Research until you can write, write until you need to research. . .
I love writing plays that have a historic context. In the age of the internet, I also love to do research. I have a fascination with other time periods that started with my wish to be Laura Ingalls and live as a pioneer in a log cabin, around age 6. The trick is not to get the information mostly right. It’s to get it completely right — and then figure out which details will make your story even better. The more specific, the more true your setting is, the more honest and real your characters feel, and the more authority your audience will give you to tell the story in the first place.
Over the course of my playwriting career thus far, I’ve spent hours online researching Ian Fleming and the creation of James Bond; photographer Walker Evans and the WPA artists’ projects; farming practices of Kansas families that led to the Dust Bowl; the evolution of folk music groups and Civil Rights demonstrations in the South in the 1960s; and the completely corrupt state government of Alabama in the 1930s, as it fought desegregation, FDR’s New Deal, the Rural Electrification Program, and laws that made lynching a crime. I’ve also done a lot of reading on the debate around teaching evolution in schools; PT Barnum’s mermaid exhibition; early Egyptian archeology and the trade in fake artifacts; and the lives of several Civil War soldiers from Wisconsin, including doctors, dentists, musicians, nurses, and an emancipated slave. (I also know a lot more about Civil War medical practices and the Minie ball than I ever wanted to.) I’ve even delved into the world of Harry Houdini —- magic, pickpocketing, and sleight of hand. (Believe me, it is much less fun when you know how the tricks are done.)
Recently I’ve been spending a lot of time reading about the Nazi party’s war on modern art, literature, music, and criticism. They targeted not only the artists who created it, but the museums and universities who encouraged it, and the dealers who sold it. Hitler and his cultural commissions could not tolerate either the ideas or the expression of post-World War I movements such as Modernism, Dadaism, Cubism, Expressionism, even Impressionism and jazz. This attack on art was part of a many-pronged approach in shaping popular attitudes about artists themselves, aesthetic ideals, intellectuals, and free speech/expression. (Yeah, it sounds a little bit too familiar to me too.)
For me, this research has illuminated a world that I didn’t fully understand before and has created spaces for my character to fully inhabit. We are both comfortable in the story now — my imagination can play in a place and at a time I can revel in.
So why do I do all this background research, a fraction of which usually ends up in the piece I’m writing? For specificity. By knowing the brand of soap someone used, or how long it actually took to travel by train from Wisconsin to Washington DC, or what kinds of crops were growing in Kansas in the 1930s, my work contains details that creates a world that synchs up with reality— just enough. An audience member isn’t suddenly going to be jolted out of a monologue I write because there are anachronisms, large or small. And the characters are going to be richer when they are placed in a more complete context. Best of all, I am going to be able to write with more authority, and understand the world view of my characters more.
Most people are familiar with the phrase “The devil is in the details.” But I had a creative writing teacher in high school who said “God is in the details.” I agree with him. Getting it right isn’t that hard, but it takes time and research. Being general or being wrong doesn’t make your story resonate. Being dedicated to the details can make it soar.