When I sat down with Alex Schnee for an interview a while back, one of the things we talked about was the research process for a novel. For Alex, it was her historical romance novel, Shakespeare’s Lady, about the woman William Shakespeare often referred to in his sonnets. It seems that when one writes a historical fiction, there seems to be a lot of pressure on the writer to get things right.
You’re not only writing a story that needs careful attention to the plot, structure, characters, etcetera, but you are also including a generation of people who thought differently than you, unless you lived during the time. It’s made up of historical events that the people never saw coming or didn’t know if they’d make it through. Currently, I’m doing some heavy research on World War II, particularly the Second Ranger Battalion.
I’ve always been enamored by that time period, so I’ve studied it in the past, but in the instance of writing it becomes more evident that you need to take your research deeper than just events. What happened to the average individual? What did they feel or think? The soldiers on the ground may have been confident that they were going to come out victorious, but were they certain? Even more, how did the times effect people back home?
Because this has been on my mind, I decided to show a little bit of my own research process. This may not apply to every writer, but if you’re looking to write about a particular time period, this might give you somewhere to start.
More accurately, when in time are you writing? Some stories are universal, so you can almost getaway with writing during any time period. So, you have to look at what you’re writing about. I have a unique interest in the ’40s, ’50s, and into the ’60s, so I have an understanding of some of the cultural events. WWII began September 8, 1939. British Expeditionary Forces retreated from Europe through Dunkirk in 1940. The war in Europe ended May 1945 and in the Pacific in August 1945. We fought in Korea early ’50s, first combat troops landed in South Vietnam in 1965, MLK was assassinated in 1968. Those are big events, but how are they connected? Something didn’t happen and the people of the time took little notice. How did they react?
I had hardly used the Internet to do my research in the beginning times of my writing career, so I hit the books a lot. Around my senior year of high school, I started to come around after I finally got Internet connection at home. The one site I thoroughly enjoyed looking at was Wikipedia. Now, Wikipedia has gotten a really bad reputation, especially in those days, it seems. Anyone could get on there and edit something to sound humorous or insanely false.
A friend of mine edited an article to say that a man’s wife would cook some outrageous dish or some sort of nonesense. He went to show me and…it was gone. The Wiki team had taken it down.
I’m not saying that you should solely base your research on Wikipedia, but it is a good place to start. At the bottom of the articles are references, with many linked to their online articles. I would research certain battles and I could clink links to go to other Wiki articles or I could just research certain events they may or may not have had a link to. It would give me a good ground to start from and move forward.
While stories can be universal, how they are told can be effected on location, or setting. Ryatt Eddie Cash, author of Apache Pass, has a novel in mind of a mail-order bride of sorts coming to the frontier to marry a family friend with a ranch. There were two time periods he had in mind: 1866-1868 or 1870s. Two different time periods of the American Frontier that are different in history, so it would effect how the story is told.
How do you want to tell your story? The setting effects the people (the characters) so it needs to be chosen well. Even more than effecting the characters, the setting effects the story in many ways, since the quality of the person is sometimes determined by their setting. Whether it’s political, geographical, or topographical.
I suppose this could come first in the process, but the question of who do you want to write about needs to come. There’s a project I would like to tackle in the coming years about the Vietnam conflict told through the eyes of a young man who joins the Marine Corps. For a long time, I wanted to write about the Vietnam War. Something about that conflict draws me in. I already mentioned I enjoyed the ’60s, so I guess that shouldn’t come as a surprise.
More to the point, I wanted to write about someone who grew up in my part of Montana, the Northwest corner. I started plotting out something about the Global War on Terror at the time, but decided it was maybe a bit too close at the time, and I thought about when I wanted to write about it. That’s when it came to the ’60s. There were quite a few things going on nationally in the mid-1960s, but locally, there was a tremendous flood that destroyed homes. It is still referred to as the worst flood in the area’s history.
That’s what I wanted to write about. A character who comes out of an area that already has a bit of a scarred look to it. The character essentially goes from one war zone to another, in more ways than one, and he would enter one of the most confusing war zones the US military had faced thus far.
Your research varies from who to what you’re writing about. I will usually think about the character first, but sometimes I’ll find a topic that interests me and will then research it. If a story develops, fantastic, and if not, at least I learned something new in the process.
That’s what research really is. Just learning. An English teacher once said researching is just looking up what someone already searched. Hence [re]search. For me, most of what I write about, I’ve already researched, so it becomes a matter of remembering and looking up when my memory gets muddled. It then becomes re-researching.
There really is no right way to go about your research for a novel. There is, however, too much research. It’s hard to say when you’ve reached that point, but when you keep researching and it’s keeping you from actually writing the story you want to tell, start writing. You can always research as you write, which is what I usually do.
Research is what I'm doing when I don't know what I'm doing. -Wernher von Braun. Aerospace engineer.