I’ve never traveled for my writing before, but this September I found myself in Jasper County, IN, researching for my historical fictional novel, which I’m tentatively calling Beneath the Black Oak. Focusing on an Amish girl during WWI and rising tensions against anything considered German in the U.S., I had been trying to place my fictional town somewhere in Indiana — go with what you know, right?
After speaking with a professor who specializes in Anabaptist history, I began to favor Jasper County, which at the time of WWI had a small Amish community — though they later moved — and also had a close proximity to Chicago thanks to the Monon Railroad. There were, of course, questions about whether or not the county would be a completely good fit, but at least with a fictional town, I have some added leeway.
Thankfully, the Rensselaer Library had a book specifically about Jasper County during the Great War, and since it was in the local history/genealogy section, it could not be checked out through interlibrary loan so . . . ROAD TRIP!
A two-hour drive later and I have no regrets. The book was invaluable, though it poked one small hole into my planned story, specifically it stating there was no recorded opposition to the draft. But this hole comes with a caveat, namely the time period during which Jasper County and the World War was produced. The county had put it together shortly after the war to highlight its support of the war effort — and let me say, Jasper County really did go all out despite its small size. The war may have been over, but the book still reflects that patriotic fervor from 1917-18, so perhaps they didn’t want to include too much focus on conscientious objectors. Additionally, a fictional town might allow me to skirt this issue.
Beyond the visit to the library, I also visited downtown Rensselaer, and it gave me a lot of good ideas of what my fictional town might look like as far as architecture goes while the drive to the city gave me an idea of what the surrounding area would look like. To my surprise, Jasper County is flatter than my native counties of Elkhart and Kosciusko. It also — to my equal shock — might even be more agricultural.
There were even greater stretches of cornfields than back home, where they are more broken up by houses, barns, woods, and the like.
The Iroquois River proved to be an inspiration as well, and as I follow it and the Monon Railroad, I landed on a potential location for my fictional town — on top of some farmer’s home. 😉
Overall, it was a fun experience to travel for a book. I got to chat with a few locals, eat lunch at the coolest restaurant, complete solid research, visit the cutest little coffee shop, and just bathe in the sights with a writer’s mindset. If you write fiction where you can actually visit a physical location, I would highly recommend it — even if that place might have changed some since the time period in which your characters dwelled in it. While time passes, history does lurk under the modern veneer.