The Story Behind The Story – Researching My One Square Inch of Alaska by Sharon Short
Every now and then, one hears writers joke that doing the research for a novel, story, or nonfiction project can become so much fun that writing stops and research takes over. Now, that’s definitely a love/hate relationship between a writer and her research!
I definitely loved doing the research for my new novel, My One Square Inch of Alaska. Published by Penguin Plume earlier this year, this coming-of-age ‘book club’ novel is about a pair of siblings in a gritty 1953 paper mill town in Ohio, yearning to break free of the strictures of their family, their times, and their town. When Donna’s little brother Will decides that he wants to earn a deed to one square inch of the Alaskan Territory through a cereal company and TV show promotion, Donna at first finds his quest childish. But when he becomes ill, she decides to help him fulfill his quest… and his dream to actually visit his land. In so doing, she learns to reconnect with her own dreams and to understand how the unfulfilled dreams of those around her impacted her family’s life and tragic past. Now that’s a concept that requires a lot of research: the 1950s, the Alaskan territory during that time, how to travel from Ohio to Alaska in 1953, which was before the interstate highway system was started, medical treatments in 1953…. And, as I joke with readers who ask me at readings and book clubs about the research I did for the novel, I’ve never been to 1953…or Alaska. So I definitely had plenty of research work to do.
I started with the obvious—general reading about the 1950s in general and 1953 in particular. That led to reading a lot about two particular aspects of that time, McCarthyism, and the rise of unions. My father was a union organizer, so I interviewed him about some of his experiences. He even gave me his union sticker book! I also researched advertisements,music, and other popular culture from the 1950s. To understand how Will’s illness wouldhave been managed, I interviewed a doctor who had treated patients with Will’s condition in the early 1950s; a friend who is a doctor graciously put me in touch with a retired doctor.
To figure out Donna and Wills’ trek from Ohio to Alaska, I realized I needed a road atlas that they would have used; additionally, I wanted it to be one they could easily get at, say, a full service gas station in their hometown. I went to the eBay auction site, thinking it would be simple to find a 1953 road atlas. It turned out that, because I wanted one specifically from that year, it was more of a challenge than I realized it would be! But three weeks after lurking on the site, I was rewarded with a 1953 road atlas of the entire United States, as well as of the Alaskan Territory! I quickly scooped that up. A bonus: in the back was a list of every radio station and its call letters. So, I was able to map out the exact, realistic route Donna and Will would have taken, and even mention radio stations they would have listened to. I peered at that atlas so often, and so long that at times I felt like I’d fallen into the map and onto its roads!
And to stay truly realistic, I discovered a website that provides historical weather data back to 1945: http://www.wunderground.com/history/ So, I was able to figure out what the weather would be like, wherever my characters were, on the specific days in 1953!
Will’s obsession with getting his deed to one square inch of Alaska is based on an actual Mad Men-esque advertising campaign: one square inch deeds to the Yukon Territory were tucked in boxes of Quaker Puffed Rice cereal (“Marvel Puffs” in my novel); the campaign was promoted on the Sergeant Preston of the Yukon show as it transitioned from radio to television (“Sergeant Striker and the Alaskan Wild” in my novel). Thus, the deeds to tiny tracts of land played on the imagination of young boys who dreamed of finding adventure in the great North, while promoting both the cereal and the show. (It’s interesting that everyone seems to remember the deeds as being to Alaska, not to the adjacent Yukon.)
All that research seems to have paid off. I’ve met readers who remember, quite fondly, Sergeant Preston and that campaign, and tell me I captured 1953 spot-on. Other readers from Alaska write me and ask when I visited to do my research; sadly, I haven’t been to Alaska… yet!… but I’m glad I’ve realistically captured the state and what it’s like to travel there as winter sets in. And younger readers marvel at how different life was in many ways in the 1950s. (One young woman, in her early 20s, told me she hadn’t learned of McCarthyism until she read my novel; another asked if options for women really were that different just 60 years ago. An older woman in the group assured her that, yes, they were.)
Oh, and by the way… my very thoughtful husband gave me the perfect Christmas gift last year, in anticipation of my novel being published a few months later—one of those square inch Yukon Territory deeds!
Sharon Short is the author of the novel My One Square Inch of Alaska (Penguin Plume, 2013) in which a pair of siblings escape the strictures of the 1950s industrial Ohio town on the adventure of a lifetime. Opening chapters of this novel earned Sharon a 2012 Ohio Arts Council individual artist’s grant and a 2011 Montgomery County (Ohio) Arts & Cultural District Literary Artist Fellowship. Sharon is the Literary Life columnist for the Dayton Daily News, directs the renowned Antioch Writers’ Workshop in Yellow Springs, Ohio, and is an adjunct instructor of creative writing and composition at Antioch University Midwest. Additionally, Sharon’s book Sanity Check: A Collection of Columns includes 100 reader-favorites of her weekly humor and lifestyle column that ran in the Dayton Daily News from 2002-2012. Sharon has also published two mystery series (Josie Toadfern and Patricia Delaney) as well as short stories and essays. She lives in Ohio with her husband and is the mother of two adult daughters.
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