Let’s talk research! I’d like to introduce you to Therese Martin!
I hate research! Some writers have that initial, instinctive reaction; it’s a necessity they would rather avoid, and research-phobia can keep writers from moving into new genres. Unfortunately, it’s hard to get around the need for research. Nearly every fictional genre requires some form of it. That need is may be more evident in technological thrillers and historical fiction, but even mysteries and fantasy require some solid background data.
So how is it done? There are as many methods as there are writers. To some degree, it depends on the genre; methods of researching a medical thriller are going to be different on the surface than ways of researching a medieval romance. I think the essentials are transferrable across genres, and present my historical research methods as an example.
First, I create a timeline. As a retired history teacher, this is probably predictable. I use a spiral notebook for the initial stages of my research, and the first thing is a timeline. I plot out a reasonable framework; if it’s a medieval novel I might plot a century before and after my setting. For a novel set in World War Two, which is the setting of my most recent novels, I plot from ten years before the beginning of the opening scenes of my story to ten years after. Generally, the more recent the events, the shorter the surrounding framework, as the period tends to be common knowledge. The years after my story are just for my own information, to help form a mental anchor, or, as I think of it, mental Velcro for my story.
On my timeline, the first thing I do is place major historical events. I find them the easy way; online. Before the Internet, I used an encyclopedia. I owned three. But now, I use my trusty laptop instead of spreading several large volumes around my dining table. When I began working on my historical novels, I had many of the basics at my fingertips, since I was teaching a class of middle schoolers about the war. I used our history texts and reference materials in addition to what I pulled off several historical websites.
Once I had the timeline created and major historical events placed, I put my characters’ lifetimes. I placed the characters’ birth and significant events in their lives. This helped with that mental Velcro. This information also went on their character sheets, which would be in the same spiral notebook. The notebook isn’t essential, but some organizing tool is a must. Index cards, computer notes, sheets of paper in a file folder, whatever helps you organize your ideas; don’t just trust your memory. No matter how acute it may seem, it will fail you. This, I believe, is the source of the continuity issues that plague so many writers. An essential characteristic of research is that it is ongoing. We have to keep going back to those notes to make sure of details. Did I say that Susie was a blonde? No, my character sheet says she has medium brown hair. Was Bob short or tall? I can’t have him short in Chapter Five and tall in Chapter Fifteen!
Once I have the timeline and character sheets, making sure they are consistent, I work on detail. I research every major event on the timeline. For each event, I create a sheet with details from historical sources, academic works, and first hand interviews if possible. The latter can be found in memoirs or, if the setting is recent enough, interviews with people who lived through those times. Technology plays a part, as well. If your story is set in 1890, don’t have your characters listen to the radio. Don’t have them take the train from New York to San Francisco in 1820. In World War Two, they can’t talk about a recent television program. Know what technology was available at the time, and what wasn’t. Put that in the notes, too.
Another surprisingly effective source is contemporary novels written during my novel’s timeframe. This yields some amazing bits of trivia that makes a novel more real to the reader. Reading novels written at the time gives valuable information about what people wore, what they ate, what music they liked, what they thought about the issues of the day, and what slang terms they used to discuss those issues. What matters here is when the novels were written, not just their settings. I might read novels written in 1910-1914 to get an idea of the mindset in the culture immediately before World War One, for example. If it’s a more recent setting, movies produced during your novel’s timeframe are a quick way to get a feel for the culture; that’s a handy sort of Cliff notes for most 20th century settings.
Once the setting is framed out, with a timeline, character sheets, cultural notes, technological notes, and major event sheets, I create my outline. I put dates on the outline, to make sure I’m consistent with actual events. The outline has to agree with the timeline and with all the notes. I then make a line graph showing my plot points, denouement, and resolution, with links to chapters. This goes in my notebook, along with everything else.
