Thursday, October 30, 2008

Welcome Guest Blogger - Suzanne Adair talking about research

Research. A writer's ugly first cousin, the one no one wants to talk about. Ahh, but a necessary evil. We've chatted about research on the blog before. We know it's a "must". Yes, we make up these stories in our heads, but we must plunk them down in real places.
No one understands research better than writers of historical fiction. I was at a reading of a historical fiction that centered on the displacement of Mennonites from Europe to North America. The second the author finished reading, dozens of women wearing black kerchiefs on their heads stood up and began drilling the author with questions - all relating to the authenticity of her story and the accuracy of her research. The author, knew her stuff and managed to cool the burning questions, which is a good thing! Without her research she would have been dead in the water.
Welcome Suzanne Adair to the Fiction Matters. When it comes to research, she knows her stuff! She's here to share her wisdom with us in her article on writing Historical Fiction.
Here's a short intro: Suzanne Adair won the Patrick D. Smith Literature Award from the Florida Historical Society for Paper Woman, the first novel of her mystery and suspense series. The Blacksmith's Daughter and Camp Follower continue her fictional ventures into the Southern theater of the Revolutionary War. For more information, visit

Readers and Research: Obligations of the Historical Novelist

Historical fiction is a tough sell. Historical novels often fail to grip readers. Many agents, editors, and publishers look to genre historicals as a magic bullet to mitigate some of that tedium.

The scourge of historical fiction is the info dump. Many authors cannot help getting caught up with period attire, manners, food, furniture, setting, and social, religious, and political issues. And then there's that frantic obsession on getting all the details right. If you don't, an erudite reader will be certain to call you on it. Rather than entertainment, then, a historical novel can resemble a graduate student's dissertation, crammed with detail.

If you write historical fiction, I invite you to take a step back from your work and refrain from obsessing over those details. Focus first and foremost on providing your readers with riveting drama and compelling characters. Then strive to create a world in which that drama can unfold and those characters can reveal themselves.

Why do I believe precise history isn't your first and foremost obligation? Because it's boring, sterile! Furthermore, riveting drama and compelling characters allow your reader to glide past details, whether right or wrong, and keep moving through the book. What any novelist wants to achieve with plotting and characterizations, regardless of genre, is a page-turner.

So what is the role of accurate historical detail? Have I just given you my blessing to slack off on research? Not at all. You use accurate detail to shape your world with historical fact.

Make the past seem normal but not modern or exotic. For example, suppose you're writing a scene about a banker, and it's set during the American Civil War. Your banker climbs into a carriage for a ride to the other end of town. He takes details of the carriage for granted because the carriage is normal for him, not exotic, much the way we regard details of an automobile's interior. He doesn't linger over details of the carriage unless it's essential to the plot.

Also, make your characters truthful about how they see their world. Beware of extending your twenty-first century bias into the way your characters of the past regard their environment. Westerners of the twenty-first century often see the past through the lens of Victorian England. It might be appropriate for a character in a WW1 novel to have Victorian attitudes, but those attitudes aren't appropriate for a character in the French Renaissance.

Don't get distracted or carried away with detail. Make it second nature to your characters. Introduce it on a need-to-know basis.

If you obsess over detail, you lose the drama. What remains, then, if you sacrifice plot and character in favor of details, and a scholar disproves a fact that's been important in your novel?

When you start researching, make friends with your local reference librarian. Reference librarians can tell you where information is found and where to start looking. True, you can do a lot of searching online, especially preliminary inquiries, but inevitably, you'll wind up having to hold at least one real book or document in your hands. Reference librarians are the threshold guardians of special collections — often repositories of important information.

Exploit the personalities of various online search engines. If you haven't already done so, consider a search engine.

Sources for historical research fall into two main categories. Understand the differences between them. There are pros and cons to using both sources.

