Monday, August 19, 2013
The Research of Writing
Whenever I think about my work-in-progess, my stomach turns a bit with anxious excitement. I'm convinced my WIP is going to rock -- that is, it will rock whenever I get to actually writing it. As of now, I'm in the research phase -- a never-ending period of note-taking, interlibrary loans, browsing Ebay for authentic historical artifacts and interviewing relatives about their high school English assignments. Not only am I conducting research reminiscent of my college days as a history major, but I have to outline the novel (using the fantastic Snowflake Method I have come to love) as well. I need to know my characters as if they were real people. I have to discover my hook and inciting incident and I have to outline my scenes. All this is time-consuming and it means I'm planning and not adding to my word count -- which makes me feel like I'm not writing at all. Because I'm not. I'm doing research.
My WIP is a YA murder mystery set in 1955 involving a cast of international characters who all live in a boarding house in rural Pennsylvania. My list of research questions seem endless. I need to know 1950s pop culture, food, slang and clothing. I also need to know what teenagers in the 1950s did for fun. What books were they assigned in English class? Where would they go to college? For instance, did you know Harvard University only admitted males until the 1970s? Women went to their sister school, Radcliffe. I know this because I took 2 HOURS worth of notes for 1-2 lines of dialogue.
I spent a couple of hours at my local historical society trying to get information on how boarding houses were run in town. Except, there was very little information to be had. I stopped by my county Sheriff's office to see if it would be possible to look through 1950s case files, but I was informed they don't keep those records on site. I'm dealing with a murder and I need to know about crime scene investigation and police procedures. How long did it take for a police officer to respond to an emergency phone call? Did small towns have detectives? If not, who was called in to investigate? I took the sheriff's business card in order to set up an appointment and I'm hoping he can help me.
I feel like I'm back in college scanning texts for tidbits of info to prove my thesis. Except in this case, facts are not enough. My main protagonist is a 17-year-old girl from Argentina and I need to know how a young immigrant would adapt to 1950s America. What slang would confuse her? How would she feel the first time a boy took her to a drive-in movie theater? What American food would she love or detest? What music would she like? In fact, just writing these questions here is making my head spin. (I need to get my research binder, STAT.)
And my novel has a more sinister component about Nazi war criminals. Nothing like reading about horrific war crimes to get me in a happy mood.
Truthfully, history is my thang. Despite the overwhelming amount of research, there's nothing quite so exciting as discovering a piece of history that jives with your plot twists. But at some point, I have to put down the history books so I can write my own book.
Research is not just for historical fiction. Anyone writing contemporary or fantasy has to do their fair share of research.
So, writers -- how do you balance the research and the writing? Do you research first or outline your novel first? How does it ever get done? And in what area of research do you consider yourself an expert? Sound off below.