Research is a rite of passage for many a writer. No matter the genre, there is usually some level required unless the novel’s world is very small and completely within the realm of what the author knows. For some, research transforms into a never-ending rabbit hole–à la Alice in Wonderland–and writing never launches. It can be thrilling, it can be frustrating, and it can be overwhelming.
For those who are just getting started or who are struggling, I’m launching a six-part series exploring the ins and outs of research. This series will cover everything from understanding sources (including their veracity and biases) and finding experts to utilizing helpful resources perfect for writers.
A speculative fiction and historical fiction writer, who also minored in history, I know the joys of research and its dangers. It is easy to put off writing in the name of research. It has been a major pitfall for me in the past. I would stress over minor details, especially when I was writing about historical events. Everything had to happen to the very minute–nay, the very second!–that it happened in real life.
For a while, I stepped away from historical fiction and dived into speculative fiction, taking my love of history and pouring it into world-building. Ideas for historical fiction novels and novellas, however, continued to plague me, and I recently dived back in. This time I swore it would be different.
My Current Research Process
My current HF novel, which is set from 1917-1920, started with brainstorming and zero research. I knew about the trials that the Great War brought for the U.S.’s Anabaptists due to having been raised in the Church of the Brethren, just one of the Anabaptist churches affected. I allowed the rough idea to form and morph until I felt I had a great concept that also narrowed down what I needed to research. I did not want to cast out too large a net, pulling in information that would undoubtedly be interesting but ultimately would add nothing to my novel, only sucking up writing time.
Knowing it would center on the Amish, I focused my early research on their history during this era. This included not only what was occurring to them during the war but also what they were farming, how their communities were developing, how the technological changes in the English world were impacting them, and so on.
I used research to settle where my story would take place. I had ideas of where I would set it state-wise, but it wasn’t until I reached out to an expert on Amish and Mennonite history, that I selected Jasper County, IN, as the setting, though I opted to fictionalize a town and a separate (but somewhat related) Amish community than the one that really existed. I still plan to honor the very real Amish community that settled in Jasper County, but ultimately failed to survive there, by noting its real history, which will occur around my characters’ own. I, however, wanted to give myself more creative freedom to work with and remove the fear of casting real folk in a negative light as one of the themes is about hatred and I’m pooling real events (we’d call them hate crimes nowadays) that occurred around the Midwest.
From here, my research ballooned to what was happening to the rest of the U.S. during this time period. This included scouring old newspapers that had been digitized, reading books about this time period and the war itself, and even watching YouTube videos (The Great War channel is awesome!). I also found terrific websites and blogs that really helped as well. Heck, I even found a document created by the federal government that related specifically to a division I was researching. The key was to digest a variety of resources.
I think I spent a year, if not a year and a half, researching and developing the story as more information was discovered. I never completely set aside the story aspect while researching. An outline was then cemented and I started writing.
Even now as I’m writing, there are spastic bouts of researching as I come across questions that weren’t covered in my initial research. However, I’m not allowing these research sessions to completely stop my writing as they did in the past. Words need to be appearing on the page.
I’m also still reading nonfiction books that focus on this time period. It’s not strict research, but rather, I view it as a way to keep the time period fresh in my mind as I write.
There is no one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to research. My approach might not work for you and your novel. The point of this series is less about research approaches and more about resources that are available to writers and how to handle sources — in the digital age, it pays to weigh each source with a grain of salt. Some resources may be new, others might not be. Hopefully, you will find something of use over the course of this series.
Join me next week as I explain sourcing and the importance of really examining it–not all sources are created equal and some come with baggage.
At the end of the series, I hope to answer common research questions that writers have. If you have one, submit it using the below contact form.