Filling in the Blanks – Research for my historical novel

by Tonya Rice

Recently, I finally made it to the Library of Virginia to fill in some of the blanks left in my novel. It sounds like a trek across state lines, but for me, it wasn’t. It’s in downtown Richmond, about a fifteen to twenty minute drive from home. I had to plan the time and the days I made it offered the moments I required. I have to return soon, but for the most part, I got pretty much what I need for this book AND the other historical stories shaping in my head.

I’ve been there before. It had been a while; I had to renew my card. :-/ No problem at all – it’s the research geek’s paradise and I fit right in.

My novel has been built upon memory, oral history, and a great deal of imagination. Authenticity is very important to me and with tackling a historical piece set in my hometown, I’m sure there will be readers familiar with Richmond history with equally scrutinizing eyes who will expect a fine sense of some type of accuracy along with my creative license.

Back in the mid-70’s, a pivotal event happens to the main characters. All I could see was the two of them standing on the steps of a particular building. However, I needed to know if the building was indeed there on that particular day. Of all the things you can find online, that was one that I couldn’t. Not even through Wikipedia (which one must take with a grain of salt anyway). So, I approached one of the reference librarians who went straight to a book with the information I needed. Walking around the stacks pertaining to Richmond’s history, which included city directories of oh-so-many years, I exclaimed, “This is a wonderland”. She laughed and agreed. It felt so nice to be understood. Armed with my new information – the building in question didn’t exist then – I had to determine just where their activity on that day would have taken place instead. For that, I simply asked my mom.

By Smash the Iron Cage (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons
A different building in the city that I had envisioned another character driving to in the late 1950’s needed verification of its existence at that time. For that, I decided to search the microfilm for advertisements and sure enough, there it was – a full-page ad in an old Richmond Times-Dispatch. At one point, I needed the name of a building of a college campus. I couldn’t just add it to the book – I needed to make sure it was actually there in the mid-1970’s. I got a hold of the college’s student handbook of that year and found what I needed. This place is AWESOME!

In an important moment of my story set in the 1970’s, a character is watching television. Since dates are noted in the book, it was absolutely crucial that the show she had on represented just what was on the air at that time. I remembered the beloved “Green Section” – the Saturday pull-out television section – of the now-defunct Richmond News Leader (it used to be our evening newspaper) and jotted it down to locate in my research. Through my search across those scores of the newspaper’s microfilm, I, again, found just what I was looking for.

In the late 1930’s, there’s a horrific event that I penned. In order to make sure I tackled the reporting of the incident the way I imagined it to be in a particular newspaper, I combed through headlines of the old Richmond Planet, the black newspaper, of that period. I was on par and therefore relieved. There’s no better way to research history than to take a look at what was going on during a certain era. History books have been helpful, even some documentaries along with my memory and oral history, but those direct resources and contemporary materials triggered additional memories of more things, along with questions about subsequent and even earlier events. Such research wound up offering suggestions as to how I could settle my folks around those times as well as settling those moments around them. It also delivered a lot more meat for other stories shaping up in my head. So even if I don’t use all of it for this one, the information and my time aren’t wasted.

I sincerely do hope that my story teaches a bit of history and culture of an earlier time to my readers, the way historical novels enlighten me. I am actually blessed beyond measure to be so close to a spot with so many of the details I need to fully tell my stories. The internet is not enough for me. I knew it wouldn’t be. I can certainly visit there more often. I made excellent use of a good three hours there each day, so once a week or so will be easier than I thought. Parking is free there too!


Free fiction!

eveline cover 1mbComing down to the wire of my historical novel (yay!), but in the meantime, if you haven’t yet read my short story, please get your copy today… 🙂
Eveline Weaver is returning home for her uncle’s funeral. It’s a service she’d prefer to miss. Uncle Neville was not the kind, old uncle the rest of the public deemed him to be and remembering his life is not what she wants to do.
During the service she’s counting down the minutes for her flight back home in Atlanta. Only when she spots a familiar face from her past, she reconsiders going back so soon: Dodge Mallory. One embarrassing afternoon with him changed her life.
In this short trip, she must face more than she expected.

