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Thursday, January 10, 2008

What to Research Before You Write the Book

We’ll be doing a whole month on research, but I wanted to touch base on this subject, because we often can use the need to do research, especially historical research, to keep us from moving forward. Either we detour into spending all our time reading research material or we are so daunted by what we need to know, we sit and tear our hair out.

Guess what? You don't need to know everything. All you need is:

1. General Knowledge.

If you are writing a historical, read a general history of the era in which you are setting the book, just to make certain you understand enough about the era to make your story credible. You don’t want your Regency characters to hop on trains, for instance, or to take secret photographs in dingy gaming hells (that notorious book really made it to print!).

Writers of contemporaries have an easier time, because we all have general knowledge of our current era, but if you are writing a contemporary, you should read a little on whatever particular “world” you are using for your story. For example, if you are setting your book in a dairy farm, you ought to know a little about what a dairy farm is like. Not detailed knowledge, but enough to know if your story will work there. Or if you are writing about lawyers, you need to know a little about law firms.

For the Regency, a great overview of the era is Our Tempestuous Day by Carolly Erickson, but you can also look in history books, on Wikipedia, or, my favorite,

2. Knowledge of the events of your time period.

One of the first things to research is what happened around the time you want to set the book. As a historical writer, one of the first things I do is check a historical timeline. Here’s a fairly detailed one: but there are many others out there. Just do a Google search.

You want to check a timeline to take into account any historical events that would impact on your story. For example, in the book I just finished, I had to take into account that Queen Charlotte, wife of King George III, died during the time my story was set. That was a big historical event.

The Contemporary writer also needs to keep in mind important historical events. For example, if you set your story in New Orleans, you can’t completely ignore the hurricane and its aftermath. If you set your story in Boston, you have to be aware of the Big Dig.

3. A working knowledge of whatever your story is about.

When you are beginning to write a book, you really just need to know enough to know if your story will work, just enough to start. In The Vanishing Viscountess, all I needed to start was a general idea of the British legal system (very general-just enough to know if my story would work. Later I had to research in more detail), where a ship crossing the Irish Sea would embark and land, and if they ever had shipwrecks there.

That’s it!

For the rest, research as you go along. Find out the details when you need them. The information will be fresher that way and you won’t have spent time researching something you thought you needed, but didn't.

You can also use these guidelines when you are stuck in the middle of the book on some needs-to-be-researched fact. Don't get bogged down in it. Only spend time finding it if the rest of your book might be affected by it. If you know it won't, then just mark the spot, push on, and come back in a later draft to find that certain detail.

The important thing is to not let anything keep you from starting--and finishing--the book.

More on Research in May....

What sorts of research problems keep you from pushing forward?
What strategies do you have to keep the need to research from stopping your progress?


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At 9:51 AM, Blogger Mo H said...

Great advice, and I'm excited about the timeline website you mentioned. I'll definitely check it out before I start my next historical.

At 3:07 PM, Blogger Gillian Layne said...

Thanks so very much, Diane! I've been waiting for your post.

Mostly, I started asking myself "Are these scenes or information I would skip if I were a reader?" I'm trying not to "dump" the research info.

All sorts of research info worried me, although I kept writing anyway. I am having my characters interact with "real" people. That worried me. And I've heard I should be careful using Wiki, so I'm double and triple checking info....or trying to.

Am I supposed to be keeping a running log of where I've found each bit of info I use in the story? I think I have, written down here and there, but is that something publishers ask for?

At 4:00 PM, Blogger Terry McLaughlin said...

You make an excellent point, Diane, about avoiding spending time researching facts that may not be used in the story. Writing time is so tight--it makes sense to get the story started and see what I'll need later.

Too often, writers are tempted to shape (and distort) the story around all their research efforts, rather than using the research to enrich the tale.

On the other hand...some of my research has generated lots of fun story ideas. I guess the ideal is an organic process.

At 7:05 PM, Blogger Diane Gaston said...

I don't keep track of my research information, at least not very well. If I think I'll need it, I do, or if I think I'll want to use it for another book.

On one of my Warner books the copy editor questioned almost every historical detail and I felt compelled to defend my choices, but I'm not sure the editor wanted me to, but what I did was look up the details all over again!

