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.