I love research.
Perhaps you didn’t hear me right. I LUUUUUUUUUUUUUUURVE research. My ideal job would have been doing historical research for anyone – a library, a university professor, etc. I once had a job in the Folklore Archives of an English department, but had to quit — motherhood called. I could not justify taking money (even a rock bottom minimum wage) when I kept falling asleep. So I decided, when my daughter was three, to put my knack for research to work. I started a book – all about Chicago in the late 1850s, through the 1870s — what I called “Gone with the Wind – the Northern version.” I spent a lot of time researching and racked up 800 pages of manuscript. No joke.
I was told by an editor to “find the story” hidden in that huge stack. So I took another few years to revise, but I learned a valuable lesson. I built walls, a roof, put windows in, the interior rooms, etc. – but the foundation was faulty. I had no idea how to formulate a scene, with action, reaction and motivation. I had skimmed over Dwight Swain’s book, “The Techniques of the Selling Writer” but most of it eluded me. But no matter how many manuscript pages I wrote, I knew I had most of the research for the time period and place with fairly accurate details.
Research is easier now, given the number of images, historical websites, books on Google, even Youtube videos. It takes digging, however. When you think you have it right, check again. You may have missed some important detail. And readers will not forgive you if it’s a simple, blatant mistake that could have been easily found.
The best advice I ever heard about research, though, is “keep the story at the forefront.” The research details are not the story – just part of the set or stage decor. Necessary for mood, for atmosphere, but take it out and the characters can still play their parts within that story framework.
The trick is to use research as a tool to enhance the character’s world, especially in the historical genres.