photo © 2010 Amie Fedora | more info (via: Wylio)
Quite often I write about things I've no experience with. Not only have I never lived in the 19th century, but I've never been a professional photographer, a mining engineer, or a ship captain.
That's where research comes in.
I love to do research, and it was a hard lesson when I learned that research for a novel is like an iceberg.
Only 10% of the cool stuff you learn actually makes it into the novel. 90% stays under the water line.
Nothing will stop a reader quicker than an "I'm so smart, lookit all my research, isn't it shiny?" info dump.
And yet, the reader expects you to do research, not to put anything in the story that isn't plausible for the time period and situation.
So where does a writer get information? Lots of places, but some are more reliable than others.
1. The Internet. We've become a Google generation. The Internet is my first source for a broad overview and to see what the possibilities are. It's for pedestrian information like who was the US President in 1885 or When was Hawaii made a state? But you do have to be careful. Anyone can slap something up on a website, but that doesn't make it true.
2. Books. I love research books, esp. those published by university presses or state historical societies. Books tend to carry more credibility than just Internet research, but you have to be careful here, too. If you read an historical fact in a book, find at least one more source, but preferably two to corroborate. You might not always be able to find backup sources, but try. And a helpful tip: keep a list of your research materials just in case one of your editors queries something. It's always good to keep a bibliography.
3. Original documents. Diaries, letters, census information, newspapers, etc. This past week, I got to peruse a book of life insurance policies from 1905. Medical histories, family histories, occupations, incomes. A cornucopia of cool information. One man's sister was murdered in Africa, another man had Charlie Mayo as his personal physician. More than half the applicants had suffered from pneumonia or typhoid, and it seems a lot of dentist and bankers wanted life insurance. The annual income of a farmer in 1905 was about $600.
4. An Expert. A musuem curator, a professor, a person who has experience in the field you're exploring. Just this week, my daughter's college roommate Siri Thofson, who is a theatre major at Northwestern College, was kind enough to help me with some theatre terms, procedures, and makeup tips. With Siri's help, Willow Starr will be an authentic character, a stage actress.
Thank you, Siri!!!
So, what is your favorite source of information?