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The Novelist as Detective: Searching for Fiction in Non-Fiction

Jenny Hubbard

I am not the first writer to fear that I will run out of ideas.  Now that I, at age 50, write stories starring teenagers, I can’t help but think that there are only so many resources left in my memory bank.   When I began writing And We Stay (a 2015 Printz Honor Book), I had no idea that Emily Dickinson would play a role, but, along the way, when Emily Beam, my seventeen-year-old protagonist, began writing poems, I thought, Well, here’s an opportunity for me to rekindle my relationship with the Belle of Amherst, a relationship that soured over time as, year after year, I attempted to inspire my students, 16- and 17-year-old boys, with her uniqueness of vision.

So, as Emily Beam walked the streets of Amherst in 1995, I walked the streets of Amherst in 1847, the year that Emily Dickinson was seventeen.  I read several biographies of the poet but only up to the point that she turned 18, and these histories helped to texture my fiction, lending authenticity and nuance to my work.  Plus, along the way, I fell in love all over again with Dickinson and learned much more about her than I’d known in all the twelve years I taught her poetry.  

I was looking for clues—anecdotes, favourite possessions, names of prominent families—that would serve the story I was telling.  And it was fun, more fun than making it all up myself.  Yes, I took detours and followed tangents that kicked me out of my story, but eventually, I wandered my way to freshwater springs.

After I finished And We Stay, feeling bereft of Emily Dickinson’s company, I made a list of people, places, and topics that I wanted to learn more about and began checking books out of the library.  Art history, Alice Roosevelt, the Hebrides Islands off the coast of Scotland…. The list keeps growing, and I keep growing with it.  

Art history led me to Andrew Wyeth who led me to Helga Testorf, Wyeth’s model for years.  There’s a story there, I am sure, especially because Wyeth didn’t share many details about their relationship, and neither (as far as I can tell) has Helga.  I haven’t planned a novel based on either of these two real people, but somewhere in the future, there could be a teenage girl who ends up being an artist’s model, though I suppose Tracy Chevalier covered this ground with Girl with a Pearl Earring, which sprouted from a desire to explore the expression on the face of the girl in her favourite painting.  Chevalier didn’t even have to leave her house for the novel to bloom; a copy of Vermeer’s enigmatic portrait hung in her bedroom.

Every real-life old person was once 16.  Every real-life plot of land provides the setting for a plot.  Every object in your house offers a concrete beginning, something on which to hang your research.  Recently, I found a bird’s nest on the sidewalk.  What type of bird built it?  What type of person collects bird’s nests?  Finding the answers to these questions lead me to non-fiction accounts on bird watching and bird watchers. And, if I am paying attention like a good writer should, I’ll find a story worthy of my investment, worthy of my love, which is what writing fiction is—a love of words and the life of the imagination, a love of secrets uncovered and the small revelations of what it means to be human. 

Both of Jenny’s novels—Paper Covers Rock (2011) and And We Stay (2014)—published by Penguin Random House, earned major awards from the American Library Association and other esteemed organizations.  You can find out more about the author and her work, represented by Jonathan Lyons of Curtis Brown, LTD, at