Getting started. Research!

The story occurs to me when I least expect it. Normally about 2/3 way through the one I’m working on and would give my right arm not to have to finish. A character, usually the hero, walks full blown into my mind. I need to write the story. So where to begin? For me, it usually with research.

Research? Isn’t this fiction? Can’t you just make it up?

Sure you can.

Okay, maybe not all of it. There are some parts of fiction that must ring true to the reader or they’ll toss your book down in disgust, or worse yet, write you a detailed letter about where you went wrong. Ask me someday about getting military rank correct. Or how to use, y’all.

For me, research is more fun than writing the story. I love to learn weird facts and I love to share the wealth. Problem one with research. You can’t let it take over the story.

Say you are sending your heroine across the plains in a covered wagon in a western historical. You can find hundreds of books written about the era. You can list what she packed, what she wore, what she ate, how she did dishes, what plants she saw, the information you can share is endless. How do you pare it down?

Try to remember that what’s important is how your character feels about what’s going on. Why did she pack the things she wanted? How were they important to her? How does she feel when she loses them? What was she wearing? How does it make her feel to be dirty or to wear the same skirt over and over until it’s frayed? What does the hero give her to eat? How does she feel about him as a provider if the meal is a buffalo or a skinny sage hen?

Do you see where I’m going? Research is important, but we are writing romance after all. Sprinkle in fact lightly and make them relevant to your characters emotions.

And FYI. Keep those research files handy even after the book is done. It could be that someone will want a sequel.

Happy writing to all.
My first Amish book is done and I’m doing the happy dance.


Rox Delaney said...

Keep on dancin', Pat! You deserve it. :)

Anonymous said...

I wrote a time travel piece a long time ago and still have the research and I even found out that my hero was actually a person who lived in the area during the 1800s.

Pat Davids said...

How cool to find your hero was an actual person. I love to use old diaries to help in research. When I was researching Salina, Kansas in the 1860's I discovered a wonderful book in our library's rare book section that detailed accounts of Indian attacks in the area from the survivors. It was so interesting.

Pat Davids said...

I'm happy dancing for the rest of this week. After that, I have a proposal to turn in for book 2 by June 30th. The whole ms is due Oct 1st

Joan Vincent said...

Congrats on completing the book, Pat! You are so right about the danger of research taking over. Since I write historicals I have to know my factual timeline as well as my fictional one. My characters are usually "who" say "Enough already, Write!" To help ensure accuracy while I write I keep a notepad to jot down things/facts to check before a final edit.

Rox Delaney said...

Pat, I remember a story my great-uncle told about when he was a boy growing up just outside of Clearwater. He was born either 1899 or 1900. He was out playing in the pasture one day, quite a ways from the farm house, when he encountered a young Indian. He said he didn't know who was the most scared, him or the Indian, as each took off running in different directions.

There were more great stories, and if anyone who writes Historicals would like information about settlers in this area, there's a diary in the library at Clearwater of a young woman (Abbie Bright) visiting her brother at that time. She lived in a dugout, which is what my family lived in when they first moved to the area. It's an amazing first person account of the times.

Rox Delaney said...

Let's not forget that Historicals aren't the only stories that require research. I can't think of a (contemporary) book yet that I've written that hasn't required at least a little research. Sometimes it's for location, but mostly I need to learn about occupations. Sometimes it's for injuries, others for speech or recipes or other small details that make the story more "real". It's that "show, don't tell" thing. :)

Reese Mobley said...

I bow to you research queen. I know how much you love it. It always amazes me how much you remember and how excited you get when you get to share your knowledge. I'm sure your Amish book will reflect your hard work. Keep up the good work.

Pat Davids said...

I've been to your house. I know how much research material you have. It's awesome.

Becky A said...

Miss Pat,
You mean I'm supposed to do the research and THEN write the book? Aacckk!!! Well, that explains a lot. I'm doing it all backwards!

I'm still grinning!!

PS: I'll do the happy dance when I see those missing chapters!!! G!

Penny Rader said...

I love, love, love to research. I can get totally lost in research. It's probably really bad to say this, but I'd rather research than write. =:O

I love learning new things. It's retaining it, remembering it that gives me problems.

Children's books are a great place to begin research because they break things down in easy to understand chunks.

Bibliographies in the backs of books (and InterLibrary Loan!) are also terrific ways to find new material.

When I was writing Sapphire and Gold a secretary of the Newfoundland Society helped me a great deal with Max, my dog character -- she sent me tons of info. The Colonial Williamsburg people sent me lists of books. They even put me in touch with someone who helped me get Derek and Alexandra from Philadelphia to Williamsburg (without leaving Derek's ship). And a professor of pharmacology in Boston was super-fabulous. Alexandra is a healer and he answered all sorts of questions for me. He even helped me figure out a painful way for ... Oops! Don't want to blow the story. All of this research was pre-internet and we wrote many letters back and forth.

Becky, I find it helpful to do general research before I write the book. Sometimes the research itself can give you ideas. Like Joan, I jot down what I need more info on as I'm writing. I'll leave xxxxx's indicating what I need and fill it in later.

Back to my corner. See, I start talking research and you can't hardly shush me. ;)

Pat Davids said...

Don't be ashamed. I have the same disease. Researchitis.

snwriter52 said...

Research is an important element of writing. Whether it's Historical or contemporary. I realize there must be truth to move the story along. You want the reader to believe your characters, etc. As much as you want your story to be believeable to you. There'll be obivious errors which can be corrected as you are writing. For major issues, I make a note. Or if I see it while reading the computer sheet, I'll mark it with a red pen to fix later. As writers we have a wonderful gift of the internet, library, and research books. I can get lost in research. For me, too much research is "Going down the Bunny Hill." I set a timer. When my time I've allowed is up. I get back to writing.

Starla Kaye said...

Research is definitely important to give a sense of believability to a storyline, whether it is contemporary or historical. I have tons of Western info for all time periods that I sort through regularly since I sell mainly Western romances. The trick is always how to give enough flavor of the time period or situation without overwhelming your reader with too much info. I try really hard not to put in more than is absolutely necessary. Sometimes that is very frustrating because I've got all this really cool information.