Our Research Notes series invites authors to describe their process for a recent book, with “research” defined as broadly as they like. This week, Lee Matthew Goldberg writes about The Ancestor from Down & Out Books.
Research is one of my favorite parts of being a fiction writer. It’s less stressful than the actual writing process, and even though I tend to plot out most of a book, the research winds up guiding the narrative. My new novel The Ancestor had more research than normal, since it was my first stab at historical fiction. A man wakes up in the Alaskan wilderness with amnesia, but slowly begins to have memories of his wife and child, except that it’s from the late 1800s when he left them to become a prospector during the Alaskan Gold Rush.
He begins to journal everything he remembers from the fatal expedition before he became suspended in ice, so a third of the book takes place a hundred and twenty years ago. I had recently finished a different novel set in the 1990s, and while there was a lot of research about the grunge era, I lived it so a lot came from memory too. The sources for the late 1890s would have to be predominantly from books. The two I drew the most inspiration from were Klondike: The Last Great Gold Rush by Pierre Barton and The Floor of Heaven by Howard Blum, but the biggest help wound up being the documentary Dawson City: Frozen Time, which focuses on the history of that town deep in the Yukon. Over five hundred silent film reels had been unearthed that were thought be lost and buried in 1929. The town became a mecca for those seeking fortune and then a few years later, the gold dried up and it turned into a ghost town. The town mirrored the plight of my main character Wyatt, who finds his gold riches only to be frozen on ice before he could bring them back to his family. Seeing actual footage of the town during that time was invaluable to bringing it to life.
Since The Ancestor is set in Alaska, I also I read ton of books that explore the area like Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer, The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey, Heroes of the Frontier by Dave Eggers, The Call of the Wild and White Fang by Jack London, and rewatched some episodes of Northern Exposure. The town Laner that it takes place in is made up, so I didn’t want to do too much research that would color what had already begun to marinate. But I needed to make sure that a native Alaskan would believe it as well.
I wrote the book during the winter of 2018, which in the Northeast was colder than usual with many days below freezing. It was essential to be in the cold while writing about it, and I finished a draft just as things seemed to thaw. My father had passed away right before as well, and the book became a therapy of sorts. My main character had lost his family and was searching for how to move on, as was I. The theme of death is pervasive throughout. While my fiction usually strays from my real life, in The Ancestor it became infused. Even though the plot isn’t about my father, he is alive in every word, on every page. He was my best reader, and I know its story with a dash of adventure and sci-fi would’ve been his thing. And because of that, it’s dedicated to him and all the ancestors we’ve loved and lost.