As a reader, historical fiction entices me because I learn about a different place and time. I admire the author’s ability to choose just the right details to transport me to another era without bogging me down in details that are nice but not necessary.
As a first-time writer of historical fiction, my dilemma has been knowing what details I’d need. At the outset of my writing, I knew my general story line and I made extensive lists of things I’d need to know about pre-WWI times – clothing styles, farming methods, camera types, medical remedies for the flu. And I set about finding resources to learn about each of these – trips to the historical society, interviews with subject matter experts, Internet searches that went on for hours. The research became a passion. I loved it.
Eventually I realized that while endlessly fascinating, the research was keeping me from actually writing. The research was uncovering a wealth of information that while interesting, would mostly never make it into my novel.
As a career public relations professional, I always subscribed to the belief that I needed to know 10 times more about a subject than I finally wrote, yet the route I was on was becoming ridiculous. At that moment I fully subscribed to my belief that: Reading isn’t writing. Thinking isn’t writing. Research isn’t writing. Only writing is writing.
I determined that my first need was to write a good story. Once I knew the story, I could retrofit the just right details to bring the era to life. I didn’t need to know all types of cameras, a professional studio might use; I needed to know one. This led me to my “just in time” research approach.
“Just in time” manufacturing avoids excess inventory and carrying costs by making what a client needs in the moment the client needs it. In the same way I began to research details as I needed them. Folk remedies for headaches, for instance, at the moment my client suffers from a headache.
Though this has worked fairly well, it hasn’t been without its difficulties. I wrote a scene in which a photographer in Europe wants to send photos to a New York publisher only to find the technology available at the time didn’t support such an action in the time frame I needed. I had to rewrite that scene and adjust a couple of others. Ultimately the rewrite was minor even though I had to adjust the character’s motivation. Plus the rewrite took less time than researching photo transmission earlier when I wasn’t certain I’d need to know that.
At the moment, I have a raft of blanks in my manuscript waiting for the moment when I put my Just in Time research into gear.
What research approaches work best for you? Regardless of genre, I’m sure there’s always some detail to fill in. I’d like to hear what you do. Share your comments.
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