I think there is no way a historical writer can be totally accurate. You just have to do the best you can. I use Wikipedia all the time and I don't worry about it. I suppose if something didn't seem right I'd go trying to verify it, but otherwise, I don't worry about it.

My Mills & Boon editors occassionally ask me to double-check my facts. Usually I just re-create my original search...because I never saved it (g)

I also don't worry too much about using real historical characters. I try to put them in the right place at the right time--no scenes with Wellington in London in June 1815 (Battle of Waterloo). As long as I don't have those historical characters doing something despicable, I write them the way I'd imagine them to be.

Does that answer your questions?

At 8:15 PM, Blogger Jill Monroe said...

Yes - I'm going right now to look over that timeline website, too!

At 8:28 PM, Anonymous Judy T said...

This is really helpful. I know I worry about the details. I can spend hours looking for information. When researching my Regency, I found "What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew" by Daniel Pool packed with useful bits of information spanning a wide variety of subjects, ie, food, clothes, work, weddings, vocabulary, etc. Thanks for the timeline site!

At 8:50 PM, Blogger Theresa Ragan said...

Great post, Diane. Thank you. One of my heroines is a nutritionist and I used research books like Nutritionists for Dummies, etc. because I know nothing about nutrition. :) Same with my hero who is a football player. I used Football for Idiots to learn all I could about the game.

At 9:22 PM, Blogger Gillian Layne said...

Bless you, Diane. You answered them beautifully.

Glad I'm older now and have thicker skin. Reading over tonights' beau monde posts about the plagiarism charges is enough to scare anyone away from writing :)

One poster said she abandoned her manuscript simply because someone else released a book with "her" title. All that work, lost! It breaks my heart.

At 9:55 PM, Blogger doglady said...

Great post from the Divine Ms G! My biggest problem is that when I start researching something I tend to get carried away! I could spend hours reading about the Regency and not get bored. I have a small research library about the Regency, but I am adding to it every chance I get. I never really thought about keeping track of my research, but it isn't a bad idea, Gillian. I have to agree with you on the Cassie Edwards feeding frenzy. I am not a lofty enough personage to comment on the right or wrong of it, but the shark attacks tend to make me think we have not evolved all that much in spite of all of our technical progress. Just the Southern Belle in me speaking! LOL A book I have found very helpful in writing about the running of a household and planning menus is Mrs. Beeton's Handbook of Household Management. (don't quote me on the exact title - I am too lazy to go into my writing studio to look at it!)

At 10:32 PM, Blogger Diane Gaston said...

Oh, doglady, don't mention the name of another research book! I'll have to go buy it. I, too, have a small Regency library--at least the room is small, the place is bulging with books.

Judy, I totally forgot about What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew! That was one of my very first research books (it must be buried in my room somewhere). Another good basic reference is The Writer's Guide to Everyday Life in Regency and Victorian England from 1811-1901. But the very very best is Emily Hendrickson's Regency Reference Book, which she sells herself on a CD ($20 I think; I can email the address; email me at my website email address), Emily's book is great because you can search on a word like "reticule" or "Almack's"

There is a danger in getting lost in the research. I certainly spent hours "traveling" from Anglesey to Edinburgh for The Vanishing Viscountess--virtual traveling, that is!

At 8:42 AM, Blogger Theresa Ragan said...

Yes, it's easy to get lost in the research, spending hours and even days. When I was writing my medieval time travels I couldn't get enough of those times.

Gillian, that's sort of silly that someone would give up on writing their book because somebody had the same title?! I see the same titles I've picked for my finished and unfinished manuscripts all the time. I think that comes with the territory.

At 8:25 AM, Blogger MaryF said...

Oy, speaking of research....

I got my edits back on Hot Shot and my editor insisted a fire shelter would have a floor, like a tent. No, I insisted back. I'd done my research. A fire shelter was just a flat piece of fire-resistant fabric.

Well, I googled, and in the time that has passed since I started this book (2000, though in its current form 2003), sure enough, there are fire shelters with floors now. I have to rewrite the whole scene - after I figure out how to work a new fire shelter.


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