Diving Down the Rabbit Hole

When Alice went down the rabbit hole, she found a wonderland of bizarre characters and strange goings-on she had never dreamed of experiencing. At one point, she talks to the Cheshire Cat for navigational assistance.

Alice: Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?

The Cheshire Cat: That depends a good deal on where you want to get to.

Alice: I don’t much care where.

The Cheshire Cat: Then it doesn’t much matter which way you go.

Alice: …So long as I get somewhere.

The Cheshire Cat: Oh, you’re sure to do that, if only you walk long enough.

When I go down a rabbit hole as a writer, I find myself wandering aimlessly through a confusing maze that dead-ends as often as not. Unlike Alice, though, I don’t just tumble willy nilly into a rabbit hole. Instead, I dive headfirst into the Wonderland called research, and before I take the plunge I care very much about where I’m going … though the clear goal I begin with rarely corresponds with my eventual destination.

The first time I experienced the utter obsession that are these writerly rabbit holes is when I was writing War Makes Men of Boys, my book about my father’s experiences during World War II. I had a plethora of source material – Dad’s letters home to family; historical accounts from his unit, his infantry division, the entirely European Theater of Operations; materials from the museums commemorating the camps where he did his basic training. Plus photos, his late-life memoir, and much more.

You’d think all of this would be enough, but each artifact just raised more questions. Where was this place? Who were these people? Did that really happen? What did others think? And I pursued these questions with dogged determination. I dove down each rabbit hole.

One of them, in particular, sticks in my mind. Dad often wrote in his letters about a girl back home in Illinois. I called her Caroline and I will admit to being more than a bit obsessed with her, perhaps because in one letter Dad tells his mother that “I guess you could call her my girlfriend.” Sadly, Dad was gone and I couldn’t ask him about this mystery woman. I asked Mom and got nothing. I scoured his memoir and his old yearbooks and got nothing. Then I turned to Google and eventually figured out Caroline’s identity through a newspaper article about her granddaughter. After numerous emails with said granddaughter and her mother, I was told under no uncertain terms that Caroline was definitely NOT Dad’s girlfriend. That she had married very soon after the war to a merchant marine. More Internet searching, this time of local newspaper records of the time. Yes, there was the marriage announcement. And a few months before that, a notice of the groom’s divorce. Goodness. What tawdry things might have been going on? Was Caroline a home-wrecker? And did Dad return after the war thinking he had a girlfriend and instead found her married?

Of course, none of this matters. Not one lick. But I spent hours — days! — scurrying around that totally unproductive rabbit hole.

Perhaps I decided to write historical fiction because of my love of rabbit holes. I might be making stuff up in the novel I’m writing, but I have to do it in a way that’s true to the world of Chicago in 1888. Where did the streetcar lines go? What did that hotel lobby look like? When did gaslights begin on Chicago streets and when did the statue of Lincoln go up in Lincoln Park?

The fact that I’m writing about the newspaper business – and that newspaper accounts are available for my perusal – is both helpful and an utter time sink if I’m not careful. My readers probably won’t care that the society ball I’m describing really did happen on the day and in the place and with the people I’ve recounted. My readers probably won’t consult reports from the 1888 Republican Convention to be sure I got the details of the nominating process right. My readers probably won’t double-check the Tribune display ads from Christmas to be sure I’ve assigned the right prices to the merchandise at Marshall Field’s. And my readers probably won’t dig up the menu from “The New York Kitchen” to confirm that the restaurant’s slogan was “No Scraps Taken Back into the Kitchen and Cooked over again at this Restaurant.”

Nope, my readers probably won’t do any of this. But I like knowing that if they did check, they’d find that everything (well, except for all the parts I’m making up!) is as true to the events of 1888 Chicago as possible.

These are the joys of writing historical fiction. Learning about a world in finely-textured detail. Having that jolt of excitement – this is SO COOL, I tell myself, or my cats, or anyone else nearby – when you find a detail that you know you can use. And even if others (even the cats, sadly) don’t think it’s all that cool, knowing that each little detail is helping you build a time and place that your fictional characters can traverse in a way that is vivid and true.

And if you waste way too much time on totally unproductive Internet searches? Well, such is the nature of rabbit holes.

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