Rethinking the Role of Research - Guest Post by Sandy Brehl

The often-repeated advice to writers is “write what you know”. That’s at the heart of every “small moments” workshop, every “what I did last summer” assignment, and even elaborate memoir projects. Much of fiction has its origins in this approach: Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing (Judy Blume), Ramona Quimby, Age 8 (Beverly Cleary), and Paperboy (Vince Vawter) are good examples. Quality writing makes them standouts, but the stories themselves have a ring of recognition in readers’ hearts.

The flip side of that is narrative non-fiction. The current emphasis on informational text has increased the presence of biography, autobiography, history, science, and technology texts in classrooms, libraries, and publishers’ catalogs. Extensive research, documentation, specific terminology, and authentication are the foundation of these. In most cases the facts are well-vetted so readers can trust that every detail is true, at least as true as we can know “so far”.

Nonfiction writing typically follows a neat process:

          topic>research>write> bibliography.

Personal narrative often follows a prescribed path, too:


One very solid and entertaining bridge between these two genre is historical fiction. Think Hattie Big Sky (Kirby Larson) , May B. (Caroline Rose), and Number the Stars (Lois Lowry) , or Ann Turner’s picture books: Nettie’s Trip South, Katie’s Trunk, and Abe Lincoln Remembers. In each case the authors weave fact and fiction seamlessly throughout compelling stories with rich characters true to their times and places in history.

The blending of fact and fiction in this genre is not unlike a mobius strip. The two sides are not only inseparable, but interchange themselves while traveling along the path of the story. Similarly, it is nearly impossible to detect start- or end- points for the research and storytelling.

Historical fiction defies neat packaging. At its best, that ring of recognition resounds within the fictional lives of its characters, yet their journeys reveal specifics and complexities that can only be found through diligent research. Sorting out fact from fiction allows readers to explore a new purpose for research.

My debut middle grade novel, Odin’s Promise, is the end product of many years of just such a dance between fact and fiction. On a trip to Norway many years ago I heard personal stories of resistance from the war years. Memories of the German occupation were strong. From that time on I worked at writing one particular story, including extensive research about Norway’s war years.

Over time and countless revisions the story changed, the research continued, characters stepped into and abandoned center stage. Only when the right combination of research, revision, and advice came together did the story find its footing and take off. By then the facts were as familiar to me as the fictional elements so they arose naturally within the events of the story. After the book was complete and under contract I read two other recent historical fiction middle grade books set in Norway during World War II: The Klipfish Code by Mary Casanova, and Shadow on the Mountain by Margi Preus. In both cases I recognized quirky details of the occupation years that I had included in my book. A quick check of their resources indicated our stories had been influenced by some of the same titles Despite that, our books are distinctly different.

Historical fiction provides an excellent balance of reading fiction and non-fiction text: complexity, engagement, character development, detail, sequence and consequences. More often than not there will be author notes and other back matter to help describe which elements are based on history and which are not. Online and traditional research can clarify that further, as well as offer answers to questions raised by the stories. Maps, timelines, and biographies become essential tools for both the reader and the writer.

I hope readers will enjoy Odin’s Promise for the fiction it is. I also hope the factual threads throughout the story will make them eager to learn more about Germany’s invasion and occupation of Norway under the false claim of friendship. It’s a story far less familiar than those of concentration camps and battles, but no less compelling. It even has parallels in current events of the world.

Who knows where their research could lead?

About Sandy Brehl: Retired teacher in elementary public schools for almost 40 years. A voracious reader since childhood. Writing for decades. Active in SCBWI-Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) since retiring, which led to major improvements in my writing.

Debut Middle Grade Historical Fiction:
Odin’s Promise, available April 20, 2014, official publication date- May 17.

Odin’s Promise is historical fiction for middle-grade readers, a novel depicting the first year of German occupation of Norway as seen through the eyes of a young girl.

Eleven-year-old Mari grew up tucked safely under the wings of her parents, grandma, and her older siblings. When Hitler’s troops invaded Norway under the guise of “occupying a friendly country,” she is forced to grow beyond her “little girl” nickname and comfortable patterns to deal with harsh new realities.

At her side for support and protection is Odin, her faithful elkhound.

After she witnesses a terrifying event on the mountainside, truths are revealed: the involvement of her family and friends in the resistance; the value of humor in surviving hard times; the hidden radio in her grandma’s cottage.
Odin, not one for quiet resistance, makes an enemy of soldiers who patrol the area.

The year will bring many challenges, as Mari confronts danger, develops her inner strength and voice, and finds she is able to endure hardship and heartache.