The first time I executed formal research, I was five (dinosaurs). I wrote my first survey when I was 15 (religious experiences). In adulthood, I was the undergrad who wrote 75-page papers for 10-page assignments, just to fit in every—single—fact. I have out-archived historians, out-queried librarians, out-argued shoddy PhDs, even out-classed professors. I have taught research, evaluated, edited, and organized it. I can use a card catalog as easily as a search engine.
Research is innate to me. Primary, secondary. Practical, theoretical. Qualitative, quantitative. This has made me a walking encyclopedia of useless information. And no better at writing fiction. What has made me a better writer is finding my fiction research process.
I love historical novels set in an inviolable world, but not so much when I can’t locate the fictional plot. If I wanted that, I would pick up a history book and read about real life, which I’ve heard, anecdotally, is probably stranger than fiction. I also love old-fashioned characters in plausible plotlines who drag me by the throat into yesteryear. But too often, blatant inaccuracy and too-modern voice tosses me out of the adventure.
The balance between fiction and fact is the essence of the genre. The Ken Folletts and James Micheners of the world create the most accurate, but imaginative, worlds without sacrificing character or plot. I, however, do not aspire to be Follett or Michener. Conversely, the writer whose character travels across Europe by rail in 1815 works, inadequately, on the other end of the spectrum, and I will not aspire to failure.
Historical shortfalls aren’t always a feature of description or setting: not always a “white wedding” before Queen Victoria. Not always a teddy bear before Roosevelt. Mistakes happen in dialogue: No native of Brooklyn ever said, “You look like a tap-hackled toss pot.” Errors happen in the narrative voice: clothes do not “bespeak” anything in 1956. No one is “affrighted” in 2014. A “sennight” just never occurs weekly anymore.
For me, characters first explain the story. Here, research begins, always for quick answers (Etymology of “electric.” Men’s hats in 1790. Senate passage of the Thirteenth Amendment.). Eventually, I comb my first draft for places where additional detail will require larger context. (Daily life of a housekeeper. History of transportation in Europe. British colonization of India.) Third, I find primary sources, no more than two or three—diaries or letters or transcripts—and pick out “minutiae” to add judiciously. (Food at a Civil War wedding. Trim on a Regency bonnet. Tenth-grade coursework in 1915.)
Last but not least, my historical fact checker seeks out anomalies. Like the structure of a book, the voice of the characters, the order of plot points, historical accuracy and detail is entirely at the discretion of the writer, as is the process of research. Given my unfortunate tendency toward every—single—fact, if I didn’t follow this basic formula—if I began by reading 50 books on my time period—I would end with a history tome, not a plotted novel. If I ignored the details altogether in favor of character and plot, I would lose anyone who appreciates times gone by; in other words, my entire audience.
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