“I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library.”
~Jorge Luis Borges
I love research. The very prospect of making my way into some fantastical library (be it of Babel or otherwise) and losing myself amongst piles of books, curled up in a study carrel and tucked away amongst the stacks is simultaneously exciting and immensely comforting to me. And, though the reality can sometimes fall short–because key sources have gone missing or are unavailable, for instance–the process still appeals to the relic hunter in me.
Nonetheless, there are several challenges associated with the research process. In this three-part series, I propose to begin by discussing some of my general ideas and methodologies around gaining detailed knowledge of a subject. In parts two and three, I’ll discuss the specifics of my research approaches in the context of the two periods in which I’ve set my fiction: Regency England (two Romances, one of which is available elsewhere on this site as a free, “pay if you like it” download) and an alternate version of mid-19th century Russia. In the latter case, it’s a quasi-historical setting, because the novel is a Fantasy, and I have made some intentional changes to the setting and the timelines.
A few quick tips
Begin your research by casting a wide net–and only once you’ve gotten a superficial, wide knowledge of the subject area, do you need to start drilling down to specifics. So:
Start with the Internet. We have the library of Alexandria (which also happens to be a Book of Sand) at our fingertips. Use it. Do an initial search through the webz–but just be sure to keep your salt shaker by your side, as you’ll need to take a lot of the information you find with a few grains of salt. All sources are not created equal and you’ll need to assess the quality of each as you build your sense of the larger context of the period.
And speaking of not all sources being equal–by all means, do look at Wikipedia. Just don’t take it at face value. Check the references and citations, and follow up on them. Wikipedia will give you a general idea on the subject, and the sources it cites will give you a point of entry and the beginnings of context. Same with any of the other sources you find on the internet. Chances are, you’ll start to see certain names cropping up again and again. Note them down (or grab one of the many browser plugins available for pulling sources and citations from web pages and compiling them into easy, printable format).
Some topics will begin and end with the Internet. Others will require further digging. Most historical subjects fall into the latter category–and the chances are you’ll need to head off to a large reference library sooner or later, with your handy list of compiled titles.
Learn to skim–not just on the web, but also in print. You probably have some general idea of a setting or subject that you’ll be wanting to look into. There’s also a pretty good chance that whichever setting or subject will have voluminous amounts of information available. You just can’t afford to read it all, unless you’re deadline free and have plenty of time (in which case, by all means, relax and enjoy!). So, you’ll need to do a lot of skimming and scanning:
- read the front and back covers and any other such blurbs;
- scan the table of contents;
- flip through the pages and read the headings, scanning through the text in search of any specifics that catch your eye and jot down any useful tidbits as you go;
- once you’ve divided your stack of books into relevant and irrelevant materials, then start reading the relevant pieces more closely.
Check yourself, often. You’ll probably end up moving between scanning and honing in as you make your way through whichever relevant books you’ve singled out from the stacks. Take some measures to check yourself. I usually listen to white noise on my headphones at the library, and I have a white noise app on my phone that is linked to a timer, so the sounds fade at the end of the allocated time (usually about 30 min.). This just reminds me of the hours going by: it’s way too easy to get lost in the fascinating ins and outs of the details.
Admittedly, in some ways, this is what you want to do. That’s the real joy of research–digging out the really cool and obscure nuggets and details that add flavour and authenticity to the story. But if your research is in the service of a separate project (e.g. a novel), then you probably can’t afford to lose yourself to the research as much as you might like. You’ll need to stay on task–and in the early stages, that task is getting a general sense of the life and times, with some specifics and lively detail.
Once you’ve got your general knowledge, you’ll probably find that your sense of the plot and the mechanics of your characters’ lives will be changing and evolving, based on what you’ve learned about the period and the setting (e.g. that it’s just not plausible for them to live in place X and get to place Y by lunch, given the time period, the state of the roads and the nature of the transportation available. So they have to live elsewhere, or you need to account for travel time).
Quaint and Curious Volumes of Forgotten Lore: The Two Major Challenges of Research
The first possible pitfall is actually more by way of a rabbit hole. Again, if you’ve got plenty of time, then it’s fine to fall into the rabbit hole, dust yourself off and play the tourist in the Wonderland that is your historical period of choice. But chances are, you won’t. Give yourself an overall time limit–a week, a month, whatever–based on the amount of time you’ll be able to spend on research. And then here’s the real secret: stick to it. It’s fine to fall into the rabbit hole, but only if you make sure you’re home in time for dinner. Otherwise, while you may end up becoming an authority on the period, you also may never end up writing the book that inspired the research in the first place–which is great if you’re happy to be an authority, but not so great if you truly wanted to write that book. Research can be vast–don’t lose yourself.
The second possible pitfall has to do with method. There was a time, back in my salad days, when I believed that there was some secret, optimized method of finding the information you needed and extracting it in an efficient manner. But there isn’t. General research is fine, but when you’ve reached the stage of specifics and you’re hunting for a particular nugget of information, you have to approach the queries and the searches from every angle you can think of. This is where the puzzle-solving and the treasure-hunting facets of your personality need to come to the fore. Think of the queries as answers to riddles, and formulate them using every possible combination of relevant search terms you can think of.
But, no matter how thorough you’ve tried to be, sometimes, the information just isn’t there. You try and you try–and it could be that your local resources aren’t voluminous enough, or that the information you seek is just not widely-documented enough to be findable in the limited time that you’ve given yourself (or documented at all, in some cases). Regardless, that’s the point at which I, at least, tend to cut my losses. I say: I need to get writing. And I remind myself that the book I’m working on is fiction, not a dissertation. Hopefully the story is sufficiently compelling that a little bit of hand waving or a tiny fragment of fabrication will go unnoticed, or at the very least, be forgiven, if it is clear that the rest of the context has been well-researched and grounded in its context.
I hope these tips help. If you have any tips, methods or tricks of your own, then please feel free to share, in the comments section–I’m sure your fellow readers will thank you for it, and I’m always looking for ways to improve my own process as well. Also, feel free share any links to other research articles that you wrote, or that you found particularly helpful.
In part two, I will discuss how I applied these methods to my Regency research, and in particular, how the research and the writing interacted with each other in my process. In the mean time, happy researching!