As a writer of biographies, I sometimes find myself more of a sleuth than an author. I follow leads down the rabbit hole, searching for a long-dead person or their family members in hopes of discovering their life story. I liken my work to a hydra—I cut off one head, and two grow back—answers provide more questions, research yields more to research. Vacations to tropical locations are spent, not on the beach with a fruity drink in hand, but instead in dusty library archives with bound volumes of crumbling yellowed newspapers. Entire summers are passed, spinning through spools of microfilm. And large phone bills to octogenarians in countries all over the world reveal the spoils of the quest. But these methods of searching through old newspapers, magazines, interviews, microfilm, and out-of-print books can be useful for anyone who looks to tell a story, true or not, to anchor it firmly in authenticity. Here are a few ideas for how to utilize obscure sources to inform your own writing:
1. Consider the primary source
Interviews with people who are either similar to the personality of your character, or have similar backgrounds as your character, can provide authentic dialog or inspire your creativity to develop that dialog. Steal their word choice, their thoughts and opinions, their patois or accent or way they stress a certain word. You can also discover their struggles, their hopes and wishes, their loves and desires, their vision for motivation, which can become the same as your character, or help remove a block you may have had in developing some aspect of your character or plot. Watch their mannerisms, their facial expressions. Look at their dress, their accoutrements, their home or their work. See what they reveal, and also what they conceal. This will give your character and story an accuracy that imagination may not be able to yield. It will also give it an authentic voice.
2. Set the scene
If your story is a period piece, chances are you have read plenty of material from that time period to inform your story. But what about if you are telling a story that is less about a time period and more about something else? Still digging into material, whether historical or contemporary, can help inform that storytelling. Knowing the type of vegetation that grew in the character’s landscape, the style of car that was popular in their carpool line and the afterschool activities common with their children, the kinds of meals they ate, the decorations they used to adorn their homes, the brand of cigarettes they smoked, the way they dried their clothes—on a line or in a front-load dryer, the shoes they wore to the mill—all of these details that make a story real can be found in obscure places. Find magazines or even family photos from the era, either in libraries or purchase from ebay. Recreate that image. Recreate that feeling. Vacation slides can be treasure troves for the imagination and ebay frequently has lots of these (pun intended) for a few bucks.
3. Look at the big picture
If you are writing a piece that takes place in California in the late 1960s, sure you have the scene and the events to create your character. But what about what else was going on in the world during this time that can turn a seemingly cliché view into a unique story? By knowing that in 1969, ARPANET, the predecessor to the Internet, relayed its first communications between UCLA and Stanford, this could possibly provide a unique angle or a direction for your story. Could your character have been aware of this technology or involved in this, rather than a hippie in Haight Ashbury like every other character during this time, as an example. If you are writing about a soul musician in Chicago in the 1970s, they likely would have known of Afro-pop in Nigeria during this same era. This can deepen your character and take them in directions that are more authentic. So look at world events, connect cultures, connect music and art, and connect through conversations with characters or plot.
I once wrote about a character in my book, Don Drummond: The Genius and Tragedy of the World’s Greatest Trombonist, who sat beneath a large Bilbao tree on the campus of his school when he practiced his trombone. While combing through a magazine on Bilbao trees, I found a photograph of that exact tree. Unfortunately, it came after I had written the chapter, but had I discovered it earlier I could have used this photograph to provide detail to make the writing more vivid.
Actual photographs can help to describe more than mere appearance—they spark the writer’s imagination in a way that is rooted in reality. This photo of Jamaican trombonist Don Drummond helped me to describe my character’s mysterious mind.