Longing for tomatoes

tomatoes1It took Garrison Keillor’s column today, “Let’s Make Tomatoes Great Again”, to leave me waxing nostalgia about favorite childhood moments. Picking tomatoes from my grandfather’s garden in my grandparents backyard is one of them. By the time my cousins and I were born, I understand that the garden was much smaller than it was when my mom was little. My grandfather was born and raised in Tennessee and after World War II, settled in Richmond. After a few years in an apartment over a corner store in Jackson Ward (that property is quite a coveted spot now, let me tell you!!!), he and my grandmother with their two kids moved into a cute house in Church Hill with a nice sized backyard. Plenty of space for a garden.

I remember being told that in their early days the garden was nearly the size of the backyard. I remember it being about half that size when I was little and sadly as he got older, the garden got smaller. Eventually to my dismay, and that of others, it was no more. He used to give peas, corn, peppers, lettuce, and tomatoes to neighbors. My fond memories as a kid include going out back to pick tomatoes off the vine and other vegetables for dinner. It was just that big.

Now with just about everything comes a consequence if it’s too much. In this case, for me, tupperwareit was the abundance of tomatoes. I still remember pulling those red, juicy, dusty things off the vine, armed with a white Tupperware salt shaker (which resembled a column), and chomping away. There’s still nothing in the world like a fresh tomato off the vine with that itty bitty dirt on it. Yep, I grew up in the city, but my grandfather’s country roots are long a part of me… along with my love for bonafide country music – the real stuff, George Jones, Merle Haggard, and Lord, don’t get me started on my girl, Patsy Cline. (And there I digress…) Anyway, my phantom tomato devouring got the best of me one summer when my face began to break out into little splotches. The doctor told me I couldn’t eat tomatoes any more. Agog, I was, no doubt. Yet, in spite of his diagnosis about the tomatoes being the culprit for my temporary malady, the medicine he prescribed worked well enough and I went back to my tomatoes! Haven’t had a problem since!

Funny thing is now – with all of the newfangled ones in the produce sections, I don’t eat them as much as I used to. I wish I’d learned to grow them myself. I’m not a fan of those cardboard Roma tomatoes. Cherry tomatoes taste like bland water. The ones left on the vine, called “Tomatoes on the Vine” are okay, but they’re so dang clean, they don’t taste like they’re “on the vine”. When I can get them fresh from a roadside vendor or a farmer’s market, I’m back in my element, and once again sitting in the middle of my grandfather’s garden next to the vine slurping up a dusty, tasty tomato with that shaker of salt.



18 Things You Can Do When You Are Being a Lazy Writer #writers #writerslife

It has been one of those struggling writer days. Not the I can’t get out of bed to write one mentioned here, of which I am also quite familiar, just the odd I can’t get comfortable day. I’ve been at my desk for hours, unable to write, and even worse, popped a movie on through the Watch TCM link (The Best Years of Our Lives, as a matter of fact). Had an errand to run and decided to go to my friendly neighborhood Starbucks where I’m like Norm… they know me and I have a favorite table there – got there and didn’t want to go in. I didn’t want to see people. I’m back at my desk and I am still having difficulty getting into my zone.

This reblog has a great list for the writer having a tough start… for me it’s been like this all day. NUMBER 9 – is the one that is setting me back into gear. With a deadline, I’d better freakin’ heed it!


Things You Can Do When You Are Being a Lazy Writer

Ever had one of those mornings where you struggle to get out of bed and all your plans of having a ‘writing day’ go out of the window?