Then I write my opening. I’ll get the first few hundred words on paper, then go away. I let the opening sit overnight to mellow, and re-read it the next day. If it still seems interesting to me, I grab the nearest family member and demand a critique of the opening. Does it grab your interest? Do you want to keep reading? They know me well enough not to give me a “yes, dear” or “yeah, sure, Mom.” If it passes that mark, I go forward. I may come back and make changes in the opening, but generally it stays in that initial form, unless I change the entire direction of the story.
From that point, it’s just writing. Because I have my notes, I know where it’s going. Of course, sometimes my characters want the story to go in a different direction, and that familiar problem may change some elements of my outline. I’ve thrown out chapters, discarded characters, added new ones, changed plot points. The key, getting back to the research angle, is maintaining continuity. If I decide to explore an event I’d previously decided to leave alone, it might be necessary to go back to my sources and fill in the details. When I make major changes, I have to make sure I’ve been consistent. If I take out the chapter that reveals something about the character, I have to make sure Iâ€™ve done that in the chapter that replaces it. If I omit a character I introduced in Chapter Two, I can’t refer to the character in Chapter 20.
When I’ve finished the novel, fixed the typos, done my rewrites, and gotten feedback from my beta readers, I go back and read the novel, writing an outline of the novel in its finished form, with dates for each chapter. I compare this outline to the one I started with, and make sure I don’t have any chronological inconsistencies. I check my source materials once again; was that event in March or May? At this point, it goes to my editor, and I can be fairly certain that I don’t have huge, glaring historical inaccuracies.
There are chat groups for many historical periods. They can be extremely useful, especially when the groups include eyewitnesses to historical events. They can also cause difficulties for writers. In one group, I ran into a lively discussion about precisely when the Battle of Manila Bay began. It came down to a heated argument about whether the shelling started late at night or early in the morning. There was no consensus among the people who were there in the internment camps; they all held firmly to their recollections, which encompassed a span of several hours. I solved the problem by having my character fall asleep, exhausted, dimly aware that there were noises but not caring. That way, I didn’t have to deal with readers saying things like, “You were wrong! The fighting didn’t start at ten p.m.!”
The important thing is finding out all you can, from as many sources as you can. Make notes, keep the notes, refer to the notes with every chapter. Go back to the notes at the end. There are few things more jarring to the reader than a major historical inconsistency. It can spoil the story for the reader and will almost certainly show up in reviews. Don’t be the sort of writer who has characters in a Regency novel travel by railroad when returning to London for the season!
Therese “Terry” Martin is a writer living in the Pacific Northwest with her kilt-wearing husband. She is a retired teacher who has published a four-volume social studies curriculum, over 200 short articles and opinion pieces, and three novels. Several more are in various stages of production, along with a dozen or so unpublished short stories. This was probably the logical outgrowth of a serious addiction to books and a deep fascination with words, which began at the age of three. Early habits are hard to break. She admits to over 1500 books on her Kindle and a few hundred still in boxes from a recent move from Colorado. She thinks that shows incredible restraint, and is in denial about the book addiction, claiming she can stop anytime. Really.
The Uncivil Engineer: Companion to In the Presence of My Enemies by Therese Martin
December 8, 1941. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor was followed by conquest and occupation of the Philippine Islands. James Harper, an American engineer working in Manila, is caught up in the turmoil. His experiences in the United States in the 1920s and 1930s have given him some insights that could help him survive being imprisoned. Will that be enough? Will he survive the war, keep his family together, and find his place in the postwar world? Or will he meet his end in the violence of war? Follow James’ story from the speakeasies of New Orleans to the economic worries of the Great Depression and the tough decisions he has to make. Share his worry for his family, the perils of being a prisoner of war, and his growing hopes for the future. This sweeping story, inspired by the real-life wartime experiences of the author’s family, is a compelling vehicle for people of all ages, spanning four decades. Readers will experience the Pacific war through the eyes of characters who find themselves in the middle of terrifying circumstances. Not a dry textbook, this exciting story with fascinating characters will make the Greatest Generation come alive for their great-grandchildren. Written for “new adults” of high school and college age, it is accessible for middle school readers as well as more experienced adults of all cultures.
Amazon: Uncivil Engineer