Researching fiction (NaNoWriMo update #3)

For more on researching for fiction, go to the main research page


Here I am at the end of day 8 of NaNoWriMo.  My current total word count is 25,504.

I know that makes it seem I’ve spent every waking moment of the past week writing, but really, I’ve managed to work in more than my share of reading and research, and I have this week learned a fantastic amount of information, some vital and much trivial and some deceptively important but tiny in size, all of it necessary to the novel I’m writing for NaNoWriMo. It seems like a lot of work for what is supposed to be a haphazard and frenetically composed string of text, but this is an historical and regional novel, and the details of time (the US Civil War) and region (the bayous, reed brakes and prairie grasslands of southwest Louisiana) and culture (predominantly Cajun, but a watered-down, Anglicized Cajun) are indispensible to the progress of the novel. And besides, I love to learn. This wouldn’t surprise my father, who used to share volumes of the Bathroom Trivia Books with me until I began reciting passages from them at random and often inappropriate occasions. Nor would it surprise my wife, who once patiently suffered through my reading nearly half the text of The Left-hand Turn Around the World to her aloud in bed just because I found it so damned fascinating. This is what I do: I learn, I distill, and then I share, in this case through writing.

So as a result of the writing the first half of my NaNoWriMo novel, I now know the following (I’ve omitted links so you can do your own research):

  • how to build a variety of traditional Acadian and Cajun houses from the ground up, using traditional materials and antique tools
  • how to build a variety of crawfish traps of both wood and net, and what is the best bait to use in which season
  • what a rougarou is and how to defeat it
  • what weaponry and clothing and other gear were common among both Union and Confederate troops in the late US Civil War — and the slang they used to describe it
  • a whole slew of Cajun slang and a handful of truly fantastic Cajun names (my favorite, and the name of a character in my novel: Hippolyte)
  • a little bit about flora, fauna, and geography of southwestern Louisiana, including the reed brakes, the marshes and swamps, the prairie grasses, and the cherniers (a delightful name); several marsh birds and gulls, and the beautiful but now-endangered red wolves, and
  • a great deal more than I ever thought I would about every hurricane season from 1856 to 1865. (You thought 2005 was bad — you should have seen 1860!)

My friend Tom Franklin’s first novel, Hell at the Breech, was an historical book (so was his second novel). He often is invited to conference panels and workshop discussions to discuss the research process in composing an historical novel, but his comments usually boil down to two points: 1) He doesn’t like doing research. It feels limiting in some ways, and he claims he only really was able to break into his first novel when he set aside the historical facts and just wrote the damned book. But, 2) he loves historical detail for the authenticity it adds. In his award-winning story collection, Poachers, he littered his fiction with such authenticity, regional and cultural details he referred to as “STP stickers” (as in, “None of my trucks had STP stickers on them, and I knew I needed to add them. That’s not a detail you can make up. That’s real.”  These comments are from interviews I did for my masters thesis on his work, back in 2001). With his historical fiction, Franklin likes to tell people, he picked up a reprint copy of the Sears catalog from around the period he was writing about (the late 1890s). In those days, Franklin explains, you could buy almost anything through a Sears catalog, from razors and flower vases and clothes to shotguns and automobiles and even houses. So if he ever found himself stuck in the novel and unsure what to write next, he’d simply pick up the Sears catalog and find something interesting and start describing it, then how it might be used, and assign it to a character and let him or her use it, and the fiction would pick up from there.

I’ve long admired Tom Franklin and am not shy about taking my cues from him, and on this novel I’ve been doing something similar. Today, for instance, I sent my old woman character out in the marsh to collect crawfish from her traps. I had some sense of the process, having come from a fishing family on one side and a gaggle of half-Cajuns on the other, but I’d never set nor collected the traps myself and decided to stop the fiction with the woman in midstride, and I set to researching crawfish traps. I found information not only on what the traps looked like but also how to build them by hand, how to set them, and how to collect from them. I researched contemporary traps as well as antique traps. I looked into the variety of baits used, the best types of traps for different bodies of water, how the season and the temperature affects crawfishing. I watched videos of crawfishers out in their pirogues or wading through the shallows of a creek, hauling in their lines — I listened to the comments they made about the crawfish and to the accents, the patterns in their voices. I looked into recipes for crawfish both contemporary and historical. And then — and only then — I sat down to write. That research resulted in fewer than 200 words of prose, but that’s 200 words of prose I didn’t have before, 200 words where previously I’d had two dozen, and the passage is packed with details I hope will sound authentic. Better still, I now am armed with the information to reuse it later if I need to — that old woman has returned with her catch of crawfish but she hasn’t yet cooked them, and I might yet pull a half a page or more out of a crawfish boil supper if I need to.

