Today, please help me welcome debut author Vali Benson to The Write Stuff. Vali is going to talk a bit about Research and Inspiration, so grab your favorite cuppa and settle down. I think you’ll find this as interesting as I did.
Research and Inspiration:
Insights from a Debut Novelist
My name is Vali Benson and I have been a writer all my life. I can also now call myself a published author. It was always a dream to publish my own work. I still can’t believe it, but it’s now a dream come true. Ever since I can remember, I have had a book in my hand. As a lifelong reader, I often thought, “I could do better than that”. So, I decided to finally do something about it. People have asked me to explain the writing process, but I can’t. I don’t think there is a right way or wrong way to write a book. But I do know what works for me.
The first step is to come up with an idea. It must be something that interests you, or that you feel strongly about. If you don’t care what you are writing about, nobody else will either. Once when I had severe writers block, a great teacher told me, “Write about what’s in your own backyard”. I took my teacher’s advice and turned in an award-winning essay. That was the inspiration in writing my book; a young adult historical fiction novel called Blood and Silver. The story takes place in Tombstone, Arizona. For thirty years, I have lived in Tucson, Arizona. Tombstone is only forty-five minutes down the road, practically backyard distance.
Tombstone is one of the most revered towns of the old west. It is the site of the notorious “gun fight at the O.K. Corral” but for residents of Southern Arizona, it is just another local landmark. However, people come from all over the world to see it, so I became increasingly curious about the tiny, dusty tourist spot. Today it is a town of thirteen-hundred people but in 1884, Tombstone was a roaring metropolis and was the largest city between St. Louis and San Francisco. I’m sure it was a spectacular scene and grand time. The activity and splendor must have been all encompassing and I could not get it out of my head. I knew I wanted to make this infamous place the subject of my novel but first I had to learn my subject.
History is the world’s greatest teacher. It also creates a perfect launch point for a writer’s imagination. Historical fiction is my genre of choice because it combines the majesty of an author’s imagination with the beauty of the past. Any writer of historical fiction is obligated to do copious amounts of research. They should feel obligated anyway. Research will be the heart of your story, the building blocks of your narrative. It is also essential to any quality piece of historical fiction. If research is done correctly, it should be a rewarding but grueling process.
One needs to scavenge unusual places, not just the top three Google hits. Try not to settle for strictly names and dates. If you invest in the research phase, it will pay off significantly down the road. Dig beyond the numbers and you just might uncover something someone had overlooked or never found before. I love sourcing museums, libraries, newspaper archives, and even historical homes. Don’t rely on your computer only. Everyone can get that information. Not only is it not original, but it is also not interesting. One tip that I would like to emphasize to a burgeoning writer of historical fiction is to seek out the primary sources whenever possible. If you can work from the original source, it falls on you to interpret the story. This allows you to not have to depend on someone else’s version of the truth.
Blood and Silver tells the tale of a young girl who finds herself in trouble and alone in 1880 in Tombstone. My heroine uses her wits and charm to carve out a new life for herself and her sick mother. I had a premise but was immediately confronted with a classic problem of the historical fiction author; my inspiration had little to do with my subject. The little town that I was familiar with had about 1,300 residents. The town that I was writing about, Tombstone, AZ in 1880, had a bustling population of 15,000 with over 100 saloons and every sort of vice imaginable. The locations were the same, but the places were very different. In the course of my research, my story emerged.
As I began to delve deeper into the true story of Tombstone, I uncovered unexpected angles. The most prominent of which was the effect of the Chinese population. The result of this research led me to a real person whom I could never had made up, a woman named “China Mary”. This woman lived in Tombstone from 1879 – 1906 and essentially ran the town. In addition to operating a gambling hall behind her general store, she was also the only source for opium, laudanum, and Chinese prostitutes, all of which were in high demand. After I discovered the real-life splendor of China Mary, I made her one of my central characters and twisted my fictional story around her actual exploits. None of that could have been possible without an extensive research period.
The actual “writing” was the easy part. Putting compelling sentences together was not my problem. The difficulty arose when I needed to create a vibrant world for my characters that was not only captivating but also historically precise. Researching my topic well enough so that I could accurately write about it was my biggest challenge. I drowned myself in the era and when I felt I had enough of a foundation to build my historical setting, I applied my plot and inserted my characters.
When is your story finished? It is finished when you think it is. Before you begin, you will know where you will end up. If you don’t, don’t start. This is why research is so important; because if I can understand the period in which my characters live, I will shape their circumstances and attitudes into the narrative. With Blood and Silver, because I had taken the time to ensure that every aspect of my world would be historically accurate, the attitudes and tones of my characters occurred organically. I simply placed my fictional characters into actual settings and let them take me where they wanted to go.
Blood and Silver is my debut novel. It was released in April of 2020. I was inspired by an award-winning essay I wrote in grade school. Last month, Blood and Silver won First Place the 2021 San Francisco Book Festival, in two separate categories. Last week, the book won First Place at the New York Festival of Books. Both are a true honor, and proof that it is never too late. I may have waited awhile to pursue my dreams, but now they are coming true. If you want to be a writer, then BE a writer!
Thanks for reading and happy writing!
Buy Blood & Silver HERE
Category: YA Historical Fiction
What is a twelve year old girl to do when she finds herself in the silver boom town of Tombstone, Arizona, in 1880, and her only home is a brothel and her only parent is a drug-addicted mother? If she is Carissa Beaumont, she outsmarts the evil madam and figures a way out.
After tricking the madam, Miss Lucille, into summoning a doctor for her mother, Lisette, she discovers that Miss Lucille has been drugging her. She and the kind doctor make a plan to try to save Lisette by dosing her down on the drug.
Doctor Henderson tells Carissa that the only source for the drug is a Chinese immigrant named China Mary, who lives in Hoptown, at the other end of Tombstone. Carissa has no choice but to go to the powerful woman for help. Many say that China Mary is the one who really controls Tombstone.
China Mary admires Carissa’s brave spirit, and uses her influence to get her a job at the new Grand Hotel, which will free Carissa from her many duties at Miss Lucille’s. She will work along with Mary’s twelve year old niece, Mai-Lin. The two girls become fast friends.
Then, disaster strikes, and the two girls must work together to stay alive.
With a host of colorful characters and meticulous attention to period detail, Blood and Silver is a story of the best and worst of human nature, the passion for survival and the beauty of true friendship.
Author Vali Benson
Vali grew up in the Midwest. She now lives in Tucson with her husband, two sons and grandchildren.
After graduating from the University of Illinois, Vali started and sold two successful businesses before she decided to pursue her real passion of writing. She published several articles in a variety of periodicals, including History Magazine before she decided to try her hand at fiction.
In April of 2020, Vali published her first novel, Blood and Silver. That same month, she was also made a member of the Western Writers of America.