Research Notes · 02/10/2017

The Young Widower's Handbook

Our Research Notes series invites authors to describe their process for a recent book, with “research” defined as broadly as they like. This week, Tom McAllister writes about The Young Widower’s Handbook from Algonquin Books.

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When people ask how my wife feels about my having written a book about a young man’s wife dying, I tell them she’s the one who helped me kill her.

When I started working on The Young Widower’s Handbook, I knew two things: the book would open with the death of an ostensibly healthy young woman, and then her husband would take his wife’s ashes on a cross-country road trip. The rest I figured out later. Both of these foundational elements required different kinds of research to really make them work.

First, I needed to figure out the death. I wanted the wife, Kait, to die in a way that was sudden, unexpected, and not preventable. This ruled out cancer and other progressive diseases. I wanted to avoid something gruesome like a murder because that would change the whole tone of the book, and I thought a car accident would be a cliché. I worried about dropping a piano on her or staging some other kind of freak accident, because I didn’t want it to seem like slapstick. What I needed was for these two happily married people to wake up one morning feeling normal, and then rip it away from them before the end of the day. So I began my research where I almost always do — I asked my wife. She is a nurse, and nearly everyone in her family works in the medical field, so I counted on her to guide me toward a medically plausible cause of death for someone like Kait. My wife has spent most of her career working with children with congenital heart defects, so we started by discussing the possibility of an undiagnosed heart problem being the culprit. There was the potential for some (possibly overwrought) metaphorical weight in Kait dying from a malfunctioning heart and leaving her husband grief-stricken, but every angle we discussed there would have involved either implausible medical details or a level of explanatory exposition that would have been boring to write and more boring to read.

Eventually, we arrived at the answer: an ectopic pregnancy leading to a massive hemorrhage. In an ectopic pregnancy, a woman’s egg is fertilized in the fallopian tube, and though it’s not necessarily a fatal condition, it can be if it’s undetected and the fallopian tube ruptures. The fact that her husband, Hunter, is implicated in the death made it a perfect way to complicate the grief and guilt he feels after she dies.

After Kait dies, Hunter decides to take her ashes with him on a road trip so that he can fulfill the promises he’d made to her that they would someday travel the country. It’s an effort at living the life they’d been planning but never got to experience. To do this right, I needed to conduct a fair amount of research into possible destinations, logical routes, and other details about the huge chunks of the country I’ve never seen but had to describe.

This research, I’m embarrassed to admit, started with googling a lot of maps and reminding myself where all the states are positioned in relation to one another. My primary hurdle here was in overcoming my own geographical ignorance. I printed a couple maps and drew several routes on them in different ink colors, though I later realized this exercise didn’t actually help me much; it was, in hindsight, exactly the sort of nonsense distraction I tend to create for myself when I’m afraid to just sit down and write.

Once I’d roughly mapped out a path for Hunter to follow, I went to Wikipedia, for pages like this one, sorting cities and towns within a given state by population, size, etc. I identified potential stops along this route, and then I went to Roadside America, a great resource for noteworthy, strange, and overlooked attractions across the country, like this sculpture of the world’s largest set of praying hands. I didn’t want to go overboard in forcing Hunter into stops at quirky locations, but I also wanted to make sure the places where he stopped were particular, memorable, and specific to a place, rather than a series of similar bars and cafés in front of different landscape backdrops. I spent a lot of hours digging through these archives, trying to find places that would be interesting to write about, and also potentially fruitful in building the narrative.

Though I’ve traveled a lot, including a number of road trips with my wife, I knew there was no way I could pass myself off as an expert on every place along the road. What I wanted was to pick a handful of useful, characterizing details on a place to convince the reader they could trust me, and then keep moving forward. My job, as I saw it, was to do enough research to be able to convincingly fake it, to create a realistic version of the places where I wanted Hunter to go, and then let the characters take over. If I pushed too hard on trying to prove my credibility as a New Mexico expert, for example, my ignorance would surely have revealed itself immediately. The point of the novel isn’t the specific destinations; it’s the journey itself and Hunter’s attempts to cope with his loss. The road trip is just a catalyst, a tool for giving the plot its shape and forcing Hunter into unfamiliar territory. I used the research to understand where he was going, but I want the reader to be so immersed in his story that the particulars on the side of the road are a secondary concern.

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A Philadelphia native, Tom McAllister lives in New Jersey, teaches at Temple, and is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, an editor at Barrelhouse, and the author of a memoir, Bury Me in My Jersey: A Memoir of My Father, Football, and Philly. The Young Widower’s Handbook is his first novel.