This past summer WaveCloud had the wonderful opportunity to meet Australian author Terri Sedmak at Book Expo America in New York City. We love talking with our favorite authors so I decided to do a sit down of sorts (via email) with Terri to discuss part of the writing process that is near and dear to my heart as a librarian: the research. I always value a historical novel based on solid research and thought others might enjoy learning a little about the process as much as I would.
Also be sure to check out the excerpts Terri provided us from her latest series!
Kari: You were recently in the States to work on research for your current series, The Liberty & Property Legends series, correct?
Terri: That’s right. My husband, who is also my business partner, and I combined a much needed holiday (beginning with a week in beautiful Boston) with some much needed research in St. Louis, south east Wyoming, and Denver. We also spent a week in New York City to attend Book Expo America, where to our delight we found WaveCloud. We love travelling in the States; this was our second trip, our first being in 2009, which was also a research trip. We toured more broadly on that excursion, so on this trip I was able to focus on more detailed information for the next two books in the series and for other writing projects set in The West.
Kari: What made you decide to write about the American West?
Terri: I fell in love with the American West when I was little and never fell out of it. Westerns as books, TV or film… loved them since I can remember. I think initially the adventurousness of it and the romance that surrounds it attracted me. And horses! Then I grew to understand and appreciate and really love the history of The West. The layers of complexity in its settling. The idea of freedom and independence. The extraordinary natural beauty of it. Although my first attempt at a novel when I was eleven was not set in the West but in the Australian outback, it was only a few years later that I wrote a novel that was set in the Wild West of the 1880’s. My desire to write for this era was set from that time on and the essence of that story exists in my current series.
Kari: Did you find a lot of new information on your visit? How does that help you as an author?
Terri: I certainly did! Don’t ask me where I managed to pack all the books I brought back, but my luggage was 7 pounds overweight and there was some last minute rearranging at the check-in at Denver airport coming home. Then there are all the information booklets and relevant souvenirs. I took over a thousand photos, lots of those were of detailed museum content, of cities, towns, neighbourhoods, streets, lanes, street signs, scenic backways, from mountaintops to prairies, all in specific locations that I knew I would be, or very likely could be, or now that I’ve seen it I will be, writing about.
And then there’s meeting and speaking with people. Physical environment needs a heart and that’s the folks you meet. They give you a different (the local) understanding of what you read or view with your own eyes; they interpret your research in that sense. Although The West may have changed somewhat since the Wild West days, the folks who have a heritage of living there indicate that it’s kind of the same in spirit and they preserve their heritage with pride and affection. Heritage is one of the themes in my series, so I find this type of research helpful.
As an author all of this is invaluable. I wish I could have brought back more books, taken more photographs, shot more videos and spoken to the people I met for longer and spoken to more people overall. Everything you experience adds to your knowledge and understanding and sense of place. There is so much to take in and it can be overwhelming. You just have to do your best and know that it has all soaked in and it will come to the forefront at the right moment; I believe it will.
Kari: Would you consider physical research in the location you're writing about 100% necessary when writing historical fiction (opposed to online-only research)?
Terri: There is a great deal of information on the internet for sure, almost everything you could want – almost. I find that physically researching in the location of the setting of your novel allows you access to very specific, authentic details that really open up your writing. These are the special details which you just cannot find online that help you to create your special world and your particular characters, and that include locale-specific historical details.
Just soaking up the physical environment, breathing the air, walking amongst it, is invaluable location research. I call it walking in the footsteps of my characters.
I’ll never forget seeing the Laramie Plains for the first time. I was shocked by the unfathomable expanse of those remarkable grasslands and forever sky, and the shock went right through me and all I could think about was those pioneers in their covered wagons wondering where on earth they had come to and would it ever end. You don’t get that kind of profound reaction from looking at pictures on the internet! This stays with you, it creeps into your writing, and you make a point of including it somehow.
But having said that, you can write a whole novel, a pretty good one, historically set in another country from what you research while sitting all day at your computer in your pjs. It will give you the bones and the flesh and even the heart of your novel, but it won’t necessarily give you the pores on your skin, the mole on your cheek or the slight limp when you walk like location research can.
Historical fiction writing requires a certain kind of imagination, I think. You have to imagine a world in great detail that no longer exists, so it’s not there to draw on, but it has to ring true. That world must be a complete living entity in the writer’s mind, almost like a parallel universe to your everyday life. If it’s not, it won’t be for the reader either. They have to be transported there and be convinced that it and your characters truly existed.
The Liberty & Property Legends is not set entirely in The West. There are Eastern locations as well that I have also researched on location. The great cities of St Louis, Chicago, New York and Boston have been, or will be featured, some to a greater extent than others. Also, the great western cities of Omaha, Denver and San Francisco, as well. For me, the history of The West is a huge migration story. Americans of all ethnic and socio-economic persuasions went to it, with certain expectations and a certain mindset. In my series I take the ideal of liberty and property from the Revolutionary era and migrate it West, where it is embodied in the main protagonist of the series, Luke Taylor. And that’s where the adventure begins!
Currently, I am working on Volume Three, so look out for it later in 2013. It’s going to be epic!
In the pearly gloom of a promising morning, smoke curls from the Keatons’ chimney, and there’s a smell of bacon on the wind.
Dave rides in from the cover of the forest behind the Keaton ranch house and cautiously leads both horses into the barn.
He casts his eye around the building; there don’t appear to be anything unusual except that at this hour of a deep winter morning, activity in the ranch house notwithstanding, all of John Keaton’s horses are fully awake and alert like he ain’t the first person they’ve seen today.
Empire for Liberty, Volume 2, The Liberty & Property Legends
“This is Wyoming territory. Whatever you think is odd, very likely is compared to the rest of the nation. Seventeen years ago this town was a bunch of tents and log huts. There were Cheyenne Indians out on the plains behind you and a whole bunch of people you’d rather not know making a fast buck waiting for the railroad to push through. It was hell all right. And look at us now. Sprouting like a twelve year old boy on summer vacation. We try not to make it up as we go along, but sometimes we have to.”
Empire for Liberty, Volume 2, The Liberty & Property Legends
When he wakes, his head feels thick and heavy, like he’s been boozing. And his leg hurts. He’s lying in a bed in a different room, which is so quiet the silence buzzes in his ears. The light of the aging afternoon strays into the room from a thinly draped window. Gradually, as the groggy sensation subsides a little, he becomes aware of two things. One, he is in the same room – the same bed – where Byron Sawyer died. And two, he is naked beneath the sheet and the blanket which cover him – at least he thinks so. Lifting the edge of the bedclothes, he checks. Hastily, he covers up again. The only thing he’s wearing is a bandage on his thigh. There ain’t a situation more nervy than being hurt and naked and in a dead man’s bed. How does he get himself into these things?
HEARTLAND On the Side of Angels, Volume 1, The Liberty & Property Legends