Look It Up – Researching for Writers

Last summer, I had the privilege of attending a workshop offered by Ursula Renée, who writes historical novels set in the 1930s in New York City. Renée had a long list of ways to discover information about the time period, the activity, the product or just about anything a writer needs to make their book—whether fiction or non-fiction—authentic.

The book I’m writing at the moment takes place in the 1870s, in Maine, beginning in the summer, in a small village about six to seven years after the American Civil War. There are aspects of this story that are familiar to me, such as village life in Maine—regardless of the era—and human behavior.

Less familiar to me but researchable are:

  • When is the best time to prune a tree—in the manuscript, I have written that the male protagonist starts chopping away at an 100 year old oak in the heroine’s front yard at the end of summer. NO! I would be excoriated by my good friend, Paul (arborist and my former singing teacher) if I allowed that error to survive into a published novel. Laughable but it is the sort of error that can stop a reader and destroy our credibility.
  • My hero travels from Wyoming to Maine, part of the journey is by train. So. What type of train engine was hauled carriages up the coast and into Franklin County from Boston? It might be excusable to leave the details of the train as vague and non-committal. But, isn’t it better to add some meat on the bone? My research presented the Achilles. Perfect! The flawed hero of Greek tragedy carrying my flawed hero toward his destiny.
  • Speaking of post-Civil War travel, is it good enough to say coach or carriage or would landau be more authentic?
  • A young woman of this period doesn’t just wear a dress…she wears a steel hoop crinoline ‘pouf’ and pantalets, a corset with detachable sleevelets, a flat derby with ostrich feathers and bloomer skirt.
  • The American Civil War is thoroughly documented from every angle and perspective—a surefire cesspit of quicksand to sink my book to the unforgivably forgettable regions of ‘false history’. With so many truly magnificent non-fiction and fiction books available to the thousands of enactors/enthusiasts/history readers, how do I write this book?
    • Read wide – not just what is ‘accepted history’ but alternative views
    • Reject the notion that there is only one true side of history
    • Know that history is written by the victor but there is always an opposing view
    • Avoid capitulating to those who threaten you with “You’d better be on the right side of history”—see point directly above
    • Write as honestly and as judiciously as possible
  • No matter how well-researched we think our book is…someone will find a fault. Or disagree. Or think our book is the ‘worst book ever written’. There’s no remedy for this. We must write our best, write what we believe is important to say and take the criticism on the chin.
  • Writers of genre fiction have a particularly prickly relationship with the ‘expected’ but, Agatha Christie aside, a little curve ball (mixed metaphor acknowledged) can make a formula a chemical explosion. To paraphrase  Steven Pressfield from his book, The War of Art, following the recipe may make a soufflé but it doesn’t make a meal.

Of all the pitfalls we face as writers, getting our facts wrong can lead us into a hinterland from which there is no escape. Always get a second opinion.

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