Thursday, August 26, 2010

Research... why it's good for you.

I’m in the midst of doing research for my current WIP so I thought I would share in my misery. I’m not going to lie. I am part geek. I took history classes in college for fun. I love learning stuff. Small ridiculous facts fill my head from all different time periods.

However reading text books – BORING. I do it because I know it’s the best way to fill my head with a ton of information. Right now I’m carrying around what I’m sure is about a 10 pound book on the Victorian domestic household in my purse. Actually as far as text books go it’s not so bad. And I just learned this really cool fact about how they would whiten the outside steps which is going to become an awesome clue for me.

Now a lot of people might think I’m crazy. Who carries around bulky text books when all facts, all knowledge, all everything can be found on the internet?
Guess what – the internet as great as it is - isn’t enough. Yes, you can find facts. Yes, you can usually get direct questions answered. Yes, it is an invaluable tool and has made life easier for writers everywhere.

But if you want to be good – I mean really good - when it comes to historicals (or really any book that delves deep into a particular topic) you need to do more. You need to fill your head with facts. You need to know how these people ate, slept and thought. You need to read fiction of the time to see what they dramatized. You need to read letters they wrote to each other. Diaries – huge. I found gold with a book of documented interviews with thieves and prostitutes of the period I’m writing in.

Is it because I’m going to fill my books with facts? No. See above. Reading text books are BORING. But if I’ve learned anything from Joanne Bourne and Sherry Thomas it’s that they fill their books effortlessly (at least it feels effortless when reading it) with details. When I read their stories I’m not pulled out by the facts. I hate when that happens. A writer finds a tidbit (probably on the internet) that screams - LOOK AT ME! I DID RESEARCH - and they use it over and over again.

With the best it’s just layered into the story. If you haven’t read Forbidden Rose there is a scene where the heroine puts colored paper on her toenails. Amazing detail and you trust that Bourne knows women of this period did this. And if she made it up, she’s layered the story in so many other ways that it doesn’t matter. It fits.

Other times the details can be used for great effect. One of my favorite scenes in Thomas’s Delicious was when the heroine ran a bath. Hot water, into a tub, through plumbing. It’s like she dared you to question that someone in this time period could do this. Using what a reader might think was an anachronism but instead showcasing how much she knew about plumbing (freakin plumbing!) during this time period. She was dead right by the way. Most homes in London had running water by the 1870s. See what I’m learning!

I really believe you have to have it all at your disposal. You have to know the politics and the mood of the nation. The poetry and literature of the time. Who the modern day thinkers were back then and what scientific accomplishments were happening.

The only way I can hope to accomplish that is to shove it all in my brain. Total emersion. So when I’m writing a scene I’m not thinking is it okay for my heroine to take her hat and gloves off? Who would have answered the door? Let me check and see if I can find the answer on the internet.


I need to know it. Sure there are times when I do get stuck. But I’m learning with my second historical that the more you know in advance the better you can simply put your characters in the scene, knowing the world in which they live and tell the story.

My hope is that all this reading will translate into effortless detail. My fear is that I bog down the book with too much. But either way I know that White Satin was a euphuism for gin. Who doesn’t love that fact!

“Excuse me, bartender. Yes, I’ll have a White Satin and tonic.” Hee hee… I’m such a geek.


Karen W said...

We love you anyway!

We're all geeks about something!

You've just listed all the reasons why I don't write historicals!

Molly O'Keefe said...

Yeah - I'm with Karen - too much work. But I love the authors that do it - I love the authenticity in thier work. That Bourne book was a total revelation. And yes, the gilded toenails destroyed me. I wish you luck, Steph - and when next I see you - the white satin is on me!!

Maureen McGowan said...

Now this is why I like to make my world up... But in some ways it should be the same. Immersing yourself in all the details of your world and then letting those details show up in the book without being intrusive...

You've just made me realize how much work I'm going to have to do revising my current WIP to make it really great. Damn you. ;)

Eileen said...

You are so right about how great historical fiction is when the details of daily life are just part of the warp and weave of the whole novel.

Spring Warren's Turpentine is like that with the American west in the 1870s. Everything -- the clothing, the food, the language -- is just beautifully layered in.

I recently discovered another author who does it beautifully, too. Catriona MacPherson write a series that takes place in Scotland in the 1920s. You never feel like you're being beaten over the head with their research, but you feel its authenticity as you read it.

Lisa said...

This is why everything I write it is modern - I'm too lazy (so far!)

Sinead M said...

Some of the research is interesting. I think we may have the same Victorian house book and it's OK reading, but some is so dry.

And most research books are about politics and wars, when I want to know when did sinks have running water, and what did they use to wash their hair.

Although I have a book about the Crimean war that is amazing reading.

Maureen McGowan said...

I've been thinking about how my characters wash their hair, too. But at least I can make it up. It just has to be plausible. It's not those things that interest me about my story, still I know I can't ignore them.

Stephanie Doyle said...

Sinead I think you gave me the "house" book. It's definitely okay... but 4 pages on doing the laundry. I get tired just reading it!

Oooh Crimean War... how do I find that one?

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