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Get Set: Doing Your Research #ReadySetWrite

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

#ReadySetWrite: Get Set--Doing Your Research | KayeDacus.comWhen I first started writing Menu for Romance, I had a cursory knowledge of professional/restaurant kitchens—after all, I paid my dues my senior year of high school and worked in a restaurant, and I watched Food Network and Top Chef and other cooking shows religiously. So in one scene, I had Major’s sous chef wipe his hands on the towel tucked into his apron-string at his waist.

And then, after I finally got around to doing a little research, I read this:

And a word about side towels. The Culinary imported these sturdy items—gray-and-white cotton cloths that students tuck into their apron strings—from Germany because it couldn’t find acceptable ones in the United States, and they were excellent tools. At this stage in a student’s career [the first week], the towels were crisp and clean, all but new. “Side towels are not for wiping your board,” Pardus said. “They are not for wiping your knife, they’re not for dabbing your brow. They’re for grabbing hot things. Things are going to be hot. Anticipate it, expect it.” (from The Making of a Chef by Michael Ruhlman, pgs. 18–19)

Oops. Okay, so that was an easy fix. But if I’d been a good girl and done my research (or at least some research) ahead of time—when I was in the planning stage of the story—I wouldn’t have made that mistake . . . and many, many others that followed.

Doing Your Research

We’re told to write what we know. But that advice is more about taking what we know and extrapolating it into other situations, rather than just about the specific things we’ve experienced in our lives (read more about that here).

I knew restaurant kitchens—I’d worked in one. Right?

Wrong!

I knew how to work as a hostess, as an order-taker on the line (it was a Golden Corral back in the day when it was still a budget-friendly steakhouse not a graze-all-day buffet place), and as a salad bar stocker/cleaner. We had cooks—we didn’t have chefs. I’d never worked in a fine-dining restaurant. I’d never worked in high-end catering. I’d never worked with anyone who’d been to culinary school. So I had A LOT to learn.

And that was just for one character.

As I mentioned in the Finding Your Beginning in The End series, you win or lose your reader’s trust on the first page. I also wrote: Even if you think you know a topic, always find backup sources. Someone else will always know more about it than you do and will tear you (as the author) and your story apart for any mistakes.

I learned more about the city of Nashville in the 18 or so months it took me to write the Matchmakers trilogy than I had in the entire 14–15 years I’d lived here before that. It was actually harder for me to write contemporary novels set in a city I’ve lived longer than I’ve lived anywhere else in my life than it was to write contemporary novels set in a fictional city I’d been working with for years but was still developing as I was writing the Bonneterre books (and am continuing to develop while working on Jenn’s story now).

It’s obvious (I hope) that I had to do tons of research for both the Ransome series and the Great Exhibition books. There was so much research, in fact, that I included a section about it in the proposals that went out to editors for both series. It wasn’t just the history of the era, but the vernacular (of both the everyday and naval variety), the settings, the clothes, the transportation, the social expectations and strictures, etc. And almost all of these were things I needed to know before I could write.

I’ve spoken with various authors over the past two decades and am always shocked when I hear one say that they don’t bother with research before writing. What?!?! How can you NOT do any research before writing—especially for historical fiction? (Or even contemporary—there are always things that a writer needs to know more about.) I don’t care how well you think you know an era or a setting or a profession—there are details you’re going to need, issues that might arise, things you will have forgotten. And it will be obvious, even after multiple revisions, because you’re going to miss something.

But if you do a good bit of your research before you start writing—research that may start even way back when you’re developing the premise of your story—when something comes up as you’re writing, you’re either already going to have notes on it, or you’re going to know which book or website from which you’re likely to find the information you need.

Organizing Your Research
There are as many ways to organize research as there are writers. I work best with the information broken down into topics. And to do this, I love to use OneNote. Here’s an image of the Research section of my notebook for the Great Exhibition series:

#ReadySetWrite: Get Set--Doing Your Research | KayeDacus.com

In addition to the Great Exhibition itself, I have sections on costuming, the era in general (which includes info on steamships, railway travel, music, industrialization, art, interior design), gardening (after all, Andrew is a landscape architect, so I needed to know all about the current styles for garden design, orangeries, conservatories, ornamental gardens vs. kitchen gardens, and more), and “the country house” which contains pages and pages of snippets and notes from a few books I got to make sure that I depicted a Victorian country house—how it ran, who ran it, what the daily schedule was like, what a country party was like, and more—to make sure I wasn’t just rewriting my Regency settings and culture but that I was getting the details unique to the early Victorian age. (I also have pages of research for seamstressing/design and 1840s/50s medical practice and other info I needed in the section for An Honest Heart).

One of the first bits of research I did for these books, long before I even started writing them, was on steamship travel and how to get Kate and Christopher from New York to England—how long it would take, what kind of ship it would be, how much it cost, where it put in once it arrived in England, how they would be transported from there (Liverpool) to Oxford (which meant also researching the railway system in England in 1851). I did this research while writing the initial synopsis of the story. Before I even knew what the full plot would be or even most of the main conflicts, I knew exactly how Kate would get to England, where Andrew would meet her, and how long they’d be confined to a compartment on a train together. I did other research as I worked on the synopsis and proposal. And even more research as I wrote the first three sample chapters.

Did I have all the information I’d need before I started writing? No way. There wasn’t a writing day that went by on which I didn’t need to stop and look something up—even if it was just to figure out if a word I wanted to use was in use back then (being able to use the search function on all of Dickens’s and Gaskell’s novels on Project Gutenberg made my life so much easier in this respect!) or to look at the layout of the Crystal Palace, duplicated from the original tourist booklet, to figure out where the biggest displays of fabrics were (upper floor) or where the Australian/New South Wales display was (ground floor near the south entrance, behind Canada and the West Indies and beside the sculpture garden). In fact, it was reading a tidbit in an article about the Great Exhibition while doing research on it after first coming up with the idea of using it as a setting (for a different series) that led me to making Neal in An Honest Heart Australian.

So do your research—you’ll probably find your characters more interesting, your setting richer, and your storyworld more vibrant from what you learn before you start writing. And it will save you tons of revision later on down the road.

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