in 2011, I did a lot of genealogy research, because I wasn’t working much then and I was curious. I’d been watching a lot of the show Who do you think you are? I wanted to figure out who I was and where I really came from. My father and cousin had done a lot of research already, but I made a discovery over the course of my research.

One of my ancestors was married twice. We’d had her first married name as her maiden name. The result of this is that I discovered a branch of my family that goes back to some of the founding persons throughout New England.

Of course, I didn’t print out the document like a smart person or seasoned genealogical researcher. No. I bookmarked it. I recently went back to print it out for my records, but the site is gone. Just gone. All of its records are gone with it. So the fact is I could never actually prove that I am descended from some of these people, but I know the truth and that’s really enough.

Inspiration

Let’s fast-forward to present day, and why this tale is relevant.

For my first deadline of the semester (July 25, 2017), I was tasked with writing two short stories–one contemporary, and one historical–among other work. I wrote the contemporary story first and had more fun with it than I thought I would because it was an opportunity to talk about issues close to my heart while using a bit of humor.

Ready and eager to tackle my short historical story–since historical fiction is my favorite genre to write–I opened a book with stories about Colonial America. As I was reading about one of the historical figures, I recognized a name. But from where? Had I researched this person before? I searched through years’ of files…and found nothing.

That’s when I realized I knew the name from my family tree. I confirmed that the individual in question was one and the same, and that’s when I fell down that hole.

I lost five hours that day to internet research. I reached out to historical societies, went to libraries, museums…I’m still doing my research but at the end of the day, I had a deadline to get to. So then it was time to turn my thoughts to how to compose this story, but there was something I had to do first.

I wrote to my mentor and asked permission to turn in a first chapter instead of a complete short story. When she agreed, I was elated for two reasons:

  1. I could easily see this being my thesis. The story is compelling, local, and something I’m passionate about.
  2. Research for one chapter is a lot simpler than for a whole story.

If she’d said no, I would have had to do more research to write. As it was, I was able to get a first chapter written with the research I’d already completed. If this becomes my thesis, it will follow a different process path than any other historical fiction I’d ever written.

Process

Why’s that? Because my process for historical fiction is usually this:

  • Get an idea.
  • Research it for at least a year, if not more.
  • Outline every scene.
  • Draft.
  • Decide the draft is better than the first outline, and re-outline every scene.
  • Draft a new version, and then go into edits and revisions.

If this becomes my thesis, my research will be concurrent with my drafting. I don’t really need an outline because I’m writing about people who actually existed–they already have a timeline. But the relationships, causes, effects, emotions…all of those are up to me.

My usual process for historical fiction has resulted in having a lot of half-finished projects that have to go to the back burner because there’s something missing from each of them. Maybe this other process will work better for me and produce work that feels more complete.

I’m not opposed to trying, even if I have to jump down a few rabbit holes first.

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