I used to think that research would have to be the most boring aspect to writing. I remember actually making a similar comment at a book signing event I attended for another writer who wrote historical fiction. I was pretty smug in my assumption, but honestly, I had no idea what I was talking about. I’d just begun my writing journey, and I thought fiction writing, especially paranormal romance writing, wouldn’t require any research. I was wrong.
Not long into the process of writing my first published title, In The Spirit Of Love, I realized that I needed more information on a variety of subjects ranging from food to geography. Then I thought I should learn a little bit about the types of grand country estates that dot the English countryside, and period clothing. Oh, and I figured it might be a good idea to learn about some of the famous ghost stories surrounding those old English manor homes. One thing kept leading to another, and as I wound down the various paths of information, each new thing pointed to another interesting tid bit of information. I began making notes, book marking sites to return to, and generally getting right into the research behind the fiction story I was telling.
I had no idea I’d enjoy it so much! In fact, periodically I had to pull myself back into the business of actually writing the story. Now, I should probably have done all the research up front before even starting to write, but what did I know? I let the story tell me what areas to research. Each time I’d come up against a blank wall where I didn’t know something, I’d go off on a tangent and research it. That was actually fun, and it gave me some much needed breaks in my writing. In fact, some of my research became the germ of an idea for the story, or the sequel, In The Spirit Of Forgiveness, which followed.
I was surprised by how much I enjoyed the research part of writing, but I suppose I shouldn’t have been. After all, I love learning new things, and the past has always fascinated me. It also made me yearn to visit the places I was researching. I came away with a deeper appreciation for people I hadn’t met and places I had never been. I developed a love of research I hadn’t expected.
After the small success of my first two books, I felt I was ready to tackle a much bigger project I’d been wanting to write for several years; a fact-based historical fiction novel entitled The King’s Consort-The Louise Rasmussen Story (not yet published), about a woman who lived in Denmark’s mid-1800s. Going into the writing of this story I knew I was biting off a good, sizeable chunk. It was a daunting task, because the people and places actually existed. So, armed with my new love of research, I began reading anything and everything about the main protagonist, Louise Rasmussen, and her love interest, King Frederik VII. From my experience in writing the two In The Spirit Of books, I knew the internet and library were my closest friends and allies. I couldn’t actually go to Denmark (not on this writer’s budget), but I could research to my heart’s content, and I did. I also talked at length to my Danish-born mother about the small details of Danish life, and some of the locations I was writing about. I made copious notes and bookmarked many pages to refer to time and again. I created a story outline, arc, and character profiles based on the information I retrieved. I began to see the characters and story come alive in my mind as I wrote, and any areas I became stuck on, I researched some more. As with the first two books, the research for The King’s Consort lead me down paths I hadn’t considered before, and helped me create a fictional world to surround the very real characters and places I was writing about. I don’t know if I got everything just right, and I’m sure there are areas I could improve on, but I write with my gut instinct. I let the story unfold, assisted by the facts I uncovered. I felt as if I were placing flesh on old bones and giving sound to voices long silenced.
I recently read a Writer’s Digest article written by Scott Francis, wherein he discusses “How to Research Your Novel”. Scott gives some excellent advice to writers, and reminds us that fact-finding and verification make for a much more believable story.
At The Centre for Fiction, author Helen Benedict talks about the importance of writers doing their due diligence when it comes to blending fact and fiction. As Benedict claims, it’s imperative that the writer not “cheat” and try to fool the reader. That’s not to say that every novelist gets it right every time, but the goal is to get it as right as possible and check the facts.
Freelance fiction editor, Beth Hill, addresses this issue in her post, Details and Descriptions-Getting the Facts Right and gives some concrete suggestions about where writers should focus their efforts when researching for a story.
While I’m in the querying phase for The King’s Consort, which is akin to long, slow torture, I console myself with hours upon hours of research for my next historical fiction novel. It’s a huge project, but it excites and enchants me. It also scares me, but I’m going to go for it anyway. The research for this novel is just as deep, the characters are just as complex to learn and understand, and the work ahead is tremendous. Still, I’m once again enjoying the process of learning the who, how, what, and where of the story. When I finally begin writing the chapters, I know I’ll feel the familiar thrill of bringing the past to life again. It’s a challenge I simultaneously welcome and dread, precisely because it’s a challenge.
I’m not an expert. I’m not a historian. I’m not a scholar. I’m a writer and story-teller, and I just do the best I can with what I have. Because of my fascinating research, I’ve learned so much about subjects I had no idea would appeal to me. I’ve also promised myself I’ll some day visit the many places I’ve written about, walking through streets, halls, and gardens my characters, both real and fictional, have tread. For now though, I’ll content myself with my imagination and the dusty old facts I uncover. Such is the life of a writer.