So when you find yourself enjoying the delights of a warm bed, moaning about how tired you feel and coming up with 100 excuses for not doing any writing, here are some handy tips for turning this situation around:

  1. Change your body position.Sit up and or even better – get your lazy writer self out of bed!
  2. Splash cold water onyour face.This will wake you up.
  3. Ignore your mind.Ignore your mind when it starts to run through all the reasons of why you should stay in bed. Don’t listen to it!
  4. Repeat this: Ican day dream all I want whilst lying in bed but I can only make my dreams happen if I get out of bed!
  5. Coffee.Go…

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Your Characters Are Real People

ferklempt1Your characters are real people. Sure, writers already know that, especially when we think of characters written by others who are as real to us as people standing next to us: Meggie (The Thorn Birds), Dana (Kindred), Augie (Wonder), etc., etc. But the basic insight of this notion is altered by a certain experience just a couple of days old: My tearful drive down a busy street.

How driving down the street near my main character’s home brought me to tears.

No kidding. The other day, I’d had some running about town to do, unremarkable stuff, just work and errands, which included driving through the neighborhood where my main character wound up moving for a lengthy period of her life. (Yes, my  historical novel is set in my hometown.) I’ve traveled past that street and those homes before on many occasions over the years, even lived in the vicinity for a while, so it wasn’t at all a spectacular moment by any means.

Well, I didn’t drive down that particular street that day. I didn’t even get a glimpse of those houses. I was about a mile away from her community at the stop light at the major cross section. I looked at the street sign and was completely blindsided by this amazing wonder of feels that swept over me. I wept a little as the light turned green because I felt my main character’s PRESENCE.

I felt my main character’s PRESENCE.

I felt like she was down that street, in her home, doing her thing. Living with a capital “L”. huggsNow, as I’ve written about her family and her in their general businesses of life, of course I’ve envisioned the mundane like shopping, taking a drive across the nearby bridge, or the neighboring grocery store, and relayed just enough bits and pieces to make them all human. However, the sensation she brought to me that afternoon was different. She simply somehow floated on down to the corner and thanked me for making her so authentic off the page. This way, she’ll be as viable to others as she’s been to me for soooooo many years. She knew it and that spark of time with her made me know it too. It was time she gave to me – away from my computer, without pen and paper, without staring into space listening and watching them from the ethers. I was on her turf and I felt so welcomed. It was what I needed to remind me that I’m sure as hell not wasting my time and that I haven’t been. I’ve got a story to tell and I’m freaking doing the job pretty well.

Louder in my mind: I have NOT been wasting my time writing

Details are important for this reason. (Such a penchant can drive the folks in real-life around me insane on the non-fiction side.) They bring everything to the surface. Whatever your characters are feeling, seeing, tasting, smelling, and hearing brings the story to the reader’s senses. If they’re not in yours, they won’t make to the character, thus there’s nothing for a reader. 

In this case, setting proves to be just as crucial. That street, the home down that street, and the corner and intersection weren’t simply areas where my character was placed to do things or a flat address she was given. Oh, no, not at all – she exists there.

The biggest reward from all of that: She could feel it too, thus letting me know that she is indeed – a real person. So, thanks, Mrs. F!

Writers: When did you realize your characters were actually real people?
Readers: Which fictitious characters feel like true, real-life, breathing people to you?


Thanks for reading! For my immediate publishing updates, please stop by my website and sign up for my newsletter. My thanks to you is a FREE ebook – Shelf Space: A Short Story!



Arnie Somers: A Novelette by Tonya Rice

arnie4 (2)After a great deal of consideration, I’ve made a title change to one of my books. The Heirloom: A Novelette is now titled, Arnie Somers: A Novelette.

That previous title has been needling at me for quite some time. The story is much more about Arnie than the heirloom and this change best reflects that. It’s a sweet, poignant tale with a five-star review. After reading the blurb below, if you haven’t yet gotten your copy, go on… head over to Amazon and get it for 99 cents. Please feel free to share your thoughts about it with other readers on Amazon, Goodreads, and other book sites you use.

Thank you!!

