Monday, January 24, 2011

Pre-Writing: Research

Ah, research. One of my own personal versions of crack. Whether writing historical, fantasy, or contemporary, solid, judicious research can make a book come alive.

It can also be one of the easiest areas in which to become bogged down due to 1) becoming overwhelmed by the sheer enormity of information and a desire to get everything perfect and 2) it’s a lovely way to procrastinate and avoid doing any actual writing.

The way I keep from getting overwhelmed or lost in a never ending maze of historical research is that I break it down into stages. In the prewriting stage, the point of my research is to get a broad overview of the major events, players, and temperament of the historical time period in question. If I’ll be using or referring to real people or events, I make sure I know enough about them so that I can adapt accordingly. In fact, early on, I will often make up a timeline incorporating those historical events that will be happening during the course of the story.

But perhaps more important than the major events and players, is the thing I called temperament. This incorporates not only the mood and tone of the historical period, but also the worldview of the people who lived in those times. I thinking trying to capture the worldview and convey it somewhat accurately is one of the keys to making historical fiction feel like more than a costume drama.

The mindset of those who lived in the Victorian Era was different from those who lived in the Edwardian Era. Medeival men and women had wildly different ways in which they viewed the world when compared to those that lived during the Renaissance. As writers, I think one of the most important research tasks we have is to be able to capture the essence of those views.

However, that worldview must be tweaked in such a way as to make sure the characters are relatable for today’s reader. I think the exception to this is if the main focus of the story is to capture a particular historical milieu and have it be the point of the story, but my own personal feeling is that character and story take precedence over historical accuracy. (Which I will talk about in my next post.)

Another really important point about historical fiction (including fantasy) is this: the story should be so integral to the events and constraints of the time period that it could not take place any other time. It could not be plunked down in another historical time period and work. So if you have a character and plot idea and you’re trying to choose between a Colornial, Renaissance, or Victorian setting, the chances are your plot and character are not fully grounded enough in their time or place. If you’re just at the idea stage and still fleshing out the plot and character, then that’s different.

For example, I get asked a lot about why I set Theodosa in Edwardian times, and the answer is, very simply, that particular story couldn’t have happened at any other time. A hundred years earlier and travel was much slower and women traveled to Egypt much less frequently and a woman archaeologist—while scandalous enough in 1907—would have been nigh impossible in 1807. Plus the Rosetta Stone hadn’t yet been cracked and no one knew how to properly read hieroglyphs, so Theo couldn’t have translated the various texts. Plus, the general view at the time was that it was perfectly fine to acquire artifacts from lands not one’s own and take them to a museum and archaelogical digs were minimally supervised.

If I were to have set it in modern times—well, the story couldn’t have happened in today’s world. Egypt is very much in control of its own excavations and discoveries, travel and access is now nearly instantaneous, and modern politics would have provided a huge barrier. Plus, we know so much more now that we did then and nearly all the really big archaelogical finds have been made.

Thus 1907.

So that’s what I look for in the first round of research, learning enough to anchor both the story and the character’s worldview in the time period. And then it’s a stop and go sort of thing. I’ll begin writing until I run into something I don’t know. If it totally stops the story from going forward, then I’ll stop and research it. If I can keep going without it, I put a note in brackets. [what were some games Edwardian kids played and what toys did they have?] and keep going. That way I avoid the procrastination game.

Oh, one other thing I do in these early, pre-writing stages is that I do the research necessary to assemble the setting of the book. Determine what cities or towns I’ll be using, or make some up based on real towns. I pour over old maps and photos of old towns and castles, trying to get a vivid picture of the setting in my mind and then create enough of a map or blueprint that I’m not constantly having to stop once the writing begins to figure out where in the heck I am.

(And the reason I’m talking about research now is because I do it before I create the template that I referred to in last week’s post. I’m pretty much doing these posts in the exact order that I do them for a book.)


Mae said...

I very much dislike research, and I don't do it.

I mean, I know I'll have to do some research eventually for a lot of this- making sure my Chinese character isn't too stereotypical, for example.

I know the main details that will need research- thirteen year old not eating for a week and injuries minus burns for an explosion- in one of my books.

Generally, I go for things that don't quite need it. If you're making up a fantasy country, religion, etc, you don't need much research. I know a great deal about Hatshepsut, so I could write a book set in the reign of Hatshepsut, and in fact I am.

And like you said, it could only be set then. The main characters are both her children, for example!

Becky Levine said...

I'm hoping that as I get better at this hist fict thing, I'll figure out when to do what research. Or at least figure it out BETTER. :)

I was just discussing this idea of stories only being able to take place in certain times--and, yes, in terms of the specifics. I also want a story, or maybe a theme (?) that could take place any-when--like Theo's problems with her parents. I think the mix of both is what makes a really good read.

R.L. LaFevers said...

Actually Mae, I think if you're creating a fantasy country or religion, you still need to do research: You need to research existing religions or magical systems so that you understand how to build those things from the ground up. That gives stories a much more solid foundation and makes them more believable.

And Becky I absolutely agree! The specifics must be historic-specific but the themes universal and timeless.