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Writing in the weeds

Earlier this week, I posted a picture of this rascal on my instagram as a teaser, and asked if people could identify it. Guys, here it is. The BIG REVEAL.



It's Pokeweed!

Very poisonous, by the way.

Don't eat it or pick it or touch it, unless you know what you're doing and you probably don't.


No, I'm not becoming a naturalist. And please for the love of all that is holy, don't call me a "gardener." I do garden. But only because if I didn't, weeds would consume our property and I would eventually just pull down the shades and stop leaving my house altogether because I'm pathologically averse to messes. Weeds are nothing if not a whole mess. There's a whole metaphor coming....


Much as "gardening" is 70-90% weeding, writing a novel is 63-88% research. (Those numbers are estimates, actual percentages may vary). Pokeweed became a starlet in my story, after I did a whole bunch of research about a whole bunch of plants. I also did research on trains, boats, hats, sewing machines, typewriters, clocks, pianos, quilts, cemeteries, salt, laundries, hair gel, hotels, district court systems, and -- this one was my personal favorite -- what a British person might feel upon her first encounter with a southern biscuit. Biscuit research mostly involved me enlisting my friend Amy, who summoned her community of British culture and dialect aficionados, who came to the mostly unanimous decision that it might seem like a scone.


This partial list of my browser bookmarks (below) demonstrates how much research has to happen to write a novel. Notably absent are sites about segregation and racism, despite the book taking place in 1906, which fell squarely into the time period that Rayford Logan called the nadir of American race relations. I have a PhD in this nadir. I also own a lot of books about it. I know which websites to look at for random facts. Mostly, I know how to bug librarians. This is the best kind of research, because the best researchers do your work for you. Ask and ye shall receive a cache of historical documents.


The scenery stuff was new for me, though. Historians don't tend to write narratives that contain references to things like the natural world or food at all, unless they are historians of the natural world or food. So, while I have a lot of general information in my head about things like what occupations Black women did and did not do at the turn of the century, when public spaces like parks and streetcars became segregated, and how Jim Crow cemeteries were organized -- the best answer is lunacy and abomination -- I didn't know what weeds or vines may have grown on a former cotton plantation, or how a sympathetic character might use pokeweed to change the course of a story.


You know that old quip about how people hate to write but love to have written? I love writing, so that doesn't apply to me. But I do feel that way about research. (This is not a favorable outlook for a historian, by the way, which speaks to why I no longer do that job). Research is the hard part, as far as I'm concerned. It's a slog. It's very detailed. It requires careful note-taking. It's a high stakes game, when the game is truth and accuracy. In the context of history, I believe research is what distinguishes a great book from an adequate book.


I found that research was more fun in the context of writing fiction. Even on weeds! First, I did a lot of internet reading about flora in upcountry Carolina. I drew up lists of trees and flowers and weeds, including Virginia creeper, loblolly pines, privit, honeysuckle, wisteria, live oaks, and of course, evening trumpet vines, which are commonly called Carolina jessamine -- the name of my co-protagonist -- and noted their specific traits, including what years they were introduced to the region. The research changed the plan, as it should! I intended to have kudzu play a major part in the story, for example -- today it's called the "vine that ate the South" because weeds do, in fact, consume habitats --- but in 1906, it wasn't yet a major player.


My next move was to check with nature librarians, also known as the forest service. I had to go through the public affairs office in Columbia, South Carolina, where a nice lady named Pam Baltimore approved my request and connected me with a very knowledgable ranger in the upcountry district office, who is colloquially referred to as "the tree guy." His real name is Dell Frost because truth is always wilder than fiction.



Once we finally connected, Ranger Frost was indeed helpful. Obviously, I have redacted questions that may lead to spoilers in this screenshot. But long story short, I asked him things and then culled my flora list. And then, since we happened to be down in South Carolina, we went for an eight-hour detour/joy ride through the region, so I could see and smell and touch the flora. I'm tactile and sensory that way. I wanted to feel what the characters would feel. So we walked around, and breathed the air, and caught Covid. My characters didn't catch Covid, thank goodness. Also, I didn't see any pokeweed. But it was July.



Here are photos from that jaunty, germy escapade. In conclusion: Do your research and don't touch the pokeweed.


















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