Don’t “Mind the Gap”

Probably every author of historical fiction could write a second book on the research they did for each novel, from pouring over books to searching online to watching documentaries to interviewing people who were there.  It’s daunting, exciting, fascinating, and exhausting all at once.  And just as I can’t fit all my research into my novels, I can’t fit all my thoughts on research, much less Jennifer’s and Tricia’s thoughts, into one blog post.  Consider this the first of many posts concerning research, from me and the other two Damsels.

The first book in my Common Language series was my master’s thesis, and thank goodness, or it may never have been written.  See, I thought I had a pretty good handle on World War II, having been fascinated by it all my life, but even something so small as not knowing the make of car a country doctor might drive was enough to grind production to a halt.  If left to my own devices (i.e. no school-enforced deadlines), I would never have written another word until I felt myself an expert on all cars one might see on the road in 1940.  Then that next paragraph where I have to describe a new character’s clothing?  Another grinding halt.

But being in school forced me to produce a certain page count each month during my semesters.  Strangely, my mentors didn’t care if I made a little note along the lines of “will describe kitchen after book on period kitchens comes in from the library.”  Whatever got me to the next part of the story was all right with them.  The research gaps piled up, but unless they affected the main plot thread, they could all wait until I could fill them.  No more scrambling to become an expert before I could write another word—I just plowed through, or skipped to a later scene not involving my current gap.

 Sometimes you have to make assumptions to move on, or you just don’t know you’re wrong until you find a piece of information that contradicts what you’ve written so far.  This used to be my biggest fear in writing, but then it happened: I found a piece of information that contradicted my entire premise.  After about thirty seconds of panic, I realized there was a solution, even though it involved disposing of a character I’d already grown to love (not to mention a lot of rewriting).  In the end, though, it was truer to the time period and gave the story more depth.  And contrary to what I’d always feared, it wasn’t the end of the world, or even the end of my story.

There are many research gaps in my work in progress, some that are a challenge to fill and some that I feel I must fill before moving on.  But I am first a writer of fiction, not a scholar of history.  Research is important, but it is a means to an end, which is the story.  The facts will come, and until they do, I have to remember to concentrate on making the fiction as strong as I can.

What sorts of gaps have you encountered in research and how have you managed to fill them, or temporarily written past them?

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3 Responses to Don’t “Mind the Gap”

  1. Tricia says:

    Nice post. I will often stop writing if I have a simple need to describe something like a piece of furniture. I’ll do simple research online, find a pic of what I want and get back to writing. It’s usually the big things such as historical events or cultural mores that I’ll skip over and do the research after the story has been written.

  2. Kaye Dacus says:

    Like you, unless it’s something that actually affects how the storyline will play out, I will either put in what I *think* is correct—and highlight it to make sure I look it up during the second-draft process—or I insert a lovely _____________________ blank line, which I will then select and add a comment out to the side (using Word’s aptly named “Comment” feature) to remind myself of what I need to research for that spot. Before I started writing Ransome’s Honor, the only other times I tried my hand at writing anything with a historical setting I always got derailed by the research. Not because I couldn’t find it, but because I started getting more interested in the actual research/facts than in the story I was making up. But once I hit upon the Georgian/Napoleonic era and became more interested in how the era—more the social norms than any particular historical event—affected my characters and story idea (instead of trying to fit characters and a story idea around a historical event), I knew it was the right time period for me!

  3. Emilie says:

    Kaye, in my current WIP, my protag’s friend/future love interest is headed to Camp ___ near _____, ______ to begin his military training:) And Tricia, thank goodness for the internet for the quick things…and thank goodness for visual aids:) Now if only all stumbling blocks were such quick fixes…

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