Wednesday, January 19, 2005

To Write or To Research

Nearly every writing project requires some research. Even an autobiography requires some fact checking, cross-referencing of dates, looking at old photos, etc. A historic romance requires a lot of research. My novel takes place in the 1790’s, a time loosely categorized as the Regency period in England. So while the characters are clear in my mind, I must still gain an understanding of what type of clothing they wore (especially since it’s a romance and those clothes have to come off at some point), what type of house they lived in, what servants they had, etc. The question becomes, “How much research do I do before I begin to write?”

The answer: As much as you need to do, but no more. The reason I say this is because if you do all of your research upfront, you’ll never write a thing. Research is time-consuming and leads to more research. My method is this. Do some initial research to get started, then write. You can always revise later. Research can easily become a black hole. Even if you don’t quite have all of the details, you still have your characters emotions, and they don’t change much over time. Almost all parents would be distraught over the death of a beloved child or spouse, regardless of the year. Furthermore, research is an ongoing process and one I do concurrently with my writing. When I’m not writing, I’m reviewing my research materials, looking for new angles, making sure I haven’t written anything inaccurate. Lastly, remember, research can be a good excuse NOT to write. So use what you know and get started!

Where do you start to do research? Here’s what I do. First, if I have a knowledgeable friend who wouldn’t mind the imposition, I ask them. Second, I surf the internet. Third, I utilize the library for books, videos, magazines, newspapers, etc. Ask your librarian for help, that’s what they are there for. Fourth, when I have built up a good background knowledge, I approach an expert. That may be a company employee, a city official, or a university professor. Since people’s time is valuable and they may or may not be interested in helping, I make sure I know everything I can before I impose on them. That way, their help is the most useful to me and they take me more seriously.

Currently, I’m reading “Sense and Sensibility” by Jane Austen as her book took place around the time my story does, reviewing several “Writer’s Guide to the XYZ Years” which are immensely helpful in giving an overview of various time periods, and trying to imagine being my character in those various settings. When I go to sleep at night, I imagine myself being rocked by an unforgiving sea, struggling to fall asleep on a heap of straw in a built-in bunk on a late-18th century sailing ship on my way to an unknown land--America.

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