Research Notes · 04/28/2017

The Widow's Guide to Edible Mushrooms

Our Research Notes series invites authors to describe their process for a recent book, with “research” defined as broadly as they like. This week, Chauna Craig writes about The Widow’s Guide to Edible Mushrooms from Press 53.

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Ah, Correction: The Fiction of Real Places

I woke in the middle of the night after my story collection’s publication to a text from an acquaintance, a voracious reader who’d already plowed through the first few stories. She wrote to let me know I’d made an error.

This reader is a librarian who, like me, grew up in Great Falls, Montana, the setting for many of my stories. Accuracy is everything to her. I strive for it, too. While working on a childhood memoir, I searched archives at the city’s public library, printed copies from microfiche, and took detailed notes. I even located the house in which one of my high school classmates was murdered then stood outside it questioning the line between my drive for factual detail and morbid interest.

My friendly fact-checker texted her lesson: “Ah, correction. It was the 9th Street Bridge, not 10th Street. Kept for its architectural history. It became a walking bridge. I’m glad it stayed, as its arches were so pretty, not like the 15th St. Bridge, constructed in the late 1960s or early 1970s. Until that bridge was built, only the Central Avenue Bridge and the 9th St. Bridge offered Riverview & Valley View neighborhoods access to downtown.”

The story’s title, “This Is History,” certainly sets up expectations for factual accuracy. Except it’s used ironically. The character speaking that line intends it as justification for anything and everything. In one instance it serves as her last, lame defense for the preservation of a smokestack the city intends to demolish, a real event in the real history of Great Falls, Montana. In 1908, the year it was built, the Anaconda Copper Company’s chimney stood at 506 feet tall. It was the world’s tallest smokestack then, a point of pride for a small Western city. In the fictional story, the narrator’s mother joins S.O.S. (Save Our Stack), an organization that tries to raise money to repair and preserve the stack. The narrator then refers to later, similar efforts fueled by Great Falls’ fierce attachment to its own history, like the successful campaign to save an old bridge.

That bridge is, as I wrote, the 10th Street Bridge with its beautiful arch supports rising out of the water, repurposed now as a jetty from which tourists can admire the Missouri River. The current, functional-but-boring bridge extends from 9th Street. My fact-checker had misremembered the street and assumed her own memory as fact (something we all do, and the reason I try very hard to confirm my memories, whether writing fiction or memoir).

She missed the greater deviation from fact in that same story. A family goes to watch the demolition of the Big Stack on a beautiful spring morning when I knew, even as I drafted the story, that the actual event took place in September. I’m going to be called out on that sooner or later, and in this case, my defense is genre. This is not history. This is fiction. The story tells of a conflicted family holding out hope for the future in that clichéd but true way in which spring can awaken a sense of renewal in the most cynical of hearts. Their struggle for the future plays out in the details of the cold spring wind, and the wildflowers just budding — carelessly crushed underfoot, but springing up again. The blackened, sterile smokestack expected to dissolve into ash and clear the way for new growth still has one last surprise. Everyone claims temporary victory at the end of the story, and we’re left with the promise of a more bountiful season ahead — and also the reminder that winter always returns.

I don’t assign a date or even a month to the setting of “This Is History.” But all the details support seasonal spring while the actual demolition was scheduled for September 18, the start of my seventh grade year. Even if I hadn’t researched the details of the event in newspaper archives, I would be able to determine year and season from a photograph my father took of my brother and I sitting on the guardrail along Upper River Road, the doomed stack in the background. I see autumn in the long slant of afternoon sunlight; the yellowing trees on the riverbank; my then-fashionable baseball t-shirt with lilac sleeves and a Shirt Tales iron-on so shiny that my back-to-school clothes are still obviously new.

Fictional license is different from factual error. I’ll defend the former and shake my head in scholarly disappointment at the sloppiness of the latter. I carefully read my manuscript dozens of times. Two professional editors combed it, and only one caught my egregious misspelling of Reye’s Syndrome. Even then, upon flipping through the published volume, I winced to recognize a geographical mistake. (My favorite fact-checker hasn’t texted me about that yet.)

Perhaps the most crucial distinction between fact and fiction in “This Is History” is that although I, like the narrator, was about twelve years old in 1982 and living in Great Falls, I never witnessed the demolition of the Big Stack. I had a Saturday morning job cleaning up the parking lot of Mr. Steak, for which I earned two dollars and a free lunch. I was raised with the work ethic of many a Western conservative: you have a job, you do it — whether you’re tired, ill, or missing out on history. Because we wouldn’t be there on demolition day, my father took my brother and me to say goodbye to the stack the afternoon before. My mother didn’t accompany us, asserting that it was silly to care about a bunch of ugly bricks.

I missed the explosion, but I saw the pictures in the Tribune, and when that Monday my classmates buzzed with stories about the party atmosphere by the river, I knew I’d missed out. I didn’t really understand what I’d missed until the next summer. Returning home from vacation, I looked ahead on the highway, anticipating the slender stack pointing up from the distant horizon. How many times had my heart lifted upon seeing it, knowing that we really were almost home? This time I saw only rolling plains. I’d lost the needle to the compass of my own homing device.

When writing fiction based in real places and events, there are facts — details like the height of the smokestack, the year it was erected, and the year it was demolished — that I researched to verify. There are also deliberate reinventions, such as changing the season of a real event to better amplify the fictional events — acceptable in the genre of fiction, as long as I remember the difference between intentional invention and literal truth.

Finally, there is another kind of research: discoveries in the process of writing. I expect or at least hope for personal revelations when writing memoir, where the subject is always, on some level, the self. “This Is History” is fiction. Though the setting is real, the family’s lives, problems, and actions in relation to the real place and event emerged from my imagination. But I now believe I also wrote this story for my imagination. I never got to witness the final moments of the smokestack that had been part of my personal and literal horizons for the first twelve years of my life. That gap in my own history couldn’t be filled by facts. I had to mine my own nostalgia, regret, and even the memory of other people’s memories to lend weight and authenticity to my narrator’s wistful tone. And if I’ve done all that research well enough, the gaps between history and fiction close, the fact-checkers forget what they were looking to correct and why, and the story lives its own life.

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Chauna Craig has published stories and essays in numerous anthologies and literary journals, including Ploughshares, Prairie Schooner, Fourth Genre, and Sou’wester. She’s been awarded fellowships and scholarships to Vermont Studio Center, Hedgebrook, and Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference. A Montana native, she currently lives in western Pennsylvania. The Widow’s Guide to Edible Mushrooms is her debut story collection.