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A Bit about Research. A Very Small One.

Originally Published April, 2018 by Jill Zeller

I’ve set myself a goal—get out another historical by the end of summer. It’s going well, so far. But I can’t do daily word counts. It’s like weighing myself. I don’t want to know the numbers, because it’s just depressing. Just as I can judge weight fluctuations by the fit of my clothes, I can judge progress on a novel or short story by the numbers in the bottom of my word-processing program, and watch them rise every day.

Reader, do you like to do research for your novels? Where do you start, and what tools do you use?

I’ll answer first. I love research. Most of my writing career I’ve produced fantasy, some science fiction, and a lot of alternative weird stuff that I don’t think fits nicely in a genre. Maybe slipstream, maybe magic realism. Anyway.

A few years ago I got the historical fiction bug. I love reading it, and I took a stab at it, setting a mainstream romantic novel in 1948 Los Angeles. (A plug: available here at BVC). The Internet is my starting point—yes, Wikipedia—and what I read there takes me down a path to websites, books, newspapers, photographs.

I am comfortable using the Internet to begin my research and I am overjoyed to find so much there so easily! I’ve authored scientific papers, and the importance of citations is cemented in my work-process. Part of the fun of research is following the bread crumbs—a link, a name, a title—and digging up the source.

No more slogging around libraries to look for journals that turn up to be missing. No more killing forests of trees using a copier—standing for hours turning pages and slapping them down onto the glass with a line of impatient people staring at my back. No more microfiche machines!

Enough extolling the wonders of the World Wide Web. (What was the first browser you ever used? Mine was Navigator!). It’s true that the Internet is ephemeral and that a book or a magazine of real paper is always there to be pulled from a shelf and consulted. Biographies, historical photographs, memoirs, even fiction written during the time. Books of fashion, histories, books of ocean-going passenger ships, books of California mid-century ceramics, books of maps. How I love a paper map!

And there’s nothing like visiting your setting, and seeking landmarks of what was once there. But that’s expensive and time-consuming, although loads of fun. The Internet can help build that grounding. I have in mind a book set in mid-nineteenth century America, but the location for important reasons has to be in New England. I visited New England in the 1970’s, and have a handful of photographs and memories, but I really need to go back there to see the locations in person.

Authors of history who meticulously research their subjects are my heroes. It’s all there: the Civil War, World War II, 16th century British royals. Books by collectors, photographers, biographers. I could do nothing without them.


6 thoughts on “A Bit about Research. A Very Small One.”

  1. Just in case you ever need to delve into post-WW2 LA again, I am reminded of one of my mom’s favorite shows, Ralph Story’s Los Angeles, and a follow-on called Things That Aren’t There Anymore. A goldmine, I assure you.

    1. Thanks. I didn’t know about Ralph Story (my cousin Ralph lived most of his life in Westwood, but not the same guy . . .) I’ll be revisiting L.A. in my California fiction many times, I think.

  2. Coincidence? I woke this morning with memories of the course required first semester for all entering students into the English Dept. grad program, way back in the day — long before Horatio was enabled with digital dreams and the internet — Bibliography, Research and Methods. This course was fittingly taught, of course >ha!< by the department's 18th century specialist, you know, Pope, Johnson, etc.

    I'd thought that course incredibly, nearly tediously, into the weeds. Yet … years later, it looked rinky dink in comparison to our introduction to information and research materials in the Information and Library Sciences program! Also, now in the digital age … and we it all: art, medicine, law, government materials, etc. Whew!

  3. I’m just starting my research for rural Virginia 1690 during the witch trial hysteria–it wasn’t isolater to Salem, MA. I have a 1960s era History of VA text book college freshman level and every day life in colonial days. By the time I start writing, I will have devoured books about the actual witch trials. Wish I could visit Williamsburg and Jamestown again but my travel days are over. Must seek out videos on You Tube! and walk the streets of those two towns.

    1. I went to Salem, MA a couple years ago. What an amazing town. The highlight, interestingly, was Nathaniel Hawthorne’s home with the nearby Salem Maritime museum, where I learned more about him than I had known before.

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