Thursday, March 23, 2017

YA Guy Researches... History!

Years ago, in the days before YA Guy was YA Guy, I wrote a number of works of literary criticism. (That's what you do when you have a doctorate in English and teach at a college.) Eventually, I decided I'd rather write my own literature than write about it--but I'm still very proud of my academic books, which I think are well-written in their own right. I don't recommend them to the non-scholar--they're written for an academic audience, full of language and concepts only specialists fully appreciate--but I had fun writing them, and I'm glad they're out there.

One of the things I loved most about academic writing was the research that went into it. For each of my books, I spent years reading, filling up my file cabinets with photocopies of obscure seventeenth- through nineteenth-century documents, many of them accessible only on microfilm or microfiche, some of them available only at specialized archives. I found that, though technically I was a literary scholar, I ended up doing as much historical research as literary research; I wanted to know as much as possible about the time in which the works of literature were written in order to understand them in their own context. At a certain point, in fact, the line between "historical" and "literary" research blurred; much of what we know about history we know through written documents, and when you're reading the journal of an eighteenth-century traveler among the southeastern Indians or the spiritual autobiography of a nineteenth-century Ojibwa convert to Christianity, are you reading "history" or "literature"? To me, history and literature have always been intertwined if not inseparable, and I loved exploring the many ways in which they come into contact with each other.

Which is also why I'm so excited about my new work-in-progress, a historical novel called Polar. Based on Commander Robert E. Peary's final North Pole voyage, which took place in the years 1908-1909, Polar is speculative history, not straightforward; I take considerable liberties with the facts in order to tell the story I want to tell, a story that includes some paranormal elements. But I'm still having to do a ton of research to understand the world of the time, the biographies of the real-life people involved, the details of Polar exploration, and more. And I'm coming across a lot of great historical material in the process.

For example, check out this cover page to the New York Times from September 7, 1909, the date on which the paper first reported Peary's ostensible (though now disputed) discovery of the geographic North Pole:

Or take a look at this photograph of Peary dressed in full Eskimo (Inuit) garb on the deck of the steamship Roosevelt, named after then-President Theodore Roosevelt, who sponsored Peary's final voyage (and who plays a walk-on part in Polar):

There's much, much more, but that'll do for a start. I can't wait to see what other gems I discover as I continue the research process.

Writing science fiction, as I've done for my first three YA novels--including the forthcoming Freefall--involves a degree of research; I've had to learn about parasitic organisms, deep-space travel, and more. But it's especially fun to be doing the kind of sustained research a historical subject requires.

I guess I could say it's great to be back home.

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