Home » Blog » In Praise of Research

In Praise of Research

I had the idea for Finding George Washington when I was a kid. I used to challenge myself: how would I explain the workings of modern technology to George Washington, if he were suddenly to appear? Did I understand the basics of photography or the internal combustion engine well enough to explain them to someone from a pre-industrial culture?

Till recently, all my writing was nonfiction. When I finally decided to try my hand at fiction, I wondered if that old idea about George could be the basis for a charming, funny, perhaps exciting novel. Maybe a goofy, fish-out-of-water story.

Only one problem: I knew very little about Washington. Of course, I knew the broad strokes: Revolutionary War General, first president, married to Martha, lived at Mount Vernon. But what else? I recalled old stories of George as a lad chopping down a cherry tree (but confessing his guilt to his father) and throwing a dollar coin across the Potomac. And didn’t he have wooden teeth?

I realized I needed extensive research.

Those old stories were apocryphal. I learned that the cherry tree incident was fabricated by a later biographer, Parson Weems, who also made up the dollar-toss lie (the Potomac is about a mile wide). And no, his dentures were not made of wood, which would be a terrible material to use for chewing.

I consulted many books and a number of movies: https://findinggeorgewashington.com/biblio/

I acquired factual knowledge of George and his world. He was scrupulous about saving his letters and other papers. Those documents (and all those of the Founding Fathers) are now available online, which has spurred a new raft of biographies. I learned a lot about George’s deep passion tempered by extreme self-control and stoicism, his rugged bravery and lifelong suffering from dental pain, his role as Father of Our Country despite having no direct offspring, his gracefulness when dancing or on horseback.

And I had to learn about and deal with the fact that he was a slave owner. This was a complicated issue. He led the fight for freedom from the British, even though he possessed human chattel. His manservant, an enslaved person named Billy Lee, rode into battle with George and stayed with him throughout the Revolution.

I learned that, in his will, George freed Billy Lee by name and promised to free his slaves once Martha also died. But George only owned about a third of the 300+ slaves at Mount Vernon. The rest belonged to the estate of Martha’s first husband or were descendants of their intermarried offspring. After her death, George’s slaves were freed, but the others were sold off separately, families tragically torn apart.

Since my other main characters (and my readers!) would be spending so much time with George, I also wanted to know what it was like to be in his presence. I learned that he was quite tall and athletic for his era, was soft-spoken in person, had blue eyes, pale skin, and rosy cheeks. I wondered what he sounded like. He was descended from Virginia colonists who had come from England many decades before his birth. Would he have spoken “the King’s English,” what we now think of as a cultured English accent, like a BBC announcer? Or Scottish or Welsh or Cockney or some other British regional accent? Also, what was his relationship like with Martha? How did they address each other?

I consulted with Mary V. Thompson, the Research Historian at Mount Vernon, who gave me some tips to pursue in these areas. The sad fact is that we don’t really know what accent he had. And Martha burned all George’s letters after his death, so we don’t have a lot of clues about the intimacy of their relationship.

Another research decision I made was not to send my characters anywhere I hadn’t been myself. I knew early on that I wanted them to take a long train trip (there’s a locomotive on the cover of the book), but I had never been on an overnight train ride myself. When I told my wife I was considering taking an Amtrak sleeper train to Oregon from our home near San Francisco, she kindly suggested I go instead to my characters’ eventual destination, several nights on the train. This trip yielded hundreds of photos, dozens of videos, a ton of emotional and practical impressions, and a number of characters for my story. Including several villains!

Besides that Amtrak jaunt, I also visited Valley Forge, Independence Hall, the Liberty Bell, Mount Vernon, Colonial Williamsburg, the Smithsonian National Museum of American History, the Washington Monument, New York City, Mendocino, the Doe Library at UC Berkeley, Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia, and AT&T Park in San Francisco.

Every trip, every visit was valuable. Museums, historical sites, monuments, libraries, cities, and ballparks all yielded unique information, impressions, artifacts, and visuals for further study. I thought often about John Steinbeck’s book Travels with Charley: In Search of America. I was searching, too — for historical context, texture, backstory, modern-day drama, and details to flesh out my story. I got all that, in spades.

(LASR blog)

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top