Arnie Somers: A Novelette by Tonya Rice (Magnolia Bay Publishing, 2015)


Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller

Death of a Salesman: Certain Private Conversations in Two Acts and a RequiemDeath of a Salesman: Certain Private Conversations in Two Acts and a Requiem by Arthur Miller

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

View all my reviews

The saddest thing one can do is to spend his or her life in a job that is completely counter to the makeup of his existence. Sometimes we may not recognize what we’re bound to do until after life has begun and the responsibilities and reaping of what’s been sowed comes into play and we’re left with dismissing the would’ves and should’ves and simply surviving because that long gone side is now a pipe dream.

So – here we have, the Loman family: Willy and his sons, Biff and Happy, along with wife Linda, in the “Death of a Salesman”, surviving in such a study. Written for the stage in approximately six weeks by Arthur Miller in 1949, it examines adapting, ageism, sexism, and those pipe dreams.

Willy Loman’s father was remembered by him as one larger than life and as was his brother, Ben, now deceased. He figured he was made to follow in their footsteps selling snake oil like the best of ’em and being likable in the process. Of this sales career, he in turn, expected his sons to follow suit, regardless of whether or not it FIT them. FIT – see, that’s the optimum word. Willy was not really a salesman. It was a career he THOUGHT he could do because he saw others succeed at it. Talking big in the field became a role he had to play each day and it was tiresome. Sure, the job was the way of bringing in big commissions, big checks, but all at the expense of soul selling as he eventually realized with the added price of losing his own psyche. Willy was not in his element.

His son, Biff, had fought against him tooth and nail over the years, knowing sales – not even office work – wasn’t for him. Give the younger man the great outdoors, a farm, animals, anything but a damned suit to work under, big pearly teeth of fake smiles thrown into his view each day, and Biff was happy, settled, at peace. But – being a peace was not the general state of life that he was expected to have. His father wanted him toiling against the grain, selling himself and his products for livelihood and the hopes of big money. So, in order to appease his father, Biff gave it consideration ONCE again.

Willy was struggling financially and mentally. The commissions were drying up. Debts were mounting as well as his ego. His friends and neighbors knew he was now out of touch, even tired. One offered him a job and he wouldn’t take it, he just wanted the loan – and with lofty promises as well as the disdain he had for himself for being in such a position, he assured his neighbor he’d pay him back . Willy by this time is in deep conversations with his late brother, Ben. Willy was ready to go. This life didn’t turn out the way he’d hoped and he was ready for it to end. He didn’t realize he had options. Doing anything other than what he’d shown off as a consummate salesman to his family, friends, and coworkers would reveal him as a failure – in his own eyes. His bravado was his downfall.

There was also a secret held between Willy and Biff that was pretty bad, but the depth of going against the grain was a bigger part of the story than that seedy little aside.

Now see, Willy was happy working with his hands. He fixed up the house, he built additions to the house, he added a new ceiling in the living room. BUT, he was going house to house, business to business, selling things. Somehow making a living using the God-given talents he had in carpentry wasn’t something HE saw possible… everyone else saw it though, just when it mattered no more.

Nothing got to me more in this play than this little exchange about Willy between Biff, their neighbor Charley, and Linda… nothing:

Biff: There were a lot of nice days. When he’d come home from a trip; or on Sundays, making the stoop; finishing the cellar; putting on the new porch; when he built the extra bathroom; and put up the garage. You know something, Charley, there’s more of him in that front stoop than in all the sales he ever made.

Charley: Yeah. He was a happy man with a batch of cement.

Linda: He was so wonderful with his hands.

Biff: He had the wrong dreams. All, all, wrong.

*[Then Happy chimes in pissed – ] Don’t say that! [he says to Biff.]

Biff [comes back with this]: He never knew who he was.

I think he did know. He was a salesman, as Charley later pointed out, and salesman have to dream, just like everyone else. The bigger dream, however, was the American Dream. Not just Willy meeting his expectations and aspirations, but having others see that he did. The Appearances. Little did he know others saw more of him than he saw of himself. He didn’t realize he’d had the extra talents to be happy in his professional life as well as his personal life. The death occurred before he died.

