Sunday, February 5, 2012

Researching My Writing with Award-winning Author Hope Irvin Marston


Because I am a librarian by profession, I know where to search for generic information. Since I write in several genres, my research follows different patterns. Margaret Wilson’s story is historical fiction, based on the life of a teen martyr in 17th century Scotland.  Obviously, that required a different type of research than My Little Book of Bald Eagles or Eye on the Iditarod: Aisling’s Quest, a biographical account of an eleven-year old Maine musher with a lofty goal.

Through nearly forty years of writing, I have learned that research is time-consuming, that one often neglects to take the road she should have taken the first time and time runs out for getting that particular story published. My observations, considerations and conclusions can help you write your historical novel no matter its location or time frame.  

            First of all, don’t attempt to write about a period of time or an historical person that does not cause you to react emotionally. You may have to spend years gathering sufficient information to write a story that will catch an editor’s eye. If your excitement wanes before you complete the piece, your writing will lose the spark that ignited it. 

            I first heard of Margaret Wilson when I was proofreading for a now defunct publishing company. I was awed by her unshakeable faith that enabled her to die a martyr’s death at the age of seventeen. I couldn’t get her out of my mind. It was at least thirty years after I first read the inscription from her grave marker in a Scots kirkyard that my novel was published. Since I was writing about a foreigner living in her native land, it was a challenge to make the story authentic.

It took two trips to Scotland and several years of e-mail exchanges with my Scots friends before this story took shape. (Pleasant fringe benefits!)

I found general information about family life in Scots reference books borrowed through ILL, but they didn’t tell me fine details such as how family members addressed each other. I learned that from reading books about life in Scotland, written by Scots.

Margaret lived at a time when an immoral king attempted to force the Presbyterian Church in southwestern Scotland to accept him as its head. To understand her plight, I dug out histories of that time period.  

Though Margaret didn’t have reason to travel far, I still needed to know how her father traveled and for what reason. Not finding this information in reference books, I quizzed my Scots writer who had researched this time period for a book she was writing.

Vocabulary and speech patterns must reflect the era accurately. Modern idioms slip into your story unawares. When in doubt, look up a word or phrase. I keep by my desk English through the Ages for checking such things. I found some useful Scots words and phrases accidently when checking certain words in The Synonym Finder. The big Random House Unabridged, Second Edition gives word origins and usage notes.

My integrity as a writer is at stake with each new publication and so is yours. You must be absolutely certain your references are reliable. If something you read amazes you, it’s unwise to accept it as gospel unless you find the same information in two reputable sources, such as credentialed researchers and trustworthy encyclopedias and reference works.  I found many helpful resources in the bibliographies of books written about events in 17th century Scotland.

Social customs differ from family to family, from North to South, from one era to the next and from one country to another.  To know about Margaret’s life I had to find and read stories about Scots children growing up in the 17th century.

I searched for years for information about Margaret’s childhood.  Imagine my joy, when I found a book, published in 1897, describing her early life. What a bonanza, so I thought.

              When I shared some of the things I’d learned from this book with my Scots historical writer, she was aghast. That writer’s repeated scenes of Margaret’s early evening visits with her mentor in Drumjargon were impossible inasmuch as that village was twenty miles away from Margaret’s home in Glenvernoch.  Authentic information?  Hardly!  How could I trust anything else in that book.

            Had I not visited Scotland to experience the ambience of this delightful county while corroborating the details in my manuscript, it would have been full of misinformation.

 Bottom line: Play it safe, even when you are not writing about life in a foreign country five hundred years ago. Don’t write about a place without visiting it unless you have contact with someone who lives there and is willing to vet your story.

                           About Hope Irvin Marston: 

Hope Irvin Marston is a native of central Pennsylvania, the eighth child in a farm family of nine, an honor’s graduate of Lock Haven (PA) High School, Milligan College (TN) and SUNY at Geneseo. She and her husband of fifty years share their Black River (NY) home with Heidi, a lovable Bernese mountain dog. A former junior high school teacher/library media specialist in Watertown (NY), Hope retired in 1990 to write full time. Her bio is listed in Something about the Author (Gale).
She is a member of the New York State Retired Teachers, the Greater Thousand Islands Literacy Council, the Jeff-Lewis Librarians Association, the Adirondack Center for Writing, the St. Lawrence County Arts Council, the North Country Arts Council and SCBWI. She organized the Black River Valley Writers Club and served as its leader for several years. Later she founded the North Country Children’s Writers and Illustrators arm of SCBWI and directed the annual writing conference for five years. 
In addition to writing thirty-two children’s books and several adult titles, Hope has been on staff for Christian Writers Conferences at Hephzibah Heights (MA), Montrose Bible Conference (PA) and at St. Davids Christian Writers Conference at Beaver Falls, PA. She has taught creative writing workshops at Jefferson Community College, the Jefferson-Lewis Teacher Center, and the North Country Arts Council.
Her picture book series, MY LITTLE BOOK COLLECTION (Windward), has grown to eight titles thus far and has 125,000 books in print.
Hope was a book reviewer for the now defunct Provident Book Finder.  She currently writes reviews for Church Libraries.
Hope does school visits from kindergarten through post-graduate college and presents writing workshops for kids and adults. When she is not researching, reading or writing, you may find her cooking or baking in the kitchen, or out walking Heidi.

The World of Ink Network will be touring three of award-winning author Hope Irvin Marston books. Her most recent release Eye on the Iditarod: Aisling’s Quest (ISBN: 978-0-89317-071-4) is a biography, but was written as an autobiography. Windward Publishing (An imprint of Finney Company) released the book December 1, 2011. The other two books on tour are My Little Book of Bald Eagles also from Windward Publishing (An imprint of Finney Company) and Against the Tide: The Valor of Margaret Wilson from P & R Publishing. 

You can find out more about Hope Irvin Marston’s World of Ink Author/Book Tour schedule at There will be giveaways, reviews, interviews, guest posts and more. Make sure to stop by and interact with Marston and the hosts at the different stops by leaving comments and/or questions. For each comment, you will be entered into the big Giveaway at the end of the tour.

In addition, come listen on February 6, 2012 to Blog Talk Radio’s World of Ink Network show: Stories for Children at The hosts VS Grenier and Irene Roth will be chatting with Hope Irvin Marston about her books, writing, the publishing industry and experiences. The show will air live February 6, 2012 at 2pm EST. You can listen/call in at (714) 242-5259. (Note: if you can’t make the show, you can listen on demand at the same link.)

To learn more about the World of Ink Tours visit:  

1 comment:

Aline Alexander New said...

That's an interesting story about the 1897 source that turned out to be so fl of false information. Thanks for such a good example of why we need to be on our guard. @Aline Alexander Newman