by TWC Founder/Director Judith Lindbergh
What a pleasure to welcome Christina Baker Kline back to The Writers Circle! Our conversation on Wrangling Research*, held Sunday, February 21 via Zoom, proved yet again Christina’s wisdom, candor, and generosity.
In a whopping two-hour conversation, we covered the gamut from inspiration to finding resources, from managing research to making a complex historical novel really move.
Christina, a longtime friend of The Writers Circle, shared her discoveries while writing each of her most recent historical novels: her breakout bestseller Orphan Train, the more intimate A Piece of the World, and her latest, The Exiles, about convict women who transformed Australia in the 19th century.
“With each of these stories, there was a moment when I stumbled onto a fact and felt this sort of full-body tingle like a spidey sense. That was both terrifying and exciting.”
Whose Story Is It Anyway?
While discussing The Exiles, Christina acknowledged a very real question all writers must consider: who has the right to tell the story. “All the red alerts were there: You’re not Australian. You have no ties to the story.”
With publishing finally embracing diverse voices and authors whose stories reflect their unique historical and cultural experiences, writers face a potentially perilous choice when writing a story not our own. Christina shared, “There were all kinds of reasons not to do it. And I could’ve easily pushed back. I even considered it. But what I’ve learned is that usually when I have that feeling, it’s because of a unique combination of things in my past that led me to it. So it’s partly trusting the feeling. And then maybe, even when the book is well underway, coming to understand why you want to do it.”
For Christina, researching thoroughly and deeply was critical to doing justice to the story of these Australian women. She talked about the countless books she read, and the many experts she contacted via email and met in person. She also clued us in to one of her go-to resources: “Docents and tour guides are the best people in the world to talk to. They carry a ton of information with them and generally like to share it. That’s why they volunteer at museums and historical sites.”
Details, Details, Details
Christina’s methods for managing her research are “extremely laborious and uninspired…. I take pretty detailed notes all the way through. For example, in researching Exiles, I hammered out a 50-page, single-spaced outline from my sources of that time period—what really happened, fruits and vegetables introduced at the time, flora and fauna…. This ‘bible’ was the backbone of the book that wasn’t about my plot. It was about the time period and what I needed to know…. When I write, I keep those notes around me. Sometimes I use them directly and sometimes I don’t, but they’re always a way to fact-check my book.”
Most challenging, perhaps, was writing about the real-life muse for Andrew Wyeth’s famous painting Christina’s World , the subject of her novel, A Piece of the World. “That was a stressful burden to take on: the responsibility of representing real people and doing it right. It can be terrifying, especially if they’re still alive.”
Christina traveled to all the locations of her stories. But is it possible to write authentically without traveling, especially as we struggle through the travel-restricted pandemic? “I think it’s absolutely possible. …Lily King did not go to Borneo [to research her novel Euphoria] but she did immerse herself in that world.… But I don’t think The Exiles would be the same novel if I hadn’t gone there. The same is true for all three of the books I’ve written that are set in the past. I’m a hands-on learner. Traveling really made a huge difference for me.”
From Plodding to Plotting
Technologically, Christina’s pretty old-school. “I use Word. I write long hand, then type my notes in. So I really am a Luddite in that way.” And she doesn’t hire a research assistant. “I did one time and I regretted it. …I need to do the research myself. … I need to take notes. I need to get it in my own body. I can’t take someone else’s notes about what they found important because nobody else is going to think of the stuff that I find important.”
Christina was honest about her life-long struggles with plotting. But she has discovered that using the Hero’s Journey and the screenwriting beat-sheet tricks described in Save the Cat help her propel her narrative forward.
She also tries to start every section in the middle of the action. “There’s no throat clearing. There’s no setting a scene. You’re just in it. I did that in Orphan Train. I made sure every first line was a propellant into the scene…. Conflict, conflict, conflict! You know, when characters are saying ‘no’ to each other at every turn in every scene, in ways big and small. They’re always stymieing each other in some way. That’s the way to keep the story going.”
Along with answering many questions from the audience during the event, Christina plans to answer a few more through her Wednesday Writing Tips posted on Facebook and Instagram. Her feed is full of valuable advice about the writing life. Follow her!