Four Secrets to Make Research Effective and Fun
By Katherine J. Le Gresley
As writers of historical fiction, we all understand the need for good research in the books we create and enjoy. We recognize that subconsciously, readers internalize the setting of a book—absorbing the people, the places, and everyday experiences of the time in which the story takes place—and acknowledge that the details of the narrative must be based upon reality rather than the shallow stereotypes of our collective imaginations. Yet, how do we research an entire time period without spending years doing so? While our stories may entail researching a specific incident in history, far more frequently, they involve immersing ourselves in the setting in a way that allows us to experience it for ourselves. In researching my latest novel, several things stood out to me that helped to make the process both fun and effective.
Make it Personal
Understanding the main character is integral to effective research. Regardless of the era in which a person lives, the intricacies of life experience will differ from one person to the next depending upon factors such as gender, cultural background, class, education, and personality. Knowing everything there is to know about the protagonist allows us, as writers, to research life from a very specific point of view. I found it especially helpful to centre my research on a historical figure/family member that matched my protagonist in a number of those key areas. What was life like for that person? What were her trials? Joys? Concerns? Interests? It is surprising the kinds of things we can learn about a given time by researching a single person’s life. For me, the more personal the research, the more enjoyable it tends to be and the more invested I am in the outcome.
Prioritize the Details
The importance of detail in conveying an accurate setting cannot be stressed enough. While we would all agree that descriptive details bring a story alive, each one of those details must be filtered through the lens of a book’s setting to be effective. If we fail to attend to the accuracy of those details, we run the risk of distracting, misleading, or losing the reader at best, and at worst, adding to stereotypical thinking. Even the smallest details impact the accuracy and believability of a story. Details like an old woman’s hair bearing a faint hint of rosemary, or a pound of lemon drops costing 52 cents, are important, however, we cannot simply conjure them from our imaginations if we wish our readers to benefit from the reality of the setting. Thankfully, getting those kinds of details correct is one of the easier aspects of the researching process. A good internet search engine can reveal a host of useful minutiae, provided we are careful to stick to reputable sites and verify the information in more than one place. For as many gems a person finds on the web, there is a wealth of inaccurate information just waiting to be claimed as fact.
Use a Variety of Resources
As we all know, it is always best to use as many different resources as possible when doing our research. The more varied the resources a writer calls upon, the more likely his/her information is to be accurate. Additionally, the more personal those resources are, the more useful they tend to be. Google is great, as are encyclopedias, information books, commentaries, and official public records, but there are many other resources available to us as well—resources that are often even more useful. Depending upon the period being researched, a visit to an area historical society could lead to photos, paintings, personal letters, ledgers, newspaper articles, catalogues, and a host of other items of historical significance. Trips to museums, particularly those with well-researched interpretive programs, are invaluable. Library archives are also a rich place to find resources. Perusing articles and advertisements in various periodicals from the time and geographical setting of our stories might be the most helpful of all. I know it was for me. With time-honoured advice, popular phrases and instruction on word use, recipes to thrill the family, clothing styles, sales pitches, editorials, letters to the editor, regional news, and world events, the periodical I used allowed me to immerse myself in the life of my protagonist and portray her life with great accuracy.
Keep a List of Specific Resources and Key Details to Refer Back To
As a teacher, I should have known better. Keeping a research record sounds like simple common sense, but I confess I failed miserably in this area. Still, by doing so, I learned the value of having one. During the writing and editing phases of my book, there were several times when I wanted to return to a given source to verify information or fill in a few extra details, only to find that I had no idea where the information was stored or recorded, or if it had been recorded at all. Sadly, I wasted hours needlessly re-researching topics I failed to adequately record the first time around. Next time I will be sure to keep a detailed record of the sources I use complete with key points that might come in handy. Alas, we live and learn, as the saying goes!
Good research is as essential to a work of historical fiction as the story itself. Important as it is, however, the time comes when the writing phase must begin. Yet, that does not mean our studies are complete. The research stage does not simply end because the writing commences. That is the fun part—at least it is for me—because the best research is the kind that leaves the writer, and the reader, wanting to learn more.
Did you enjoy this post? For more helpful tips on researching for your book, you may also be interested in How to Research Well, Part One: Is This Website Legit? and Ninety Percent Research.
About this Contributor:
Katherine J. Le Gresley grew up in the Village of Newcastle near the Farncomb family home. An elementary school teacher, she prizes creativity and enjoys music, laughter, and quiet moments of reflection in God’s creation. She is the author of The Light Keeper, which was shortlisted in the 2021 Braun Book Awards.