Under the heading of “Careful What You Wish For . . .”:
Fifteen years ago I was at a professional crossroads. I’d recently completed my doctorate in history and had job applications pending at a number of colleges and universities. I had also started work on the novel that would become Children of Amarid. Within a span of 24 hours, I received a job offer at an excellent university out West to teach U.S. environmental history (my specialty) and a call from an editor at Tor Books asking me if I was still interested in becoming a published author (“Ummmm . . . yes, please.”) I chose writing, in part because I realized that I didn’t love historical research enough to make a career of it. I just wanted to write fiction. I am reminded of an old saying: “Men plan; God laughs.”
I have just sold a new series to Tor Books. It’s historical fantasy, and I have a great deal of research to do. So I thought this would be a good opportunity to talk a bit about the research writers do to prepare themselves to write a book or series. I have no doubt that my fellow MWers will have lots to add to what I have to say.
To me, research is not at all dissimilar to worldbuilding. Both are intended to give shape and texture to the world in which your characters live, both help to set the voice and tone for the books, both give context and weight to the narrative. And both are incredibly time-consuming endeavors that can suck us in and keep us from ever turning to the actual writing of our books. What is the right amount of research? How much is too much, or, put another way, how do we know when to stop? I posted here about worldbuilding not that long ago (see the link at the top of this paragraph) and at the time made the same comparison. Much of what I said about worldbuilding applies to research, too. As authors, we learn as much as we can about the place and time in which we intend to set our books, not so that we can share every detail with our readers, but rather so that we don’t have to. As has been stated here before, we need to use the iceberg principle: We show our readers what they need to know, while merely hinting at the background lurking beneath the surface. I’ll be setting my new series in pre-Revolutionary Boston. I could spend pages upon pages telling my readers about the political, economic, and social phenomena of that time, but they probably didn’t buy the book for a history lesson. They bought it for a story. So I’ll spare them the extensive discourse, but I’ll put in small details — references to historical figures and events, descriptive particulars about the streets of Boston or the interior of someone’s home — that will bring the period to life without detracting from the narrative.
In doing my research, I have to familiarize myself with all those details, and also with the broader historical context that makes them relevant. I need to learn enough that I feel as comfortable with Colonial Boston as I would with a world of my own creation. That, of course, is a very vague answer to the “How much is enough?” question, but the truth is, as with so much else that we discuss here at MW, there is no one right answer. Everyone’s comfort level is different. The key for me — and this is going to sound terrible — is to do as little research as possible to feel that I know enough. This isn’t to say that I’m trying to cut corners or get away with being lazy. Quite the opposite: Both in terms of research and worldbuilding, my comfort threshold is pretty high. But my highest priority is to finish my research and get to the writing. As soon as my research begins to eat in to my creative time, I’m undermining what should be my main goal: Writing a story. There may be details that I have to go back and fill in as I write, but initially I want to learn enough to feel confident with the setting, to be able to see and hear and feel it in my mind.
What sources am I using? History books recommended to me by a professor at the University here in town, and a number of books that I remember and still have from my days as a history grad student. I also have found several books on the topography of the city, a collection of period maps, and some biographies of key historical figures. These last are particularly valuable sources, as they tend to include information on day to day life — products found in a typical home, types of food people ate, distances traveled in a typical day — that are often absent from historical monographs. I use the web for certain things, but try to keep that to a minimum, since web sources can be unreliable. There are also historical societies for nearly all of America’s big cities. These tend to be terrific sources, as they are run by committed professionals and have access to artifacts that other sources lack.
I will post more about this process as I go along, and, as I said before, I imagine my fellow writers here at MW will have hints and ideas to share, too. But for me the most important things to remember are these: 1)Research, like worldbuilding, is crucial to lending a sense of place and time to our writing. 2) Research should never become a hindrance to the actual writing of our books. Do too little and we can go back and fill in gaps as we write; do too much and we will eat into our writing time and might start missing deadlines. 3) Despite my desire fifteen years ago to write fiction rather than do research, this is fun stuff. It is a chance to discover and learn, even as we improve our storytelling.David. B. Coe http://davidbcoe.livejournal.com http://www.DavidBCoe.com http://magicalwords.net