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Research is not writing . . . but it sure can help!

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

I mentioned to my friend Ruth in a Facebook conversation yesterday that it’s been a while since I’ve been able to muster enthusiasm for much of anything. And as soon as I wrote it, I realized just how true it was. So, instead of sitting around not feeling like doing anything—and yet feeling like I should be doing something—as I’ve been doing quite a lot in the past few months (pretty much ever since I got back from spending the winter with my parents in Arkansas, when I broke my ankle), I realized that the best medicine for apathy was a path—something to do, something with which to occupy my mind.

Several of you may have seen that I posted on FB the other day that I woke up with not one, not two, but three distinct ideas for scenes for the new historical romance I’m supposed to be writing right now. And even though I’ve jotted those ideas down (so I wouldn’t forget them, naturally), I still haven’t sat down and started writing those scenes yet.

I could have done that today. But when I sat there, looking at the blank page on the computer, I froze. Nothing would come.

But I wasn’t going to allow myself to just walk away from it. My goal is to have the first draft finished by the end of September . . . and time is quickly making a fool of me. So if I couldn’t write, I at least needed to spend time in my story world. So I spent the day doing research—specifically finding and organizing images of costumes and of the Great Exhibition.

This series is set in 1851—the fashion era between Romantic (huge puffy sleeves, waistband at the natural—corseted—waist, fuller skirts) and Hoop Skirts, and one I wasn’t overly familiar with except for watching a couple of movies set during the era (Bleak House and everyone’s favorite North and South). And since the heroine of the second book in the series is a seamstress, it’s only natural that I should become as much of an expert in the fashion and style of the era as possible. (Click on the image below to see my 1851 Fashions set on Flickr.)

A little more than a year ago, when I first wrote the proposal for this series, I did hours and hours of research on Prince Albert’s Great Exhibition, the historical event that ties the three books together. I’d already pulled some images—for the purpose of studying them and learning details I needed to know for building the stories I’m pitching. Today, I just wanted to gather as many images of the Exhibition as I could, which you can see by clicking on the image below.

Now, while I still haven’t increased my word count any, I have increased my knowledge and understanding of the culture and the style and the mindset of the people who lived during that time—which, in turn, is giving me ideas and will help me go deeper with my characters and stories.

Writers: Do you like/loathe research? What are you working on now that’s making you hit the books/web? How do you incorporate your research in your writing?

Readers: Do you like to know the details behind the research that goes into the books you read? Have you ever read something that’s inspired you to research a previously unknown topic/historical era/person?

  1. Tuesday, July 12, 2011 5:07 am

    Tough question. there are some books like Lyn Cotes series set in Texas she had actual people but at the back had a note about the era and how she had changed one historical event slightly but she wrote and gave info on what had happened. I do enjoy this as it gives background to the era and the book. Gilbert Morris is good in his series on the civil war setting it up with info about the battle what happened etc and I have researched more myself after reading these books. After reading the book he wrote dealing with Gettysburg was so informative that when I actually watched the movie I knew so much of what was happening thanks to his story. One of his House of Winslow books made me need to know more about Roland Garros.
    there are other things than make me research like American words or things unique to America I haven’t heard of I have actually look up to get more info. There are some words I have actually looked up in the dictionary.


    • Tuesday, July 12, 2011 3:24 pm

      I love reading books that give enough detail to make me fascinated with the time period!


    • Tuesday, July 12, 2011 3:24 pm

      Would you believe my early reading of Harlequin romances set in Australia and New Zealand have led to a life-long fascination? And this fascination is great when I have to answer Trivial Pursuit questions about either of those places! πŸ˜€ Someday I want to visit “down under.”


  2. Tuesday, July 12, 2011 6:40 am

    I enjoy research, for the most part. It gets a little tedious, especially if I am learning about mundane things. I tend to like stories about people during the era, dress, social customs, weird tidbits, etc. I usually get antsy and just want to write. But then I am not grounded in the era. πŸ™‚


    • Tuesday, July 12, 2011 3:26 pm

      To me, any research that is mundane probably means I’m looking at the wrong source or it’s not going to be relevant for my story. I want to get excited even over the “mundane” details (like the long blog post I wrote almost two years ago about the toileting facilities aboard a nineteenth-century war ship).


  3. Kav permalink
    Tuesday, July 12, 2011 7:52 am

    Wow — beautiful dresses. I love the fabrics but in this sweltering heat all I can wonder is how on earth women survived in all those layers?!

