To Write or To Research . . .

So, if you’re a writer of historical fiction, which comes first: the research or the writing? Or do they happen at the same time? I recently looked back over the author interviews we’ve featured here at The Damsels because I was curious about how other writers handled this. I found that only a couple of the interviews discussed this aspect of the research.

For example, The Humming of Numbers author Joni Sensel said, “I’ll admit, though, that I wrote much of the first draft based on what I already knew before doing the bulk of my research. I don’t recommend that, but fortunately the revisions I had to make to correct misconceptions (including some bad information in early research) were relatively minor. And when the story is ready to be written, I’ve got to write it then, while it’s hot, or I’ll lose it.”

Recommended or not, I did exactly the same thing with my first draft of An Inherited Evil. I wanted a setting for my fantasy and chose the 1890s because I enjoy reading novels set in this period.  In fact, all I really knew about the time was a bit of school history and what I’d read in those novels or seen in movies.  But I jumped right into the writing.  There were times that I paused long enough to read Internet resources for correct terminology or looked for old photos of clothing and such, but for the most part, I trundled on through.  And, I have to say, I enjoyed doing it this way.

The interview with Kim Ablon Whitney, author of The Other Half of Life, shows another method.  “There is so much information about the Holocaust and WWII that one challenge was stopping myself from continuing to research and starting to write,” Whitney said. “If I had wanted to I could have researched the topic my whole life and always be learning new and important information but at some point I had to dive into the story.”

Ah, getting caught up in the research–definitely a danger. But, what’s your method? I’m sure there are as many ways to research and write as there are writers. So, give us your secret. I’m always ready to hear new ideas that could improve the way I do things.

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9 Responses to To Write or To Research . . .

  1. Jennifer says:

    Well I’m kind of all over the place. For my thesis I did research as I wrote…which was interesting…it shaped how some of my story actually ended up. With TSD I did research before and then wrote but not the extensive research I really needed. In doing research for a Historical I want to write I admit I’ve been spending probably way too much time on the research and I should just start writing. But in part that’s my life getting in the way too and research is easy to do when you can’t/don’t feel like writing. In rewritnig my TSD I’m finding that I’m pulling in a lot of research that I never thought too but because I know the facts now they make their way in (consciously and unconsciously!)

  2. Amber Lough says:

    I jump right in. I do research whenever I reach a sticky point, or need a specific description for something. One thing I learned was that if it feels right while I’m writing it, it’s probably not that far from the truth.

  3. Tricia says:

    Jennifer–I hear you on the research being too easy to do when you don’t feel like writing!

    Amber–Welcome to The Damsels! That’s an interesting point about something not being far from the truth. I believe I’ve written sections where I was making an educated guess and it turned out to be accurate.

  4. Michaela MacColl says:

    I tend to write about famous people when they were kids (so far Queen Victoria and Beryl Markham). I start with the best biographies. Then I tend to use the footnotes from those to find good sources for economics/political/other pesky details. If i can find first hand accounts — I jump all over that. I use a lot of articles from J-stor (a database of academic journals avaialable from the library). Then for fun I’ll read other fiction from the time and if I’m lucky, enjoy a good movie with great costumes. The story begins to emerge for me as I read. When I finally start to write — I’ve got an enormous amount of backstory in my head. (I’ve got a degree in multi-disciplinary history — but it took me 20 years to realize that what I was training for was writing historical fiction!)

  5. Jennie says:

    I do both at the same time! I start with brainstorming but when the story clicks and the characters start to speak to me, I have to listen to them and get it down. I will have scenes written here and there. When I have an ‘off’ day where the characters aren’t speaking to me or I have a bit of block, I’ll do some research. Jumping over to the research usually spurs something and gets me back into the story. I will continue to go back and forth until I’m done with the researching and only the story is left. Then I clean when I get stuck! Or I take the dog for a hike and imagine I’m in a magical, mystical forest. The only problem with this method is that sometimes I end up with a completely new idea/story altogether that I have to set aside until later!

  6. Emilie says:

    Jennie, that’s more or less my approach too. I learned while writing my first historical novel that I really didn’t know what I needed to research until I hit points in the story that made me say, “Huh–how did they do that back then?” I mean, I consider myself a reasonably organized writer, but I had no idea that in my second draft I’d need to know whether tornado sirens were in use in 1940 (they weren’t, FYI). Never know until you let your characters tell their story.

  7. Well, I’m in the re-write of a middlegrade novel set in the late 1910s. I wrote the story first with some perusal on the Internet to get a few things right (clothing, cars, and such) and have been researching the past 3 or 4 years, anxious to get all the details right. I do wonder, though, if one can really get all the details right. I don’t know which is the best approach, but for me, if I had done my research first, the story would still be a shaky outline of an idea for a story. For me, it works best to write the story as it come to me. And then, well… that’s what re-writing is all about.

  8. Jennifer says:

    Emilie I ran into that matter even with my time travel – and when plotting out what will be my historical novel I had a scene plotted then I stopped and went…well is that how it was really done? And off to the research books I went – I think in part that’s the best way to write – do some research, start plotting start writing and when you run into a question do a bit more research. 😀 But never for get the writing – you’ve always gotta get back to writing…and not be like I am right now and procrastinating!

  9. QNPoohBear says:

    Research is the fun part. Writing is the hard part. I’m still in the research phase and maybe one day I’ll get down to writing.

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