by Patty Smith Hall
An author can create fantastic characters, a gorgeous setting and a plot that keeps the reader turning the pages well into the night. But misplaced a petticoat or put in a piece of dialogue that’s just too contemporary and that same writer will have her email flooded with corrections from diehard historical readers. That is why research is such any important part of writing any kind of fiction.
So where does one start at being an expert in research? Just like writing can be learned, becoming proficient at finding the facts is a learned art. The best in the field have three defining qualities.
1) They are always asking questions.
I love two-year-olds. They’re finally mobile and mostly potty-trained but best of all, they’ve reached that stage where every word out of their mouth is a question. Why is the sky blue? Why do flowers grow? Why did God make toes? Why, why, why! They’re inquisitive, ready to learn and not afraid of appearances. It’s a great time of teaching. But as they grow up, the flow of questions dry up like water puddles on a hot summer day as they begin to worry about public perceptions.
Not so for the researcher. One question generally leads to another, and another, and another until someone gets frustrated and stomps out of the room or the researcher gets a satisfactory answer to the question they are seeking. So, ask away! A great place to ask questions is Facebook. It’s amazing the stuff people knows, and if they don’t know it, they sometimes have a great idea on where to find it.
2) They dig into various sources to find answers.
If anyone ever looked over a historical authors shoulder when they’re in the mist of researching a book and they might be surprised to find websites to such places as the Library of Congress, Memories of the ‘20’s, ‘30’s and ‘40’s or PubMed. They’ll have stacks of magazine articles on point of view and character development, and boxes of books on current hospital procedures, textile mills of the early twentieth century and clothing worn during the Civil War. That’s because a researcher can’t stop with a bunch of questions, but love to dig deeper, going the extra mile to get the most exact answer so that they can pass it on, either in conversation or in the case of a writer, a novel.
It’s also not unusual for a researcher to take a road trip in order to get a feel of a specific area. For example, novelist MaryLu Tyndall made a visit to the South Carolina coast when she was in the mist of writing The Red Raven. Rachel Hauck spent time on Nashville’s Music Row before starting Viva NashVegas, and Susan May Warren used her experiences in Russia to write her wonderful Josey series.
3) They take the opportunity to ‘live out’ their topic of interest.
Technology is a great thing for people who love research. Whereas video games are usually fun for most people, researchers look at them as a way to experience history. For example, I wrote a book revolting around a girl pilot in WWII Georgia so I wanted to know how it felt for her to be in the cockpit, hear the rumble of the engine around me, feel my seat lurk forward at takeoff. But you can’t accomplish that on a laptop so I headed to the nearest flight simulator at the local mall. There, I got to ‘take off’ in a P-51 and ‘run’ a bombing mission in a B-29. And remember that trip MaryLu Tyndall took to South Carolina? Not only did she visit the city and shipyards, she also swash buckled with ‘pirates,’ getting a real life feel for her subject matter thus giving her readers that same experience through her writing.