Thursday, July 2, 2015

Research: Diving Right In! by Anne Nesbet

Forgive me if I look like my mind is elsewhere; I just got back from a research trip to the East Coast, and I'm still more or less lost in the year 1941. This is a great time for me to be diving into research for a new project, because I just turned in a fairly final revision of CLOUD & WALLFISH (the East Berlin novel coming out from Candlewick in 2016). In fact, I started this trip with a couple of days in Boston, where I had the thrill of meeting my Candlewick editors, Kaylan Adair and Allison Cole, in person for the first time. They are just as perceptive and wonderful and kind in real life as they seem in email. I really love all my editors--I feel deeply grateful for the chance to work with such brilliant and dedicated people.

So it was with a light heart (and many pens and notebooks) that I jumped into my tiny little blue rental car and drove up to Maine, the epicenter of my mother's childhood.
 Although you can find lobster rolls for sale some places, my family's Maine is not the rocky coast the state is so famous for, but rather the rocky farming country inland from Portland. My project this past week was reading through a whole year's worth (1941!) of the local newspaper, which is kept in Hogwarts-sized volumes at the Sanford-Springvale Historical Society.
I find that reading right through an extended run of a newspaper submerges you into that time and place: you learn what world events looked like from the point of view of southern Maine; you find out which children brought their "dental certificates" into class and were allowed, therefore, to "add another brick to Humpty Dumpty's wall"; you read about haying contests and aluminum drives
and "honor guests" at parties and broken legs and train accidents and union work and forest fires and the virtues of drinking milk
and patriotic pageants and draftees' letters home from Georgia and new longjohns with "Stretchy Seats"
and the movies showing that week and new books at the library and . . . well, really, there isn't much you don't hear about! Reading through the newspaper this way is a very intense version of sitting on the porch and listening to your mother chat with all her cousins, which was an important part of our summers when I was little.

The thing about this stage of research is that you don't know yet what's going to be valuable for your story and what's just Fool's Gold, like the mica that's everywhere in the Maine woods.
 For this wonderful moment you get to be omnivorous and gobble it all up; the sorting can wait. I gobbled up the houses and trees and dirt roads, too. I took my daughter to see the family cemetery, down in the woods.
We had the Shaw's Ridge ice cream I had seen advertised in the newspapers in 1941 (more gobbling!). It was disorienting; it was a week of living in two different times at once. It was magical.

All my novels have required a surprising amount of research. I suspect this must be the case for most writers!
Even THE WRINKLED CROWN, which is set in an entirely imaginary world, sent me digging through old books to find out how instruments are made, and how to season wood properly. CLOUD & WALLFISH took me back to 1989, via the old diaries we kept when we lived in East Germany and the many newspaper clippings and books we had collected there. And now this new project has brought me home to my mother's Maine.

What kinds of things have you found yourself looking up recently? 

I do wish you joy in your research, in all the times and all the places!


  1. Fantastic post, Anne! I love the idea of immersing yourself in newspapers of the time period -- rather than just focusing on "facts" you need for the story -- in order to really understand your setting. Sounds like a wonderful and productive trip!

    1. It was an amazing trip in so many ways! The immersion approach to research is something I love, but it is a little like swimming across the whole pool underwater--you have to keep calm when your mind gets skittish and starts demanding immediate oxygen (aka "Productivity Now!!"). I have NEVER felt like the "wasted" time was truly wasted, though, in the end. Nuggets emerge all over the place!

  2. The family cemetery in the woods?! A story right there!

    Thanks, Anne, for showing us glimpses of your research process. I can't wait to see what gems show up in the finished work.

    1. When I was little, there were even stone lambs in that cemetery to mark the graves of some nineteenth-century children, but at some point over the last few decades, those lambs vanished. Not magically, I don't think!


Thanks for adding to the mayhem!