The Importance and Impact of Research on Fictional and Historical Fiction Works

By: Marin Thurmer

Back in November, I was pleased to meet one of Dr. TaraShae Nesbitt’s colleagues from graduate school, Dr. Shena McAuliffe, who currently teaches fiction at Union College in New York. Being a creative writing undergrad myself, along with other peers sitting around me, I felt the group’s anticipation to be introduced to McAuliffe’s particular style of research that contributes to her writing, mainly nonfiction and historical fiction works. The book in question: The Good Echo! This narrative doesn’t obey traditional schemes of narration, with the keystone of the work being a posthumous narration from the perspective of a dead son, just twelve years old when he succumbed to an infection in his root canal, which his father performed the fatal surgery on before his death.

When asked about the differences in the research process for nonfiction versus fictional works, McAuliffe asserts that “Anyone who is writing in either of those genres (nonfiction or historical fiction)… probably has stumbled up against that not being quite so simple. Well, on the surface it seems to me that nonfiction is driven by facts, by research, and since I write a lot of historical fiction, that is also driven a lot by facts and research. And that doesn’t seem to be a differentiating factor.”

McAuliffe revealed that her research for The Good Echo developed into a series of essays, each regarding different aspects of medical or cultural practices within or across different people groups. For example, she read an excerpt from one of her essays about the act of scalping, a behavior seen across nationalities during the colonization of the United States. To me, this mode of developing a network of contributions would almost seem heartbreaking not to use in the narrative, but McAuliffe didn’t see it that way. She maintained her attachment to the story and its characters, though she retracted the essays themselves from the narrative. She reveals history in other ways: through varying forms of narration in the unique perspectives of her characters Clifford and Frances Bell, and the mouthpiece through which their story is told, the semi-omniscient story told by their deceased son Benjamin. Clifford’s field notes reveal the meticulous nature of his personality that goes hand in hand with his work, and yet the footnotes to his narration are the place where his grief sits entrenched, not being able to surface into the overview of his observations.

Research, being the key aspect of Clifford’s character, is essential to understanding him, as well as understanding the story’s craft itself. A good researcher should be objective, and Clifford must resort to keeping his grief in the footnotes. Yet, as Benjamin reveals, he is still trapped in time, in the limitations of scientific progress and social progress which Benjamin has been released from in death. McAuliffe certainly mirrors this perspective in her work, because her narrative locks Benjamin in as well, the mind of a twelve-year-old boy becoming a story-teller who can only speak of his parents, and even then, he is still (in McAuliffe’s words) “just a boy.”

The way that McAuliffe addresses human limitations in understanding and in history shines through in this study of history and narration as being forgiving, but not forgetting, of the ways in which we are aware that we do not, and cannot know the whole story, try as we might. But that does not mean the story should not be told, and McAuliffe proves this in a contemporary take on grief in three voices.