Our Research Notes series invites authors to describe their process for a recent book, with “research” defined as broadly as they like. This week, Nick Ripatrazone writes about Ember Days from Braddock Avenue Books.
“Ember Days,” the titular novella of my new collection of stories, began as a five-page story set in the shadow of the Nye County, Nevada nuclear tests. The central character was a young distance runner who ran in circles and squares in the dusty desert. His grandfather had developed the bomb at Los Alamos.
The Nevada landscape worked well for the imagistic style of that earlier version, but the story’s vignettes didn’t hold the immediacy I was hoping for in a more final work of fiction. I realized that the story’s problem was one of setting. The atomic bomb had been developed in Santa Fe, and tested south of there, in Alamogordo. The story needed to be set closer to that world, rather than the later testing out in Nevada.
I began researching the culture, history, and fallout of the New Mexico tests, to the point of obsession: short films of the mushroom cloud were played on loops, as if that psychotropic reel could make me feel what it was like to experience that blinding, early morning moment. That experiential research was supplemented, and soon overtaken by, the search for hard facts. I spent long afternoons at libraries, or taking home books from interlibrary loan as if they were contraband. I was in regular contact with the historian at the White Sands Missile Range, the facility that now owns the land. The historian was intrigued by this graduate student from Newark, so he was generous: topographical maps, federally-commissioned oral histories, and the crown jewel for a fiction writer who has never been to the town he is making fictional: advertisements, pamphlets, local marginalia about Socorro.
Although I was having fun, I was about to learn an essential lesson about writing historical fiction. The present tense action of the story was set in 1975, but my narrative reached all the way back to the Pueblo Revolt of 1680; when the Piro Pueblos of Socorro, New Mexico declined to fight. It was on the surrounding land of that bloody revolt — the parched, unforgiving Jornada del Muerto — that Americans first tested the atomic bomb on July 16, 1945.
My desire for historical accuracy and layering had replaced my devotion to the art of fiction. One of my mentors at Rutgers-Newark, H. Bruce Franklin, said the manuscript was readymade for PhD students in Southwestern American history — but that they were already too exhausted from low-pay teaching to read expansive novels. In short, he said my research had taken over the book. Drama had become subservient to history.
I set aside the story for a while, and came back later with a better mindset: now that I knew the history of the region and the test, I was able to identify which parts of the story existed as a form of egotistical prose — me showing off my knowledge — and what was information that the reader actually needed. It was a humbling, much-needed experience.
My research had discovered more symbolism than I could pack into one story, but there was one detail I couldn’t shake: a bomb named Trinity had been tested at a town whose name meant “help” — and whose previous residents had rejected an earlier call for war. As the drafts piled and piled and were tossed, I started shaving the abundant research, the forced details, and instead allowed the spirit of that symbol to inform the story. Readers didn’t want a history lesson; they wanted action and characterization, with history as the backdrop. I pared the story to its most essential element: the extreme guilt of an atomic scientist when confronted with a man whose life was destroyed by his creation.
Ember Days taught me that there is a process to researching fiction. Raw concept is followed by intensive, voluminous research. Next comes the writing of a draft informed by that research — a draft that often feels more like history text than story. Researched material then needs to recede into the story’s narrative background, so that the characters and plot can find their rightful place at the foreground. For me, that meant allowing some very interesting material to remain in note form, to never reach the printed pages. Research is for the writer; story is for the reader.