Research - How to use it, but not let it use you (Melissa Robbins)

My husband calls me the Queen of Useless Knowledge. How did I acquire such a title? My bum kicking talent in Trivial Pursuit may be a reason, but how did I acquire the skill to pull facts out of my head for pie wedges? I've always been one of those kids that enjoyed learning new things. Growing up in Washington, D.C. certainly influenced that. My parents were a factor as well. If I didn't know something, my parents would say, “Look it up.” and point to the collection of encyclopedias on the shelf in our living room. If I had a report of some kind, my parents took me to the National Geographic section of our local used bookstore.

Being the Queen of Useless Knowledge comes in handy as a writer. Details are important. Readers want to be transported whether they go down the street, across the world, or back in time. Most of the time, those details take up two sentences and in a 75,000 words story, that doesn't seem worth it, but if you get those two sentences wrong, a reader might very well cast aside your book.

If you are like me, you hate the phrase, “Write what you know.” A fellow writer once told me and I wish I could remember her name, said, “It's not 'write what you know', but write what you want to know.” So where does one go to find information on a particular subject for your story? Sources I found particularly helpful are:

Non-fiction books – as a writer of mysteries set in World War Two, I have three books alone on American men who flew with the Royal Air Force. I have one shelf in my library dedicated to WW2.

Fiction books – take advantage of those previous authors who slaved over the research. Just be sure to verify their information with other sources. They are, after all, fiction writers, so the truth can be stretched a little.

Personal Letters and Interviews – To know what life was really like, look at personal letters or interview people who were there. Can't interview someone from 1865? Check out the National Archives. Did you know you can search their records online? This is also where the non-fiction books come in handy. In a lot of these books, the author already interviewed key players.

Movies – Can be good or bad sources. We are talking about Hollywood here. Battle of Britain starring Laurence Oliver is a pretty good source for that era, but Pearl Harbor has been bashed for its discrepancies by historians, critics, and the people who lived it.

Museums – A no brainer, but you may be surprised what you will find. Over spring break, I sweet-talked my family into visiting the Frontiers of Flight Museum in Dallas. While we were there, a volunteer asked me if I wanted to hear a story about female pilots. I said yes and discovered that the volunteer, Charlie was an American WW2 fighter pilot stationed in England. Should I mention now that the hero in my mystery is an American WW2 fighter pilot stationed in England? Score! Fortunately, Charlie was only too happy to share his stories and amazing photographs with me. You probably heard my exchange student and I sighing at the picture of Charlie in his uniform. He also gave me more sources about his former fighter squadron to look at online. When my family dragged me away two hours later, I had enough personal information to fill a book or two.

With that in mind, there is also the risk of putting too much of your research into your story. If your readers really wanted to know about a particular subject, they would have reached for a textbook. The trick is to weave your information into your story without the readers realizing they just learned something. How does a writer do that? If I want to mention a particular subject in my story, I put the characters and my reader smack dab in the middle of it. Children being evacuated was significant in WW2. My heroine experiences it by having her little cousin be part of it. I broke up the event in two parts in different chapters, so to not bog down the reader with facts. One short paragraph to describe the scene and I use dialogue sprinkled in to convey the rest. Sometimes I just use dialogue.

Research is great, but don't let it take you over and no matter how much fun it is to look at photographs of dashing Royal Air Force pilots, you do have a story to write.


Reese Mobley said...

WOW! Talk about being at the right place at the right time! Lucky you to get enough research for several books.