The big surprise for me, in writing Seven Stories Up, was that I hadn’t entirely realized I was writing a historical novel at all… until I suddenly was. That is to say I’d never written much about history before, and didn’t realize how much research would be required for every single page of text, every visual detail. Does that sound dumb? It does now, to me. But it’s the truth.
Of course, I didn’t want my book to be ABOUT history. I didn’t want it to read like a text book. SEVEN STORIES UP is set in 1937, but it isn’t about the Holocaust, or the Depression. It’s very much a book about two girls. It’s about how a true friend can change a person’s life. About how that is a kind of magic.
The basic plot is this—a girl (Annie) who has never met her grandmother before encounters the old woman on her deathbed, and finds her to be a lonely harpy. Then Annie falls asleep in her grandmother’s apartment (which is a suite in the old family-run hotel) and when she wakes up, it’s 1937! In this way, she meets her grandmother (Molly) as a lonely sick little girl and alters history.
Sounds simple enough, right?
Wrong. When you write about history, every single detail has to be confirmed. Annie fingers a phone cord, and suddenly I need to know what a phone cord looked like in 1937. She dashes out of the way of a trolley car in the street, and I need to figure out which streets the trolley cars ran on in 1937 Baltimore. She runs down a brick alley, and I need to look up information on the introduction of asphalt to the alleys of that particular neighborhood.
What did toothpaste taste like? Did underpants have elastic in them? Did kids eat peanut butter? Had pizza been introduced to America? What did bathrooms look like? How big was a movie theater popcorn? Where might one see a photobooth? And how much did that cost? How was asthma treated? What did a candy bar cost? In the end, the book took me two years longer than I expected. Partly because of the time-travel element, and partly because the book had to match up to BIGGER THAN A BREAD BOX. But a big part of the slowness of writing was the research. I blew past my deadline, and then I blew past the makeup deadline. I felt awful about it, but in the end, I feel pretty certain there are no glaring errors. So that’s nice.
It’s a funny way to think about writing. That the goal is to be “error free.” It’s not something I’ve ever thought about before. It’s a little infuriating to do all that work, and then realize that if I’ve done it correctly, nobody will notice at all.
That, to me, is the goal for historical fiction. That I don’t want to have made any errors, but I also don’t want people to be AWARE of reading my research. I want them to be swept up in the relationships and the adventure, not the history.
So if I’ve done this right, nobody will ever appreciate how much work I put into it. Sigh.
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