Monday, August 11, 2014
How I Research My Novel
Still very busy and dealing with some big life changes, blah, blah, blah...
That said, I've been meaning to write a blog post on how I do my research for my Victorian novel, if only because it's a vital part of my writing process, and I'm always interested to see how historical writers approach it.
Many writers declare that research is their favorite part of the process and that writing comes second. I feel the opposite. I enjoy research and get excited when I discover new details, but for me, the story is the thing. I want to harvest enough details to provide a realistic setting. I don't want to wallow in research books for months on end; rather, research is like an itch that I need to scratch until it disappears.
That said, providing a wholly believable setting for a historical story, especially if the story is broad in scope, can take quite a bit of research. Reference texts, contemporary novels, newspapers, pamphlets, maps, you name it. As for where I find them:
1. University Library. I'm fortunate in one respect: I'm an alum of a university with one of the best library collections in the world. For $60 a year, I have full access to all of the libraries, and can therefore hunt through stacks that have scarcely known human beings. I have cracked open books that have not seen sunlight for at least a decade, judging by their musty odor. Many of these books are rare, and could easily cost over $100 to purchase, so not only do I have access to them, but I also save money.
2. Amazon or Other Online Bookseller. How I learn about these books in the first place is usually through Amazon or Google Books searches, or searches in a similar book search engine. It's especially nice when I have the opportunity to read snippets of the books to see if they are the type I need. If they are not available at the library, I order them from an online bookseller.
3. Google Books. Another option is to download books from Google. Often Google will have reference materials that I just can't find elsewhere, especially certain magazines and pamphlets. For example, one of my characters is a doctor who writes an article for the Lancet. Google Books contains multiple copies of the Lancet from that time period that I can use for reference. And best of all, it's often free!
4. Historical Newspapers. This option obviously doesn't apply to everyone, but I have frequented a British newspaper website where, for a certain price, I can access newspaper articles dating back to the 1860s and earlier. The biggest surprise: learning that the front pages of old newspapers were completely consumed by advertising.
5. Good Old Wikipedia. When I want to learn a little background about a subject, I often start here. While yes, Wikipedia articles need to be taken with a big grain of salt, it is a good resource that has led me to several pertinent books on my subject matter.
And what do I do once I get the books? I skim through to find valuable information and then proceed to type like mad, almost word for word. I had over 400 pages of research for the first novel. Is this a normal way of going about it? I don't know. I imagine other researchers underlining and marking passages, maybe taking a few notes on a separate pad. I like to type out large paragraphs of notes because that is how I end up truly absorbing the passage, feeling the details of the time period. Then, rather than hunt through the source book to find the passage while I am writing, I just scan my notes.
The research process takes me months and can be exhausting and frustrating, especially when I realize how many questions remain unanswered. But when I have a breakthrough, it is a wonderful feeling. Right now, I feel like I'm getting close to being done with the research for my next novel, but I'm not quite there. I'm starting to see the outlines of the characters' lives, such as where they would live and how much money they would have to live on. However, I still need to research how they would get around, or how certain illnesses were dealt with back in the day.
Looks like it's time to hit the books once more.
The above image was taken by Mattox and is royalty free.