A primary research source comes straight from the horse's mouth. With this source, you get an authentic voice, often without a translator or interpretation bias. However, primary sources can be difficult to obtain, and you may end up traveling to get them. The main types of primary sources are as follows:

· Photographs, illustrations, and maps
· Newspapers and magazines
· Public documents
· Interviews
· Journals, diaries, and letters
· Autobiographies
· Hands-on
· On-site

Secondary research sources are easier to access than primary sources. However, they've been interpreted or translated, so expect a bias. To counteract bias, use a combination of different sources. The main types of secondary sources are as follows:

· Books and films
· Web sites
· Consultants and subject-matter experts
· Oral histories
· Courses and conferences

Many people who begin historical research bite off more than they can chew. Here are some tips if you're new to this:

· Narrow your focus when performing a search, and be as specific as possible. Precise information isn't available for large blocks of time. You have to break it down into segments.

· Noodle around with general Internet search tools to get you going in the right direction.

· Don't expect to find all the answers in one place. Be wary of inaccuracies when you're reading something that's online.

· Sometimes, to make your research pay off, you have to read between the lines and perform a synthesis, a melding of what you uncover.

Make no mistake; weaving historical details into a novel is a tremendous challenge. But don't forget to have fun while you're researching. Your attitude will carry over into your novel and excite your readers.

So…what specific time period do you plan to research, and where will you start?
Ahh, a little fact in your fiction, but still focused on your fiction. Makes me want to jump right in!
I bid you good writing.


Rhonda Lane said...

Great ideas, even for those of us who don't write historicals. After all, we may be setting a scene in a Special (unfamiliar-to-the-reader) World, but we don't want to slog the story down with details. We have to maintain a balance.

Donis Casey said...

I write a historical mystery series set in the early 1900's and I find that period newspapers are a gold mine for research on attitudes and daily life.
I've always felt that "authenticity" - or a real feel for what daily life was like - is more important than sheer "accuracy" about the details. Author Eric Meyers wrote that the goal of the historical novelist should be to "fly just under the historian's radar".

Suzanne Adair said...

Rhonda ~ Thanks for the reminder that it's important to strive for balance in writing! Suzanne

Suzanne Adair said...

Donis, aren't those old newspapers wonderful? I think that spontaneity is a factor in authenticity. Robotic precision is boring. Sweat the accuracy and crunch facts too much, and we lose the human element that's a part of authenticity. I'll remember that: "fly just under the historian's radar." Thanks for stopping by! Suzanne

Helen Ginger said...

I like the idea of looking at the character's surroundings through his eyes and not your own. Thanks.

Do you do all your own research, or have you ever turned to an editor to fact check for you?

Stephen D. Rogers said...

A ressearch method I've lucked into is re-enactors. These are people who can become anal about getting all the period details correct.

"Hi, I writing a story set in this period. Can I ask you about...."

Suzanne Adair said...

Hi Helen, thanks for asking. I do just about all my own research. For example, today I drove to Hillsborough, NC to conduct historical research for the fifth book in the series. (Research is fun!) A number of history geeks read over my manuscripts to make sure my facts are correct and I haven't included anachronisms. Suzanne

Suzanne Adair said...

Stephen ~ Three cheers for reenactors! My family and I are Revolutionary War reenactors, and yes, they endeavor to make the sensory impressions as accurate as possible. I've learned a lot from them and doubt I could have captured the 18th century as well in my fiction without participating in living history. From what group of reenactors do you seek advice? Suzanne

Stephen D. Rogers said...

Hey Suzanne,

I'm trying to tap into the WW2 folks. While I've exchanged emails, I was unable to attend the two nearby reenactments that happened this past summer. I'm still one step removed from living history, but I'll take what I can get.


The Koala Bear Writer said...

Good information. I did a history minor in university and love history, for the stories there... Right now, I'm tackling research to start a historical novel on a little-known but important Canadian woman, so this advice is great!

Suzanne Adair said...

Stephen ~ Keep trying to hook up with those WW2 reenactment folks. If they're like the other reenactment groups I've met, you'll find out a wealth of information from them. Suzanne

Suzanne Adair said...

Hi Koala Bear :-) ~ Thanks for stopping by. Glad the information was helpful. Good luck on your Canadian historical. Suzanne