When I began writing, I came across the statement: “Write what you know.” Wise, but severely limiting if you’ve led a sheltered life. I reversed the adage to read, “Know what you write.” Even if I don’t know something from firsthand knowledge or experience, I can find out about it.
Research is not just for historical works. Even the simplest contemporary story begs those fascinating details and correct terminology. For example, my husband and I used to ride a 1977 Honda Goldwing, but I had to check whether the headlight was automatic or manual before I sent my character through a covered bridge. A mechanic friend told me that our Goldwing was called a “shovel head.” I used that for effect. Scott Francis writes, “Just because you’re writing fiction, it doesn’t give you license to make everything up.”
What’s our best source for research? Depends on what we’re looking for. The basic understanding for my stories is derived from books, but when it comes to filling in details or answering specific questions, I use the internet. How far can an average man walk in a day? How far could a horse go, and how fast? Where did the railways run? What points of interest existed in St. Petersburg in 1914? What do they call streets and avenues in China? I had endless questions and found many answers on Google.
But the best source of research is people. Who lives in the place you’re writing about? Who has memories about historic events? These are the people who will help us make our stories credible, and usually they are more than willing to share their knowledge/experience.
How do we go about researching? Research is an ongoing, step-by-step process. We can’t know all the questions before we get into the story. They’ll keep coming up as we write.
- Abraham Lincoln said, “Don’t believe everything you read on the internet.” Nuff said.
- Sources won’t always agree. At times I’ve had four books open on my desk, each one touting a different “truth.” Then it’s up to me to decide on the most probable scenario.
- Research is for credibility, not to show off what we know. Only include what’s necessary.