I think we can all agree that doing the proper research makes or breaks a book. Glaringly obvious mentions of places, events or details that haven’t happened yet are akin to all of us Wisconsinites watching Titanic and realizing that Jack Dawson could not have been ice fishing on Lake Wissota in Chippawa Falls in 1912…as there wasn’t a lake yet.
Alright, maybe I’m one of the few that is obsessed with accuracy in any movie I watch, but you get my gist. Research can not only authenticate your world building, but it can imbue your characters with truth, and a genuine placement in their surroundings. Even if you only mention something in passing, it adds a rounded, 3-dimensional depth to protagonists and antagonists alike.
If, say, your novel is set in the Civil War, even if your characters aren’t fighting in battles or even on the same continent, they’d likely hear about it in the news, or people would discuss it in passing, much like we do about major political or social news today. (If I had a quarter for every time my husband came home with a tidbit of celebrity gossip I hadn’t had a chance to hear because…babies…I’d be so rich!) Using research to allow characters to notice details, such as the pattern on the spongeware china, or the particular cut of a bodice, tells your reader that not only are they learning something, but that you did your homework.
I don’t suggest we all dive in as deeply as, say, Jean Auel did. But we can all probably create just one more small layer of richness to our novels. Those handfuls of tiny additions can really add up to one accurate story whether it is the ins and outs of a wedding planner’s job, a more involved description of a hunk’s financial schemes and clients, or the daily lifestyle of an obscure tribe in Antarctica. (I don’t think there are any…but then again, I haven’t done any research.)
So where do we get that research? Certainly the first thing that pops up in Google searches these days is some sort of Wikipedia link to potentially faulty information. But the internet is still one heck of an amazing tool with which we can supplement our information, check our facts, and hone our craft from the comfort of our laptops and pajamas.
With some time, you don’t even need to head to the library, though I’m a full-fledged believer in checking out at least one or two original volumes that might help you with some in-depth research on your most detailed subject. The internet can be completely used for research as long as you do a handful of things:
- Check to see how reputable the source is (ie – is the writer an expert with credentials? How old is the information (and does it matter?) Do they offer their own sources from where their knowledge is gleaned?) and whether the writer gives a bibliography at the bottom of the webpage.
- Dig several pages into your online search and click on at least 4 different sources to see how their information differs or concurs.
- Look for websites that are ‘published’ by colleges, scientists, governments and other larger-than-life sources other than a random blogger.
Beyond the internet hunting, however, discovering information for your book can also be a lot more interesting and interactive. Want to know exactly how to write the language of Pocahontas’ tribe? Reach out to the nation itself and ask for help. Care to get a taste for life in Revolutionary times? Go to a local reenactment (or better yet, ask if you can join in for a weekend in costume). I know Molly Maka has spoken to that notion and I wholeheartedly agree with her. Or at the very least, reach out to a few of the groups on Facebook and inquire about your needs – many old-timers will be more than loquacious enough for you.
Do your characters have a specific trade or job? Run in circles you don’t touch? Reach out via Facebook, LinkedIn, or even through your own network to get some good insight. We are authors, but we are also observers and questioners – we wonder, wait, watch and then write.
Remember when you do reach out to be:
- Humble – you’re asking for their expertise and time. This is not the time to let our author egos get the best of us!
- A little self-depreciating – that goes a long way on the phone or email!
- Thankful and grateful.
- Short and sweet – the whole email should be less than 5 sentences – you’re pitching them for specific help, not pitching them your book.
This is not to add to the never-ending list of requirements aspiring or published authors have already. I’m merely hoping that this is just a nudge to remind you of easy and relatively painless and quick ways to incorporate accurate details in your novels and manuscripts to add flavor, desire and depth.
by Sara Dahmen
Sara Dahmen is the award-winning author of Doctor Kinney’s Housekeeper, a metalsmith, American cookware designer and manufacturer, and a mom. You can reach her @saradahmenbooks or at [email protected]. Her next novel, a romantic drama, Wine & Children, is due out by November 2016.