Research Notes · 03/01/2013

Haven's Wake

Our Research Notes series invites authors to describe their research for a recent book, with “research” defined as broadly as they like. This week, Ladette Randolph writes about Haven’s Wake (University of Nebraska Press).

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My second novel, Haven’s Wake, is set on an organic farm in eastern Nebraska in July of 2009. Told from the perspective of three characters over a period of three days, it is the story of a Mennonite family dealing with the aftermath following the death of the family patriarch, Haven Grebel.

Because my first published novel was told from the point of view of one woman over a period of twelve years, I wanted to do something very different with this novel. Where A Sandhills Ballad had been sprawling, I wanted Haven’s Wake to be concise. It is meant to be a story about perception, and I wanted the three point of view characters to disrupt and trouble the perspectives of the other narrators. I wanted to distill a complex family history into its most elemental parts. The challenge was to avoid writing a summary while achieving the brevity I sought.

As a fifth generation Nebraskan, I knew the setting of the story well; however, because I wasn’t living in the state in 2009, I had to research the weather and other particulars of the specific year about which I was writing. I also had to consult maps to remind myself which roads and highways would likely lead to the fictional town of Bethel. And during a trip back to Nebraska in July of 2010, when I was finishing the novel, I took particular note of the sights, and sounds, and smells in early July. These are the kinds of sensory details I value in my own reading and feel it important to include in my own work.

Although I have extended family members who are conservative Mennonite (as distinct from Old Order Mennonite which more resembles the Amish), I’m not a Mennonite myself. I didn’t know enough to write with confidence about the doctrines and culture of the Mennonite community. The serious research required of me in writing this novel was to gain a greater knowledge and understanding of that culture. I read a lot about Mennonite history, Mennonite doctrine and religious practice, and I read novels and memoirs by Mennonite writers. I read a bit of The Martyrs’ Mirror — a massive record of the 500-year history of religious persecution of the Mennonites.

One of the central doctrines of Mennonite faith is that their members will not bear arms under any circumstances. As you might expect, this commitment to pacifism has been the cause of countless conflicts through their long history, and it has led not only to suffering but also to wandering. While the Mennonite diaspora is a fascinating history, for the purposes of my novel, it had limited importance, and, as all writers know, as important as it is to have knowledge about what you’re writing, it’s equally important to forget it when you actually start writing. Haven’s Wake is not a story about Mennonites; it’s a story about people who happen to be Mennonite.

While engaging in these traditional forms of research, I was doing another kind of research altogether through the writing process itself, discovering as I wrote who exactly it was I was writing about. This was the first novel I’d written (I’d written two unpublished novels before I published my first) where I had little idea who my characters were. Instead, I’d been fascinated for years with a particular dynamic I’d observed in many rural families where it’s common for grown children to stay and work with their parents on the family farm or ranch. It isn’t unusual in these situations for one parent or the other to be domineering.

I have no idea why this phenomenon interested me so much, but in retrospect I can now see, it was already apparent in a small way in A Sandhills Ballad. In that case, it was a father who dominated his five sons in their ranch operation. The predictable outcome was that most of his sons eventually left the ranch to strike out on their own. In the case of the Grebel family, though, it was the influence of a domineering mother that concerned me.

At the risk of being too much a student of my own work, let me add that once I’d finished this novel I saw yet another overlap between the two novels (apparently I’m only now discovering my own obsessions as a writer) and that was the impact of what I think of as “improper grieving.” In the case of the matriarch in Haven’s Wake, improper grieving takes the form of an exquisite denial. The rest of the story is what results when denial is confused with faith.

But I only discovered these themes after many drafts. During the five years it took me to write this novel, I often felt as though I was working with water. Again and again, I briefly captured the story only to have it slip away. There were a lot of words on a lot of pages. Characters were speaking and acting. But when I tried to revise, I encountered a strange elusiveness in the structure itself. I found it incredibly challenging to write in this way; it was so different from my previous experience. As a result, in the early drafts I adopted a strategy of metanarrative as part of the process. Once I finished each section, I stepped away from the story and talked to myself. I asked myself who these characters were and why they were doing what they were doing, trying through this process to unearth their motivations and their history. It was the only way I could find to create believable characters.

I also spent a lot more time than I had in writing my previous novels in writing character studies, family histories, even lexicons for each of the three point of view characters and many of the minor characters, too, realizing as I worked — as all writers surely do — that this same story would be told differently were it told by any one of the minor characters.

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Ladette Randolph is the editor-in-chief of Ploughshares magazine and is Distinguished Publisher-in-Residence at Emerson College. She is the award-winning author of A Sandhills Ballad (Nebraska, 2011) and This Is Not the Tropics and is the editor of two anthologies, including A Different Plain: Contemporary Nebraska Fiction Writers, both available in Bison Books editions. She is the recipient of the Pushcart Prize, a Rona Jaffe Foundation grant, four Nebraska Book Awards, and the Virginia Faulkner Award.