Writing historical fiction is a unique pursuit. The subtle combination of fact and literary finesse that make for a successful novel pose particular challenges for a writer, but when it’s done well, the rewards for readers are amazing. Lucky for us, we have Thad Carhart’s latest novel to enjoy. And in this exclusive note to Reading Group Center readers he shares some wonderful insight on the joys and unexpected discoveries he made writing Across the Endless River.
A Note from the Author
One of my favorite parts of the book-writing process is doing the basic research. With a historical novel that begins on the early 19th-century frontier of the upper Missouri River, and then moves to Paris, the challenges—and the rewards—were considerable. I had to get the facts straight, of course, but I also needed to capture a tone, a mood, a certain number of ways in which the past isn’t just like the present. For me, that meant working with lots of original documents.
It often struck me, though, that in using such sources, the principal subject of the letter or journal or painting I consulted often wasn’t what was of most use. Rather, the little indirect details, the unguarded asides, the parenthetical descriptions from these 1820s first-person accounts opened unexpected doors: how a European nobleman felt about having to eat boiled dog when a guest of the Pawnee; what a visitor thought upon seeing destitute children scavenging in the leavings of a Paris market; what seemed important to an artist of the day in a detailed painting of the banks of the Seine.
As fascinating as these meanderings can be, though, they’re not the main event, “One more museum! One more library visit! One more journal!” I cried inwardly, but deep down I knew that too much research is just another form of avoidance, and it was time to imagine the story. I hope the tale of Jean-Baptiste Charbonneau speaks to you, beyond—and through—the details of his time.