Tomorrow the Civil War ends in my novel, but the story carries on, and I intend as much as possible to look up details of the aftermath of the war in southern Louisiana, to read scholarly articles and contemporary letters in the Times-Picayune and to look over photographs and epitaphs and anything else I can find, but I have half this book yet to write and a lot of authenticity still to build into it.

And I’m loving every minute, every word of it.


Speaking of every word.  Here are some excerpts from the past few days (from now on my excerpts will get fewer and farther between as I push through the last half):

from day 5:

The old woman stepped from the plank into the marsh where they’d killed the cavalrymen and she waded out till the water was at her chin, then she swam until she could touch again. There the sodden weeds deep in the marsh sucked at her feet and whenever she came this way now she grew nervous, worried that the bodies they sunk in the marsh instead of dumping down the well as she preferred had not forgotten her transgressions and waited there in the murk to pull her down to their revenge. She swam a ways further with her knees bent high and her toes curled, her gaunt arms pulled hard on the water and the salty marsh lapping up her chin to her lips. But finally she could dogpaddle no more and she let down her feet into the soft bottom and mucked up through the weeds to crawl ashore on the sandy bank beyond. She jogged panting up the grassy ridge of the cheniers and paused at the top where she gazed across the marsh to the thin line of the Gulf out beyond. Even from here the soft crash of surf was audible and she could smell the pungent piscine scent of the beach. She put up a hand to shade her eyes and scanned the flat line of the horizon till she found the light blot she was looking for on the rim, and she wallowed out across the marsh toward it. For several long minutes there was only lighter salty marshwater sluicing her ankles and her own huffing breath to match the lick of surf, but after a while she climbed a shallow rise and walked it till she met the girl, standing at the lip of a tidal cove, tossing baited lines out into the water. She wore a boy’s breeches with the legs rolled up and a wide straw hat. Beside her a bucket clacked with a half dozen angry crabs scrabbling inside, seeking purchase enough in the soft wood to escape but never succeeding. The woman said nothing for a while, only watched and caught her breath. The girl’s arm jerked slightly and she sorted among the lines in her fist until she found the one with tension and hauling it in, hand over hand, to collect the small crab that clung there.

from day 6:

A sharp gust rocked them on their small ridge and they were awash in the dueling rush of the rustling trees back on the chernier and crashing Gulf before them. The girl reeled in another crab and dropped it clacking in the bucket. Out on the horizon a bank of clouds was rising up in shades of indigo and steel, a feathery brush drifting down from the lip to the edge of the Gulf. The woman raised an arm and passed her hand over the horizon as though petting the clouds, trying to smooth them out.

You remember the year before the war, all them storms we had?

I remember. It was one them storms brought my family here and another made me near an orphan.

That was a hell of a year, girl. Three hurricanes in two months, just poured on over us like the flood of Noah. God’s own wrath, like we was being prejudged for what only he alone knew we was about to engage in. Did you know the first one hit on the very anniversary of that Last Island catastrophe in fifty-six? You wasn’t here then, of course, but Last Island is a story they was still telling and then here come that trinity of storms. There must be a reason to it, that first hurricane hitting on the same day as its predecessor. Didn’t hurt us much beyond all the wind and rain, was just a rowdy storm but it scared us and we’d no idea what was coming.

The girl reeled in a crab. She sorted the empty lines from her fist and handed them to the woman to coil and tie. She said, Our ship come in to land ahead of the storm, beached our ship right up here in these salty marshes and unloaded us into the water. That old captain must have had some idea. I think I must have had some idea, sick as I was on that ship and glad for land even if it was this old marsh. I don’t recollect, though, was you and yours among them that came to help us up the chernier and into the brake, out to town?

