Research is Authenticity, Guest Blog by Jackie Garlick-Pynaert

I'm so pleased to introduce Jackie to you today, and to have this fantastic post from her on the ups and downs of a writer's task as researcher. Check it out, and be sure to look into the upcoming Niagara Writer's Retreat and Conference--a great event coordinated by Jackie. 

That’s the word that comes to mind when I think of research.

“If a reader can punch a hole through your story, you’ve lost them,” Ellen Hopkins says, and I hear her voice every time I think about taking a short cut as a writer. Thus, research has become part of my daily routine no matter WHAT novel I’m working on, from searching up the most popular song of the 1890’s, to making sure a 1976 Monte Carlo could still be on the road in 2011.  But it became especially important in my first book, when (stupidly) I decided to tackle a period piece. (Rookie. What can I say, I didn’t know any better!)

It looked innocent enough, a newspaper clipping placed on my desk, by an enthusiastic student (in my teaching days, enthusiastic students were as rare as six-figure book contracts, trust me) about Holocaust victims in pursuit of unpaid insurance benefits, having invested their life savings with big American insurance companies just prior to being taken away during WWII. I acknowledge the article with interest and went on with the day, but found myself revisiting the clipping several more times. An story idea came to me that clung like strong perfume, always lingering in the back of my mind.

Years later, out of work, I found myself at the computer wondering again about the clipping. I’d rescued it from the purge of my teaching materials and decided to Google more on the topic, and again to my amazement found there was a court case going on in the US, involving a handful of elderly survivors who had taken on the Insurance Company. Intrigued, I picked up the phone and contacted one of them, asking if they wouldn’t mind an interview. That led to several more, and a fully developed outline for a story that haunted my sleep and wouldn’t let me go.  

I started the next day, planning to open with an unusual escape from Auschwitz, a concentration camp, just days prior to its liberation. To get it right, I researched everything I could about the camp, its layout, surrounding towns, the routines of the guards, the prisoners. Days passed, as I poured over mountains of research, getting the dates and times, even the weather right. I studied maps and photos, painstakingly re-building the world, piecing together the most plausible escape route for my characters. I figured once I finally had them out of the camp and into the woods, my researching nightmare would be over. WRONG…

In the middle of the book my characters are walking on foot across war torn Europe back to their home in Vienna. Their seemingly innocent journey was suddenly requiring research at every turn, in the form of access to legible, authentic maps. Those dated prior to the war, before countries were split up, given away and renamed. Like pawns on a chessboard, their every move required strategy, and then there was the little matter that the war was still raging. Every time I planned a route for my characters it was subsequently thwarted, under siege at the time, or had just been bombed. I poured over flight maps, (both German and American) and records of bombing routes trying to avoid the planes, then decided one particularly frustrating day, why avoid them? Isn’t it infinitely more interesting if they get caught in, and survive one of these air raids? I rewrote the chapter and carried on, but still something was missing. My words laid flat on the page.

I realized I had no idea what it was like to be there, really be there. What was the landscape like? How about after the bombing? Had I even included the proper trees? What did it look like, smell like, feel like, running alone through those woods, two fugitives, in search of their homeland and a last chance document? I couldn’t answer any of it. My writing lacked depth and feeling -- it lacked authenticity. It felt cheap and I didn’t like it.  

I suddenly felt very stuck. Stupid. Thought perhaps I might give up. I remember dropping my head down on the keyboard, thinking, what am I doing, I’m never going to be able to do this piece justice, and yet I had a burning story I really wanted to tell. In a moment of desperation, I raised my head and googled…”child pushed in a wheelbarrow across Europe after WWII,” which I’d decided my main character was doing at that point in the story, pushing her little sister home in a wheelbarrow she’d just stolen. To my amazement an article popped up. A short story written by a man named, Paul Hartal, whose mother had done that very thing. She’d pushed him and his little sister across Europe in a wheelbarrow back to their home in Budapest, after being released from a concentration camp. My eyes lit up. Could it be? Seriously?  What luck?

I read his short story with interest and then googled his name and again to my amazement, found he was an artist living in Montreal with a website that provided a phone number. I rang him that day and we talked for four hours, in which he provided me with all the sights and smells and feelings, necessary to bring my character’s journey to life. And the best part was, he was telling it to me through the eyes and memories of his childhood, as he was only eight when it happened to him.

A fast friendship evolved spanning now six years, exchanging emails, encouragement and writing, (he’s also a great poet, check it out here.)  and although I’ve not yet finished that book, I’ve decided to revisit it again, recently. It seems the daunting amount of research required to complete it just can’t outweigh its haunting presence in the back of my mind. Here’s hoping now that I’m a more seasoned writer, I can finally do the story the justice it deserves. Wish me luck?
Remember researching = authenticity. And authenticity holds readers.

Happy researching!    

Jackie Garlick-Pynaert writes Y.A. She is represented by Josh Adams of Adams Literary. When she is not writing, Jackie organizes events for writers to help them improve craft and make valuable connections with top talent in the industry, including big name authors, agents and editors. Check out the all-star line up of her upcoming event, the Niagara Retreat and Conference, May 3-5, in Niagara Falls Canada. I understand there is still room.


I LOVE this story, Jackie. You never know where research will lead you!

Thanks for sharing this story, Jackie, and YA Muses. It encourages to keep researching and to make it authentic. My 92-year-old "expert" uses that exact word.

It's so hard yet so important to get the details right. Thanks for writing this and for sharing it, Carol.

Thanks Carol, Augusta, Katherine, it is the details that make all of life matter when you think of it, isn't it? :)

The chance of finding this real life person to match your storyline gives me goosebumps, talk about a story that was meant to be written! Can't wait to read your book :)

This will be an amazing book, and I can't wait to read it. It is a story that deserves to be told, and lucky for this gentleman, it will told by you.

Jackie, this blog post led me to your Niagara Retreat which I just registered to attend. One of the reasons I jumped on board is that my WIP takes place within 30 min of Niagara Falls. I've researched there before but cannot wait to breathe the air of my story's setting again.

And experts who've were there at the time? PRICELESS! I'm thrilled for you. Eager to read your book.

Wow, Joyce, that's so exciting that you've signed up for the conference! Love all this serendipity in Jackie's research and here!

Oh, Joyce! That is total awesomesauceness! So glad you signed up! I can't wait to meet you and hear your WIP! I will have to make sure you get around to some of the Niagara sites while you are there! Love this connection! :)

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