I’m not usually a nonfiction reader, so didn’t know what to expect with Rachel King’s novel People Along the Sand. Surprisingly, King chose to write this history of the Oregon Beach Bill as a novel and I was captivated! I asked her to talk about this interesting choice.
How do you take a topic that would naturally lend itself to a nonfiction format and “novelize” it?
People Along the Sand was initially inspired by an image of a boy looking for agates on the rocks along the Central Oregon Coast. In 2008, I wrote a very short story about that boy, Tim, who lives with his parents at their motel. Later I was reading about the history of the Oregon Beach Bill online, and something clicked: I realized I could integrate this history into the story of the boy, his mom, and his dad by including two characters interested in the bill: Leah, a bakery owner, and Elliot, a retired lighthouse keeper. I wrote a ten-page plot summary of a novel based on my peripheral knowledge of these characters and the bill.
I then brainstormed more and more about the characters’ imaginary lives, answering detailed questions about them and writing scenes that never made it into the novel. I read books about the Beach Bill and that time period: The Oregon Companion by Richard G. Engeman, Sentinels of the North Pacific and Tillamook Light by James A. Gibbs, Lighthouses and Life-Saving on the Oregon Coast by David Pinyerd, More Deadly Than War: Pacific Coast Logging, 1827–1981 by Andrew Mason Prouty, and Fire at Eden’s Gate by Brent Walth.
I wrote a draft of the novel in 2009, then returned to it in 2013, writing it from scratch between 2013 and 2015 and revising it in 2016. My process when I write fiction that incorporates historical material is almost sacred to me: during early drafts, I don’t read any historical documents. If I do, I might go on rabbit trails that distract me from writing or I risk that the history, and not the characters’ lives, dominate the narrative—and as a novelist, keeping the characters’ lives paramount is my main goal.
So, although I had researched the Beach Bill and time period in depth before I started drafting, I didn’t revisit the historical documents until revision, in order to answer questions that had arisen while writing. I not only returned to books, but also studied newspaper microfilm at the Oregon Historical Society Library and digitized newspapers through the Multnomah County Libraries website. I wasn’t alive in 1967, and wanted to make sure daily details were accurate: Did cars have radios? How did people brew their coffee? What kinds of clothes were women wearing? Newspapers were a great resource on daily life as well as on the Beach Bill. Only one plot point relating to the bill ended up being inaccurate historically, and that was intentional, to serve the plot: Marilyn and Leah canvass door to door to promote the bill in the novel, although I hadn’t seen evidence that people did that.
I’m still waiting for a reader to call me out on any other small or large historical inaccuracies—I’m surprised someone hasn’t yet! If you read the novel, and find something incorrect, please feel free to reach out and let me know. I love to learn new facts about the Oregon Beach Bill or about daily, rural life in the United States in 1967.
Rachel King is the author of the novel People Along the Sand, the linked short story collection Bratwurst Haven, and two poetry chapbooks. Her short stories have appeared in One Story, North American Review, Green Mountains Review, Northwest Review, and elsewhere. She lives in her hometown of Portland, Oregon. Find out more on Rachel’s website.