I was among them though I don’t remember you, girl. Hippolyte and Remy was out in the canes doing what they could though it was fool’s work, nigger’s work. I think those boys must have gone into Leesville to get theirselves a drink, though, because I don’t imagine how else he could first have seen you. I didn’t allow no drinking in those days, not in my house.

You still don’t.

Not having any drink about ain’t the same as not understanding the need for one. Times like these change a body’s perspective.

Why was your men out in the canes anyway? You said ain’t no one knew what was coming.

I meant we didn’t know the magnitude of God’s plans, but we sure knew it was something. Like when you was little and knew you’d got in trouble but your mama told you to wait till your papa gets home, and then all that day you know he’s coming but can’t imagine in your child’s head what he’s gonna do. The weather that summer it’d been awful hot, the air so think you’d think it was smoke not just the humidity, and both sunrise and sundown alike was heavy with mist and bloodred in the coming or dying light. We knew for certain the sky was going to break open sooner or later. There here come that cloud, one great one like God’s own anvil somehow floating around up there and waiting to fall on us. They was some strange light in that cloud, not like no lightning I ever saw, not just the blue or yellow flashes you see but all sorts of colors including colors I ain’t even got words for and utterly silent, no thunder ever to reach our ears. And then it just passed on. Weren’t no wind nor rain, just a show of what we was in for. So we all knew something was coming.

from day 8:

They stepped out to the front of the hut, sat in the steamy night on a stump and an upturned bucket. The sky glowed an eerie shade of burnt ocher, a thick quilt of cloud slung low in the sky and the evening light unearthly over the marsh. The air soupy and astir with cricketsong. The old woman rubbed her neck and looked about.

Shoot, the air’s so thick now they ain’t no breeze.

No, the girl said.

They listened to the song a while, the girl staring seemingly into nothing but her gaze to the sky near the direction of Buford’s house. The old woman watched her watching the brake, and she thought of something to say. Finally she closed her eyes as if in memory and then looked at the girl.

I was dreaming earlier, the woman said. Dreamed Remy come back from the war.

The girl looked at her. You miss him something terrible, don’t you.

Don’t you?

Sure, mother, I miss him.

You ain’t never even cried over him, I noticed. Ain’t you sad your husband is dead?

The girl glowered at the woman, tightened her fingers over her bare knees.

I am sad, yes maam. But he ain’t coming back. You and me learned enough about death these last few years to know they ain’t no use in pining. They don’t come back, they don’t even hear you.

The woman leaned on her stool to touch the girl’s hand on her knee. The girl pulled it back and stared hard at the woman.

I’m sorry, the woman said, I am. I didn’t mean to accuse you of nothing. And I know you must be lonely, too. An old woman ain’t no kind of company for a girl such as yourself. She closed her eyes, then she opened them bright in and smiled at the girl.

I tell you what. I’ll find you a good husband. Soon’s this war is over I’ll go on into Leesburg with you, we’ll go to that hotel again and we’ll find you someone good to marry.

The girl looked hard at her then out across the brake, in the direction of Buford’s house.

The woman continued undeterred.

When this war ends the men’ll come back, not just the deserters and the ruffians but the officers, good men of some distinction. We’ll find us such a one from among them and get the cane fields going again. Them’s part yours now, you know.

I don’t know nothing about no cane fields.

You’ll learn, we’ll find you a good sugar farmer and you’ll learn.

The girl made to shake her head but then they heard loud reports out in the distance and they bolted upright, the bucket toppling over. A faint orange glow in the clouds and a black plume of smoke rising out to the west. Another explosion and the rapid pop of riflefire.

Damn, they’s fighting out there!

The woman grabbed her by the arm, tugged her toward the hut.

We best get started that direction. We can’t wait no more for them to come wandering in to us, we got to get closer.

They dashed inside and dressed quick and silent in the darkest clothes they had, grabbed their various weapons, armed heavier than they’d ever been, and they rushed out into the night, racing stealthily through the rushes toward the ominous glow in the clouds.

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