*my parentheticals

“The Perilous Pause” and the new guy

Team Of Three Orange People Holding Hands And Standing On Blue Puzzle Pieces, With One Man Reaching Out To Connect Another To Their Group Clipart Illustration Graphic

Getting a little past the halfway mark during the rewriting phase of my thesis, a historical novel, was an interesting ride. I seemed to have edited a lot of that portion during the first draft – much more than I honestly should have – which made the read easier. There were still some holes, but the gist of the story was well in place. The second half wound up settling me down into “The Perilous Pause”, a period of time that Book Coach Sally Wolfe described in her blog post, “What to do when the fire of your first draft has gone out“. Even though I’m in the rewrite stage and the first draft was done, my “What-the-hell-am-I-doing?” moment finally reared its head.

For the better of over a week, that “Perilous Pause” was daunting. Rewriting is revisiting as well as editing out, moving around, and adding in. I’ve never been one with the ability to simply leave text alone for even one night with the expectation of resuming it at the same spot the next day. Nope, not me. I have to go back and reread at least a chapter or two to feel everything all over again. Rewriting is an arduous process for me. This time, it eventually interfered with all of my thinking.

The second half of the book needed some shaking up. It was a little too pat in sections for me and that meant a new character, which in turn wore me out. This new person introduced himself and I watched him interact with the key figures who brought him on board. Instead of looking at this fellow and his impact on the process as a necessary tool to the progress and success of the story, I got frustrated with him and hit a stopping point. I soon began to feel guilty about everything else around me falling under second place – helping husband with his work, making sure the family’s fed regularly, laundry, appointments for the car, the cat, and the kids, the other things not in my book, etc.  Subsequently, I had to request an extension to my deadline. It’s not all bad, but I wanted it finished as originally planned so I could move on properly to other projects – and, as it should go without saying, graduate when expected!

Well, I thank God that I wasn’t completely idle about it all. My characters stuck by me and at any given moment, I’d scribble notes on envelopes, bits of paper, my tiny notebook, even taken photos of some notes and uploaded them to Evernote, in addition to drafting a quick note on my phone through Dropbox. So, thankfully, right now, I’ve got the house to myself so I can get back to it. While the family enjoys the beautiful, first rain-free day we’ve had in days, I’m taking a break here at my desk, near the sun-filled window between rereading a few of my earlier chapters. I’m ready to factor in that new person and some of my new notes so I can finish this book!

On Completing My First Draft

If it weren’t for my MFA program, I honestly don’t know if I would have managed to finish the first draft of my full-length novel. I’d been at it for about five years now. People go into MFA programs for different reasons and in spite of the many conversations deliberating their relevance, I can only attest to how relevant mine has been tootiredwriterfor me.  It’s given me the consistent support system that I’ve needed to push forward in my writing goals, one of which included publishing a few novellas on Amazon. It also requires that I complete a creative thesis – my novel. The first draft was done last week and these pictures were me for much of the last two months.

My novel has been a story in the making for over twenty years. After gathering up information about the places and time frame, I listened to the various voices making up the story. In one case, one character was the main character, in other editions, someone else took the helm. With the blessing of time with the program and the act of strategic planning, the story finally reshaped itself. It’s a complete overhaul from the initial first draft – that only reached approximately seventy-five percent completion. The gist was still the same, however. It was a relief to get to the page with only those two words, “The End”, and mean it.

secret-window2The final draft is due next month so revisions are now underway and I still resemble the above pictures or have moments like Johnny Depp here in Secret Window with the Slinky. Funny what can drift you away from the page or screen when deadlines force you to sit in one spot for hours. It can even be a dot on the wall. However, this process isn’t as daunting as the first part. The entire narrative is making much more sense. Pieces are falling into place better. Dialogue is sharper and becoming fine-tuned. Character motives are understood. My characters are not merely telling me what’s happened, they’re now clarifying things for me.

Since it’s a historical novel, research is required and my blog hiatus will continue a little while longer. Even with books from four different regional libraries, I still need to trek down to the Library of Virginia and the Virginia Historical Society – and I can’t wait. This is when I’m happy I can’t find everything on the internet. I miss working with microfiche.