Researching Historical Fiction, Writing/Rewriting

Bill Cheng: Letting history seep into the writer


I caught an NPR interview with debut novelist Bill Cheng, who’s written a book called “Southern Cross the Dog” about a boy who survives the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927. Cheng lives in New York City and has never been to Mississippi. Of course, he also didn’t live through that devastating event, but that should never stop someone from writing the story he or she feels compelled to write.

Cheng’s response to a question about how he researched the book caught my attention:

I did spend a lot of time in the library. There were a lot of old books I took out. And all that stuff doesn’t necessarily make it into the book. What it does is it makes it into the writer, in terms of facts and things and textures, or it lends a certain confidence to the writing. That allows the writer to imagine, which is really what fiction’s about.

The emphasis is mine. When I was listening to the interview, that quote really resonated with me. All that research I’ve done for my own book, the photos I’ve studied, the books and magazine articles I’ve read, the discrepancies and nuances I’ve pondered (and there are a lot of both in Old West history) — it’s never wasted even if it doesn’t end up in the book because it gives me the ability to more fully imagine the story.

That’s also a useful way to think about the historical details one ends up leaving out of a book. Some writers want to include all the interesting things they’ve learned along the way because, after all, they worked so hard to find them. But that doesn’t serve the story or the reader well. And ultimately, the history is there — it’s in the choices you make and how you tell the story. You are steeped in it, whether you know it or not.

A street scene in New Orleans during the 1927 flood, which was one of the worst natural disasters of the 20th century.
A street scene in New Orleans during the 1927 flood, which was one of the worst natural disasters of the 20th century.

In terms of inspiration, Cheng grew up listening to and loving the blues, and he said he chose to write about the 1927 flood because

it’s a huge thing in blues music. You know, Charley Patton has the song ‘High Water Everywhere.’ John Lee Hooker has the song ‘Tupelo.’ It was a devastating flood, and it affected a lot of the local musicians and it went into their storytelling, went into their songs. And if you’re going to write a book that comes from the blues, you can’t start anywhere else, really.

I’m interested in reading his book, and I’m also interested in reading more about the flood, which is a wonderful side effect of historical fiction.

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