Thursday, April 05, 2018

Researching and Writing Historical Fiction, a guest post by Elaine Neil Orr

Today I have a short post by Elaine Neil Orr, whose new novel Swimming Between Worlds (Berkley, April), set in Nigeria and in North Carolina during the Civil Rights Movement, is one I'll be reviewing in May.


Researching and Writing Historical Fiction
Elaine Neil Orr

I don’t wait to finish research before I start writing. I start in tandem, perhaps because writing itself is the spark for me. Very soon, however, the research process begins and sparks begin to fly. I find that even the least digging into the soil of the past yields riches.

One of my favorite forms of research is to go there. My first novel, A Different Sun: a Novel of Africa, is inspired by the journal of a nineteenth century missionary woman. I journeyed to the places she had lived and traveled in the mid-nineteenth century in what is present-day Nigeria.

I wanted to see what varieties of native trees she had seen. Was the land that met her eyes hilly or flat? Were there outcroppings of rock? Where was the nearest stream? (I knew there was an historical marker where she and her husband had begun their first Sunday School.)

With Swimming Between Worlds, my new novel set in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, I was able to travel often. My home in Raleigh is less than two hours away. The novel is set in the late 1950s and 60s in an early suburb of the city, where craftsman and Victorian houses line curvilinear streets.

Photo of Tacker's house (Swimming Between Worlds)

Walking, I began to feel my story in the muscles of my legs! Because the novel covers a year, I drove over in every season, observing the dogwoods in their annual course, smelling fires coming from chimneys in the winter, listening to music wafting from open windows in the spring.

The lunch-counter sit-ins of the early Civil Rights Movement are a catalyst for the three major characters in the novel. I peered into the windows of the old Woolworths building, imagining where the counter had been, with the chrome and vinyl stools.

The tactile, sensory nature of this research brings me into a kind of communion with my character that I don’t think I could achieve without going there. I feel a spiritual connection. There is something transporting about being there. For me, it’s what brings the story to life.


About Swimming Between Worlds: Tacker Hart left his home in North Carolina as a local high school football hero, but returns in disgrace after being fired from a prestigious architectural assignment in West Africa. Yet the culture and people he grew to admire have left their mark on him. Adrift, he manages his father's grocery store and becomes reacquainted with a girl he barely knew growing up.

Kate Monroe's parents have died, leaving her the family home and the right connections in her Southern town. But a trove of disturbing letters sends her searching for the truth behind the comfortable life she's been bequeathed.

Elaine Neil Orr
(credit: Elizabeth Galecke
On the same morning but at different moments, Tacker and Kate encounter a young African-American, Gaines Townson, and their stories converge with his. As Winston-Salem is pulled into the tumultuous 1960s, these three Americans find themselves at the center of the civil rights struggle, coming to terms with the legacies of their pasts as they search for an ennobling future.

Elaine Neil Orr is professor of English at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, where she teaches world literature and creative writing. She also serves on the faculty of the low-residency MFA in Writing program at Spalding University in Louisville. Author of A Different Sun, two scholarly books, and the memoir Gods of Noonday: A White Girl's African Life, she has been a featured speaker and writer-in-residence at numerous universities and conferences and is a frequent fellow at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. She grew up in Nigeria. Visit her website at


  1. I read A Different Sun a few years ago and really enjoyed it. I need to get my hands on a copy of her memoir. I'm sure it would be interesting.

    1. That does sound interesting - I'd like to read it myself. Likewise for A Different Sun, which I've been meaning to get to.