    As to your research questions — as a reader I love to hear tidbits about the research process. I have to admit that most of my knowledge on history comes from the fiction I read so I pray my authors are accurate!!! πŸ™‚

    As to writing — I’ve written pieces that required research and usually enjoy the beginning of it but then, when I bogged down in story and suddenly realize I don’t know if this or that is possible and I have to pull myself out and go hunting up the answer — well, then I resent it. My goodness, that was a long sentence. Hope it made sense because I’m too addle-brained to come up with another.


    • Tuesday, July 12, 2011 3:31 pm

      Yes–for as maligned as hoops are, they did actually benefit those women—relieving them of all those layers of petticoats (quilted, horsehair, starched linen, silk taffeta, etc.) and giving them some built-in ventilation. What gets me is that in the early 1850s, especially in England, they were still wearing wool blends, even in summer (though I’ve been tracking the weather in Oxford, where this series is set, and the average high this time of year is only around 72 to 75 degrees—22 to 24 degrees C), so having clothes tolerable in extreme heat wasn’t as much of a consideration there as in places like the southeast US (where, even in Tennessee, it’s 100 degrees today).


      • Tuesday, July 12, 2011 9:22 pm

        One thing about wool is that it is a good insulator. even in summer they say wool will keep you cooler than some other fabrics. The robes of many in the middle east are made of wool. but then they dont wear them tight.
        I always find it funny when some of my English friends say the heat is killing them when it hits 30 or 90ish F. here thats warm but not unbearable.


    • Tuesday, July 12, 2011 10:49 pm

      Having spent many hours in Civil War era clothing, in the summer, I can tell you with absolute certainty that after the first 8 hours, it’s not that bad. You get used to it. And when you don’t know any different, it’s even easier.

      That said, I have no desire to ever repeat spending two days with temps around 100 and humidity hovering around 90% in a polished cotton dress. Polished cotton does not breathe!


  4. Tuesday, July 12, 2011 12:01 pm

    As a writer of contemporary romance, research usually consists of getting things right in an occupation, a hobby, a part of the country, or an event. For instance, I’m planning to include a hurricane in the book I’m working on now. I LOVE researching weather-related anecdotes. I’ve learned that North Litchfield Beach in SC suffered less damage in their last hurricane because of the dunes that are partly natural, and partly man-made. Interesting tidbit!

    As a reader, I love, love, love, to find out how an author learned about a topic. I’m an “Acknowlegements” and “Author’s Notes” kind of girl!

    OK, Now I want to hit the web instead of what I’m supposed to be doing! πŸ˜€


    • Tuesday, July 12, 2011 3:04 pm

      Regina, I’ve lived through more than a few hurricanes. I’m 130 miles inland, but the last two that hit were still a strong Category 1 on arrival. Rita in 2005 and Gustav in 2008.


      • Tuesday, July 12, 2011 3:22 pm

        Be careful – I may tag you for research purposes! πŸ˜€


    • Tuesday, July 12, 2011 3:34 pm

      I lived through Hurricane Andrew in 1992, just before I moved away from Baton Rouge. The worst part of it was watching it rip across Florida and destroy half of Dade County, then sit in the Gulf for a few days regaining strength—and getting even bigger/stronger—before heading straight for Louisiana. We feared then that it would hit New Orleans head on and do what Katrina did thirteen years later, but it took a slightly more westward path and came on shore almost directly south from Baton Rouge. It was still a 2 or 3 when it hit BR, sucking energy from the Mississippi River as it came north.


      • Tuesday, July 12, 2011 10:51 pm

        Andrew spoiled our sleepover plans for the weekend. We lived a few miles from the Mississippi River at the time and Papa flat out refused to let Mama drive across the bridge in anything higher than low tropical storm force winds. The bridge might have even been closed that day.


  5. Tuesday, July 12, 2011 3:02 pm

    You know how much I love research! It pained me a little in North & South though, to see hoops swinging around under skirts when they weren’t in use yet. I understand why they did it. Cheaper than the dozen (at least) petticoats required for each actress.

    I’ve been doing research on typhoid the last couple of weeks. Turns out the illness that strikes in my WIP is not yellow fever, but typhoid. The symptoms and timeline for it are a better fit for what needs to happen. And it’s still an illness that everyone was horribly afraid of.

    I have also decided to start doing more stuff about French Creole culture and architecture on my blog, so I’ve been doing some research on that. I need to get over to Kent House here pretty soon and get some pictures to use. The house is 7 feet off the ground and the joists underneath are quite interesting. One of the bricks also has part of a hand print in it. And all of the outbuildings are typical Creole, particularly the slave cabin. To my knowledge, only the Creoles built double room cabins out of brick. It was done in other places, but they’re wood.

    One thing I did to get across some of the Creole culture in my WIP, is to have my heroine be an outsider. And I created a bit of Creole post-wedding scandal.


