Aimee Parkison

Amiee Parkison
2013 Hearst Fellow
Fiction writer
Stillwater, OK

Research at AAS

Sister Séance

Sister Seance book coverMy residency at AAS was a productive time for writing and research on my historical novel Sister Séance (previously titled The Dumb Supper). Set in nineteenth century Concord, Massachusetts, the novel focuses on the lives of young women and men of marriageable age who meet their potential mates at a matchmaking event – a “dumb supper,” an adult dinner where no one is allowed to speak but must communicate their needs and desires to each other and their hostess through nonverbal communication. The experience of being an Artist Fellow helped to enhance my creative process, as I learned about my characters, as well as the time, place, and social context of their world.

During my residency (June 2-29th, 2013), I wrote approximately 30,000 words in my novel draft while also conducting research and making detailed notes from library sources. I completed a creative notebook of character sketches, plot notes, character arcs, synopsis, and scene lists. I also completed another notebook of combine research notes and character scene notes and filled three small notepads of additional research from AAS sources. All of this work became essential to the process of creating a fictional historical world and crafting a narrative form.

As I found so many exciting details about the time period and subject matter, the scope of the novel grew, expanding into more characters, subplots, and multiple points of view. In addition, my cast of characters became much more lively, dynamic, and complex. I started with eight characters and ended up with close to thirty, developing a detailed history and psychological profile for each character in order to understand each character’s place in the novel. As I studied sources from the library, I felt I understood my characters more because I understood their history as well as the social concerns of their historical period. This allowed me to glimpse into the characters’ minds to better understand their internal conflicts and motivations.

Through researching historical details, I learned a new method of writing fiction. In terms of process, I realized that I could add layers to the narrative as well as texture by studying the source materials for any details that stood out – anything that shocked, entertained, horrified, disgusted, raised questions, suggested concerns, or showed the setting and its people in a new or unusual light. Because I had a relatively clear idea of the novel’s concept, subject, theme, and concerns before I started researching, I was able to process source materials through a particular creative lens so that diaries, newspapers, essays, medical studies, religious views, courtship accounts, holiday traditions, and even parlor games could be understood in a new light in terms of how and where they fit into the novel’s structure. In a sense, I could skim numerous sources to search for details that fit the framework the novel needed to follow. While in the library, I attempted to collect details of interest as quickly as possible, so that my research notes became a collection of images and ideas that could be used to shape scenes. The research fed the novel while the novel unlocked new meanings in the sources because I was seeing them through an artistic point-of-view.

The following are some of the sources I studied and took detailed notes from: Banner of Light (spiritualist newspaper, Boston), Talking to the Dead: Kate and Maggie Fox and the Rise of Spiritualism by Barbara Weisberg, Hands and Hearts: A History of Courtship in America by Ellen Rothman, Disorderly Conduct: Visions of Gender in Victorian America by Carroll Smith-Rosenberg, The Most Famous Man in America: The Biography of Henry Ward Beecher by Debby Applegate, Tomorrow's Parties: Sex and the Untimely in Nineteenth-Century America by Peter Coviello, Look Before You Leap. Or Leap-year Lessons (Bisbee), Sketches from Concord and Appledore: Concord Thirty Years Ago; Nathaniel Hawthorne; Louisa M. Alcott; Ralph Waldo Emerson; Matthew Arnold; David A. Wasson; Wendell Phillip; Appledore and its Visitors by Frank Stearns, Report of a committee of the associate medical members of the Sanitary Commission on the subject of amputations (Slade), A Confederate Nurse: The Diary of Ada W. Bacot, and the Constitution of the Concord Female Moral Reform Society.

Lauren Hewes [Chief Curator and Andrew W. Mellon Curator of Graphic Arts] inspired me to see the novel in a new way when she pointed out that in the time period (1870-1) I was writing about, many women were desperate to find husbands, as there was a shortage of eligible men after the Civil War because so many veterans had died or been terribly wounded. This information “raised the stakes” for the matchmakers and women in my novel, adding wonderful conflict and tension. Also, this led me to research related topics, such as gender and the Civil War, battle wounds, medical accounts of field surgeons, and accounts of veterans. These details helped me discover more about my male characters, many of whom now became wounded veterans and medical workers from the Civil War and yet also guests at the matchmaking event of the dumb supper. This also helped me create a contemporary link to the historical subject matter through researching PSTD and the home lives of veterans. Laura Wasowicz [Curator of Children's Literature] was very helpful in supplying a surprising and rare source from the children’s literature collection – a small illustrated satirical book (not intended for children) about women hunting for husbands in the 1870’s, when eligible men were in short supply – the very time I was writing about. This humorously misogynistic source helped me to understand the cultural subtext of the time period and of my character’s motivations for courtship and matchmaking.

My stay at the Fellows’ House contributed to my experience in a positive manner through the socially and intellectually charged atmosphere, the quiet solitude of the study areas, and the architectural beauty of the space. There was a real sense of community among artists and scholars in the Fellows’ House, and this community encouraged and supported my creative process. People shared valuable tips about writing and research, and from Jessica, a scholar staying at the house, I learned about writing software for organizing research materials and book-length works (Scrivener). Melissa Range, the poet, is now a good friend of mine. She and I had a fun time hanging out on the porch and visiting Worcester bars while discussing historical details that overlapped in her poetry and my fiction.

In conclusion, my residency at AAS was a wonderful time for my creative work and research as well as a time of great artistic and personal growth. I am extremely grateful for the experience and am very hopeful that I will now continue the novel project, incorporating the details I collected at the library into the draft as I add to what has become a very inspired and ambitious work-in-progress.

2021 Update: Aimee Parkison's historical novel, now titled Sister Séance, is on presale at Kernpunkt Press.

Quick Links

Catalog | Login | Digital A-Z


Monday: 9-5
Tuesday: 10-5
Wednesday: 9-5
Thursday: 9-5
Friday: 9-5

Keep in Touch

Link to AAS Facebook Link to AAS TwitterLink to AAS BlogLink to AAS Instagram   Link to AAS YouTube