Celeste Ng: On Researching Little Fires Everywhere

Celeste Ng: On Researching Little Fires Everywhere

So when I began writing my second novel, Little Fires Everywhere, and realized that it would be set in a real place – my hometown, the suburb of Shaker Heights, Ohio – I got very nervous. I knew I’d have to do research this time. Moreover, because Shaker Heights is full of somewhat persnickety people, I knew I’d have to get all the details right. Worst of all, Shaker Heights was a place I still loved deeply – even as I now saw aspects of it in a less favorable light – and often the hardest places to capture are those tinted by nostalgia. But the setting was the root of the story, and as the characters and plot took shape, I knew the book couldn’t possibly be set anywhere else.

Too much research upfront can sometimes swamp a story, so I began writing strictly from memory. Fortunately, I’d been a teenager at the exact time my novel was set, and I remembered those years fondly and fairly clearly. I sent my teenage protagonists to the places my friends and I had haunted. They had coffee at the local coffee shop and bought their clothes at the secondhand store where I’d once searched for bell-bottom jeans and concert tees. They went to the local diner and ate the same late-night snack my friends and I had always shared: plates of cottage fries covered with cheese, bacon, and sour cream. I knew the houses they lived in and the streets they’d drive; I barely needed to consult the city map of Shaker Heights I’d pinned to my wall.

When I had a first draft of the novel done, though, it was time to check my work. From afar, in Boston, I checked what I could via the internet and my old yearbooks: names of clubs, addresses of restaurants, small historical facts. Sometimes, I saw, my memory had tricked me. At one point, my characters are at a party where the song “Luv Me Luv Me” by Shaggy is blaring from the speakers. But that song wasn’t released until late summer 1998 – a bit too late for the party, which takes place the year before. I swapped it for “Mo Money Mo Problems” – another song I remembered dancing to and that fit chronologically.

Finally, it was time to do local research. The Shaker Heights Public Library has an entire room devoted to local history, and the local history librarian, Meghan Hays, was a godsend. She provided me with archives of the high school newspaper from just the right years: a treasure trove of information about teen life. Reviews in the paper reminded me of what albums had been new and popular, what issues had been on our minds – for instance, the Monica Lewinsky scandal – even which slang words had been in vogue at the time.

Because the high school was such an important setting in the novel, I contacted the administration and asked if I could visit. I hadn’t been back since I’d graduated, almost two decades earlier, and though I remembered the feel of the classrooms, I wanted to get the details right. The Shaker Heights superintendent graciously allowed me to roam the halls during the summer vacation, and I refreshed my memory on the layout of the building, the many murals painted by students over the years, even the oval drive surrounding the grounds. All those details infused themselves into the story, sometimes even providing plot points – such as when, in the pre-cell-phone era, two characters make a plan via a pager and the payphone in the lobby.

In the archives of the Shaker Historical Society, I found articles that showed how Shaker Heights had been seen – and had seen itself – in earlier eras. They helped give a larger context to the family story I’d been working with. For instance, I’d known Shaker Heights had once been named the wealthiest city in America. But I hadn’t known that, in 1963, Cosmopolitan Magazine – at the time, still a general-interest family magazine – had done a feature article on the city, profiling both individual residents and Shaker Heights as a whole, and portraying them as “just like everyone else, only better.” The tone of the article seemed a perfect counterpoint to my story, so I used an excerpt of the profile as an epigraph.

The last piece of the research puzzle clicked into place as I began to investigate the history of the Shakers themselves. The Shakers were a religious sect that had left England in the 18th century and settled in various communities in the United States. One such community had owned the land that became Shaker Heights, though all the Shakers there – firm believers in celibacy – had died out before the city’s founding. Although I’d grown up in a place named for these people, I hadn’t learned much about them, so I immersed myself in histories of the group as well as writings by their elders and photo galleries of their many products and inventions.

Only a fraction of what I learned made its way into the book, but what I learned about the Shaker mentality illuminated so much about the Shaker Heights mentality in which I’d grown up. Shakers and Shaker Heights alike shared an idealistic mindset, a fervent love of order, a deep belief in the equality of the sexes and races, and a firm conviction that careful planning and self-control could solve all of life’s problems. With that background, my hometown suddenly made much more sense to me, as did one of the main characters in the novel: Mrs. Richardson, the überplanner, who is certain that she can lead the perfect life if she only follows the rules.

I’d begun researching Little Fires Everywhere in an attempt to get the small stuff right: the street names, the songs on the radio, the price of a cup of coffee. But to my great surprise, research also helped me get the big things into focus too: the themes of the book, the mindframe of the community and the characters within it, the overarching questions about human nature that I hope readers ask after they turn the last page.