    • Tuesday, July 12, 2011 4:05 pm

      The irony of N&S is that it was written between 1854–1855, right around the time hoops were starting to come in (1856 was when they took over in European fashion, according to my research). Not sure why they decided to push it back five years and include the scene at the Great Exhibition, though the GE certainly did have an impact on England and the exponential growth of the Industrial revolution after 1851.


      • Tuesday, July 12, 2011 10:53 pm

        I want to read it now. I loved it.

        From a costumer’s perspective, using hoops was easier and cheaper. Layers and layers of petticoats take time to get in and out of. And 1850’s dresses are already complicated enough without an extra 15 minutes putting on petticoats.


  6. Tuesday, July 12, 2011 3:36 pm

    This is a great quote: “the best medicine for apathy was a path” ~ so much wisdom and a good remedy. Research is something that always revives me, its one of my great escapes! But it is also productive for my writing. And I enjoy doing research almost as much as writing itself. I enjoy learning about the research behind the novels I read and really like it when authors are willing to share. I plan to do the same. I’ve done a lot of research for a series I’m working on now set in colonial and federal periods.

    I love your setting with the time period and the great exposition and am thrilled about the series. I just know someone will buy it! It’s great to see you getting excited about it again. Maybe that’s a good sign. I’m praying it is!


    • Tuesday, July 12, 2011 4:07 pm

      That’s one of the greatest things about having a blog—I have a place to share all the little tidbits of interesting historical information I discovered in the process of writing the book which I didn’t actually get to incorporate into the book!


  7. Lady DragonKeeper permalink
    Tuesday, July 12, 2011 5:30 pm

    The background research a writer does is greatly appreciated! I may not be aware of all the details of … say, American colonial life in the 1700’s, but if I find out later that something was historically inaccurate in a historical novel (especially if it was a large part of the plot), sometimes it affects how I view the story or author later –it can jolt you out of the novel. An exception would be, as mentioned above, if the author acknowledges in a note at the end or beginning of the book that they had “altered” or added to historical events or people.

    Most of the novels I’ve read seem to be well researched (then again, I’m not a historian), but kudos to authors who take the time to do so. =)


  8. Tuesday, July 12, 2011 9:12 pm

    I LOVE research. I almost love research more than writing sometimes. If I am bored by the research, I’m probably going to be bored by the book.


  9. Tuesday, July 12, 2011 10:24 pm

    I’m striking a new path with this new WIP. The first thing every morning is to just write. When I know that I need facts, I circle the word. (i.e. river,city etc. ) I have done little bits of research already just to keep my creativity flowing. I have found little glitches along the way, but am writing like made each morning to simply get the magic down.

    Once the first draft is finished, I’ll go back and delve into the research. I’m thinking this will be my winter project. Then edit and rewrite where needed.


    • Tuesday, July 12, 2011 10:55 pm

      I can’t fathom writing a book like that. Research is what fuels scene ideas for me. If I’m not sure about something that’s pivotal to the scene, I look it up. Little stuff that’s not that important I flag for later.

      My current WIP was born out of research for something else, and the second book in the series is being fueled by research for the first one!


  10. Wednesday, July 13, 2011 5:02 pm

    I am a huge nerd and actually love the research aspect of writing. I go to every war reenactment in a hundred mile radius of my house, go on all the cemetary and walking tours near the historical area where I live, I travel to other states and go to their historical societies. Then I love doing the library stuff to – finding all these cool stories that no one else really knows – like did you know George Washington’s mom was struck by lightening when she was pregnant with him? (and she was fine!) But the person standing less than a foot from her died instantly? Go figure.

    My huge problem is that I have a hard time putting an end to my research. I will spend months researching before putting “pen to paper” even though I have the story worked out in my head because I just want to make sure that “one last fact about buckles” is correct. But let’s face it…do the readers care if I have the buckle color right? Most don’t, so I guess I shouldn’t worry about it so much.

    I’m in the process of writing a young adult time travel book and that’s really making me spend months upon months in the library because I am not just researching one historical events/times, but like ten. Then I have a contemporary adult piece I’m working on…and google earth is eating up all my time there (can’t stop looking at pictures of my setting, such a pretty location).

    I also go crazy when writing contemporary stuff. Right now I’m working on a contemporary romance set in a real city and I’m going overboard researching and have compiled all this information I’ll never use. But I just keep thinking…I want the people who live in that town to read it and for it to feel real.

    As for incorporating it into my writing. Still learning. To date I’ve published magazine articles, short stories and a novella – but no novels yet….still very much in the learning/beginner stage of being a writer.


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