Research–Imperative for Writers

saloongunfight-280Whether writing fiction or non-fiction, research is the most important thing we do. Movies and television seem to be able to “get away with” not being accurate or getting their facts straight. And maybe in the past, writers could as well. Not anymore. But the thing about fiction is that you can away with fudging a bit, as I am in my novel. I’m fudging a bit on time, on how civilized my hometown was, shoot, I’m even fictionalizing the name of my hometown.

In the case of “Meghan’s Choice,” I needed to research the event that I’m using for the climax of the story first. Then, the time period, the location, the technology, the literature, the government, medical science, geography, etc. You might think that’s a bit overwhelming. I didn’t do it all at once. I did it one step at a time, as I wrote the story, when I needed to know something.

actual photo from the early days

actual photo from the early days

When thinking about what kind of novel I could write, my first thoughts were to write something about where I grew up. I thought, if Beverly Lewis can grow up where I live now and write all those Amish stories, I can write about where I grew up in Kansas. She fictionalizes Amish country Pennsylvania. I’m fictionalizing some aspects of Kansas.

Then, an obscure local history lesson came to mind when I was a girl. As part of learning about state history, we also learned the history of our hometown. At that point, my hometown wouldn’t quite have been one hundred years old. That anniversary occurred while I was in high school.

I started with the event–I knew there was a gunfight in my hometown. I couldn’t remember when or anything else about it. So I googled it. I googled gunfight in…and up came Wikipedia and The Gunfight at Hyde Park.

Next, I researched the Santa Fe Railroad, engines, timelines, history, etc. I did all this from the comfort of my home office with my computer and the Internet. I learned about different steam engines at the time that they were identified by their wheels and how many there were.

I researched the history of Wichita, Kansas and found they got the Santa Fe railroad to make them the railhead in 1872. That was quite a coup, and it changed forever the destinies of my hometown and Wichita.

I could tell you everything I learned. I could have put everything I learned in the book, too. I’ve seen historical writers do that. Information dump is done in a lot of ways, but mainly it’s too much extraneous information. I remember reading a series of four historical romance books by two well-known historical writers. I wanted to read them because they were talking about the growth of the railroad from the east going west. Since I was using the Santa Fe Railroad as part of my story, I was hoping to get some sort of feel of what it was like.

train-4But as I read, I realized they were so proud of their study on early American trains and railroads, they put in as much as they could conceivably add. After reading several pages about a particular steam engine and railroad car, (several pages, really?), I realized what they’d done. They’d shown off the fact that they’d done their homework and they displayed the research, almost glorifying it.

It turned me off, and I determined not to do that. However, I couldn’t resist telling one little interesting fact I’d gleaned from my research. Here’s what I did with it.

Meghan has just arrived in New Boston, and she’s being bombarded with her senses. She literally has to make her way across railroad tracks still under construction. Here’s the paragraph:

Men carrying lumber yelled out, “Watch out ahead! Out of the way! Lumber coming!” Other men unloaded flat wagonloads of the iron rail itself. A foreman shouted when a worker dropped one. “Be careful with that! The iron came all the way from Wales! It cost the railroad a pretty penny!”

Clothing from time period

Clothing from time period

Can you find the interesting fact?  It’s in the dialogue. In my investigations, I discovered that the iron for the tracks was imported from Wales. And it was expensive.

That’s the key. Find the interesting little fact, but don’t give the reader pages and pages about it. Set the scene, but don’t overload.

In the end, I have much more research I could have used in writing the novel, but I had learned the lesson of not overdoing it. So I picked out one of the most interesting little facts to me–iron from Wales.

So keep your readers in mind. They’re reading for pleasure, not education. Your novel is not a textbook. “Meghan’s Choice” is not a history lesson, but readers will learn some interesting history about a small town in Kansas in its formation.

I used to hate research, now I love it, because I’m learning what I want to learn for whatever I want to do with it. Do you like research, or do you find it boring? Leave a comment and let me know.

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