What to Research Before You Write the BookWe’ll be doing a whole month on research, but I wanted to touch base on this subject, because we often can use the need to do research, especially historical research, to keep us from moving forward. Either we detour into spending all our time reading research material or we are so daunted by what we need to know, we sit and tear our hair out.
Guess what? You don't need to know everything. All you need is:
1. General Knowledge.
If you are writing a historical, read a general history of the era in which you are setting the book, just to make certain you understand enough about the era to make your story credible. You don’t want your Regency characters to hop on trains, for instance, or to take secret photographs in dingy gaming hells (that notorious book really made it to print!).
Writers of contemporaries have an easier time, because we all have general knowledge of our current era, but if you are writing a contemporary, you should read a little on whatever particular “world” you are using for your story. For example, if you are setting your book in a dairy farm, you ought to know a little about what a dairy farm is like. Not detailed knowledge, but enough to know if your story will work there. Or if you are writing about lawyers, you need to know a little about law firms.
For the Regency, a great overview of the era is Our Tempestuous Day by Carolly Erickson, but you can also look in history books, on Wikipedia, or, my favorite, Answers.com.
2. Knowledge of the events of your time period.
One of the first things to research is what happened around the time you want to set the book. As a historical writer, one of the first things I do is check a historical timeline. Here’s a fairly detailed one: http://timelines.ws/ but there are many others out there. Just do a Google search.
You want to check a timeline to take into account any historical events that would impact on your story. For example, in the book I just finished, I had to take into account that Queen Charlotte, wife of King George III, died during the time my story was set. That was a big historical event.
The Contemporary writer also needs to keep in mind important historical events. For example, if you set your story in New Orleans, you can’t completely ignore the hurricane and its aftermath. If you set your story in Boston, you have to be aware of the Big Dig.
3. A working knowledge of whatever your story is about.
When you are beginning to write a book, you really just need to know enough to know if your story will work, just enough to start. In The Vanishing Viscountess, all I needed to start was a general idea of the British legal system (very general-just enough to know if my story would work. Later I had to research in more detail), where a ship crossing the Irish Sea would embark and land, and if they ever had shipwrecks there.
For the rest, research as you go along. Find out the details when you need them. The information will be fresher that way and you won’t have spent time researching something you thought you needed, but didn't.
You can also use these guidelines when you are stuck in the middle of the book on some needs-to-be-researched fact. Don't get bogged down in it. Only spend time finding it if the rest of your book might be affected by it. If you know it won't, then just mark the spot, push on, and come back in a later draft to find that certain detail.
The important thing is to not let anything keep you from starting--and finishing--the book.
More on Research in May....
What sorts of research problems keep you from pushing forward?
What strategies do you have to keep the need to research from stopping your progress?