When I first started writing, at the ripe age of eleven, I wrote what I “knew,” namely historical fiction in the manner of my favorite author, Laura Ingalls Wilder. Because I was obsessed with the 1870’s and 1880’s, I read a lot of non-fiction about the era, and the images in my head were infused with so many random bits of information that it never occurred to me that I might not be getting it right. That magenta notebook has vanished, unfortunately, but I can deduce, from later efforts, that it was not the epitome of historical accuracy!
For years afterward, the story ideas I came up with were all based in history, and one of the reasons why they never came to fruition was that I didn’t have the time or energy to do the research I knew would be necessary. When I read (and loved) my first chick-lit in 2003, it was a revelation: I knew I could do this–write a book using my own experiences–one which wouldn’t require the hours of library research that just weren’t possible for the mother of an infant and a toddler who could most kindly be described as “busy.”
In my new book, however, I’m revisiting my historical roots, and I need research–LOTS of research. And even though my kids are now all in school, this still presents a few challenges.
First of all, when you’re setting a portion of your book in a time period about which you know next-to-nothing, it can be hard to know where to start. You need to know everything, but you can’t know everything. Right now, since I’m setting this part of the book in the town we live in, I’m immersing myself in local papers of the time. This gives me an idea of what people were using, what issues concerned them, their names, current events, and even the language patterns. I can use contemporary people and places as I see fit–but remember–you’re the author. Feel free to change a few physical details to suit your story–I’m sure I will!
Secondly, it can be tempting to quit writing because you need to research some aspect more thoroughly. Don’t. Do. This. If the writing is going well, you don’t want to lose momentum by stopping to find out what color a parlour wall was most likely to be in 1845. If you can’t discover the answer in a quick internet search, mark the section in brackets, leave it blank, and keep writing. You can always fill in details later; right now, the story’s the thing. Similarly, don’t put off writing until “all my research is done.” Because it will never be done. You’ll end up an expert on the years 1852-1869, but your book will remain unwritten. Is that what you really want?
Because a large portion of my book takes place in the past, I’ve decided to devote one day a week solely to research. This has been beneficial in several ways. First, it gets me out of the house! Second, it gives me a general picture of the era, even if I don’t have all the specifics just yet. And finally, it serves as a refresher. If I’ve had a tedious writing week–or a week in which life’s demands have kept me from writing all I should–“research day” gives me new energy, and I go back to writing the next day with new enthusiasm and affection for my characters.
Finally, one of the best things about research is its propensity for giving you ideas for future novels. When you get that hint–that fascination with a person, place, or situation–sketch it out, then give it a place in your brain and let it percolate. When you’ve completed your current WIP, you won’t be lost, not knowing where to go next. You’ll have your new book waiting in the wings, ready for you to bring it to life!
Got any research stories, advice, or dilemmas? Share them in the comments!