As I work on my historical YA, I’m finding that the longer I do research for it, the more specific I start feeling that research needs to be. It’s relatively easy, I think, to find books and other information about the general history of a place or era. It’s trickier–at least for me–to find the concrete details that will add the depth of realism to my story.
So I keep looking. One of the areas I’ve been struggling with finding more about is the daily life and economic realities of a small-shop owner in the 1910s. These people and their families seem to fall into a sort of gray area–if not in terms of actual class, at least in terms of class that I’ve been able to find out about. I can find plenty about the big factories, and I can find plenty about the people who worked in those factories, but show me some really specific writing about a family making a decent, if not wonderful, living selling dry goods, and I’ll be dancing.
Well, I kept searching, and a few weeks ago, I came across Robert Spector’s The Mom & Pop Store: How the Unsung Heroes of the American Economy are Surviving and Thriving. I guessed from the title (note the word “are”) and from the description of the book that it wasn’t going to be about the turn of the last century, but I hoped there might be some pieces of history woven in.
Well, there were, but–as I was expecting–they weren’t from the history I needed. Still, I kept reading. Because, guess what? While Spector’s books didn’t have the facts I needed (and probably still need), it goes deep into the feelings I hadn’t yet got close enough to, either, to write the story I want to write.
Feelings of pride in coming every day to the business you’ve built, feelings of frustration at being expected to inherit that business when you aren’t the one who built it. Feelings of independence at working for yourself, feelings of imprisonment at having no choice about who you work for. Feelings of anger and resentment toward “ungrateful” children, feelings of anger and resentment at “demanding” parents. All of which feelings I’ve seen in real life “today,” and all of which I need to think about for my story in the past.
Here’s the thing: history may be facts, but it is also story–historical fiction even more so, perhaps. And story is people–people who interact and resist interaction, who love and hate, work together and fight. And sure, the facts impact the feelings, but there is a universal to those feelings and the people who have them that transcends facts, that transcends time.
If I didn’t believe this, how could I be writing about history for teens reading today?