Posted by: Kristi Tuck Austin | January 28, 2011

Writing Richmond: James River Writers Writing Show recap

The news plays in the background as I write. Our city seems far from virulent protests, but this place, like many cities, has a history of fire in the streets and violence. The contrasts of growth and war, want and affluence were discussed last night during The Writing Show’s Writing Richmond: Researching and Capturing Our City in Fiction and Nonfiction with Rebekah L. Pierce, Elizabeth Thalhimer Smartt, and Brooks Smith, but the panel was far from morose. Banter flew between the three panelists and moderator Kris Spisak, and the audience often erupted in laughter. In the end, the city’s plethora of resources and admirable history left the strongest impression.


Make friends.

Rebekah, author of Murder on Second Street, researched by driving the streets and visiting museums, but a wealth of fact and detail came from talking with mentors and local historians, people who knew her setting of 1929 Jackson Ward. Oral history from a 93-year-old resident provided crucial information, and he read the manuscript for accuracy. Elizabeth reiterated the need to rely on others’ expertise; Thalhimers department store gurus aided her six years of research for Finding Talhimers. Brooks shared how he called Shirley MacLaine to discuss her and her brother Warren Beatty’s childhoods in Richmond, an hour-long chat that revealed Shirley’s first out-of-body experience involved a Richmond tree.

Reach out.

“Do not be afraid to reach out to people,” Elizabeth said with a smile. “The worst that will happen is they think you’re crazy.” She, like many of us, confessed to being intimidated to call authors, but they were receptive to her inquiries, even aiding with content and structure. So how did she do it? She called them up, told them about her research, and invited them to lunch. Simple.

Verify resources.

What to do about the vast amount of content, true and suspect, on the Internet? When writing Murder on Second Street while caring for a her newborn, Rebekah used the Internet for research, but checked each fact in other sources, such as government and school websites and discussions with professional and amateur historians. Brooks suggested looking into Google Books and Google Scholar for resources. Elizabeth said aspects of her book would not have been possible without Internet research. When tracing her family’s German heritage, the Internet allowed her to pinpoint their hometown and discover a book about that town. She called the book’s author and then met her during a research visit to Germany.

Be wary of Poe.

Brooks suggested a hearty dose of skepticism for stories related to Richmond’s most notable writer. There is a legend of Poe scribbling away on a hidden floor of Pratt’s Castle, a romantic image, but Poe died in 1849; construction on Pratt’s Castle began in 1853.

Read first-person accounts.

How do you accurately write sensory details of a bygone era? Answer: turn to letters, diaries, and newspapers. Diaries and letters capture the city through one person’s eyes and give an intimate look at the day-to-day city. Elizabeth suggested newspapers, which were more pedestrian, and conversational in years past, even describing the smell of pigs in the 19th century streets.

Shake Richmond.

History is hiding in boxes of papers and paraphernalia in Richmond’s attics. Elizabeth said she often visualizes flipping Richmond over and shaking it to see what gems fall out. Since Richmond can’t look like a scene from Inception, the next best option is to ask. Locate people close to your topic and politely ask what is in their attic. You’re not asking to root around and keep what you find.

Tell a story.

“Why are there no more fiction stories about Richmond?” Brooks asked. Our city is worth discussing. “There is the obvious Richmond,” Elizabeth said. “If you go beyond that you find the real Richmond.” Look for the unknown stories and share them. Rebekah, who faced Richmond’s stigmas before moving here, hopes telling the city’s stories will make people less likely to judge it because of its past, and instead see the beauty of its future.

Know your audience.

All three authors on the panel lack publicists and large publishing houses, but they know grass-roots marketing. They sell through museums, their websites, local independent bookstores, and other city venues, and visit book clubs and give lectures. They contact local media outlets to pitch their books. Each emphasized the need to work hard and approach publishing and marketing in a calculated way. After publishing three books, Brooks says the key is to connect with people who share the passion that led you to write the book.

Love your librarian…

…and museum archivist and author and neighbor. But especially love your librarian. They might have exactly what you’re looking for or know where to find it.

Thank you to panelists Elizabeth Thalhimer Smartt, Brooks Smith, and Rebekah L. Pierce. The Writing Show will come back to the Children’s Museum of Richmond on February 24. All writers and readers are warmly welcomed. Tickets are $10 in advance and $12 at the door. Student tickets are $5. Visit James River Writers website for more information.


  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Another Poet, Kristi Tuck Austin. Kristi Tuck Austin said: Writing Richmond: James River Writers Writing Show recap: […]

  2. […] “Why are there no more fiction stories about Richmond?” an author asked at the last Writing Show. In answer, here is Write Around Richmond, a series that looks at fictional portrayals of our […]

  3. […] are there no more fiction stories about Richmond?” an author asked at the last Writing Show. In answer, here is Write Around Richmond, a series that looks at fictional portrayals of our […]

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