Wednesday, October 10, 2012

The Joy (and Importance) of Research

An 1825 Map of South Carolina

Whether you're writing a novel set near Mt. Aetna or in the Orient, if only composing a poem telling of tropical breezes and palm trees... before pounding out a single syllable an author must do his homework. For an historical novel set in another century, when time moved more slowly and words and language differed, clothing, transportation, housing, education, commerce, politics... everything was like a different world. You must study that world more diligently than if you were traveling to Switzerland for the first time, and had picked up a Fodor's at Barnes & Noble.

For inspiration and starters, read other author's novels which are set in the period and place of your work. Keep a written record of all you read and pertinent points which you learn along the way. The more you immerse yourself mentally into that world, the more clearly a picture forms. On reading other's works, keep in mind the accuracy of an author's portrayal can be suspect, so followup with fact-checking on your own.

Next, look on Google Maps for a satellite view of the general topography, the "lay of the land", where rivers run and mountains tower in your chosen setting. Where is north in relationship to a town? Which way does the wind generally blow drifting clouds? Which direction are tropical storms tracking? Before final draft you will need to make an actual visit to this location and take photos, but meantime you are off and running with more authenticity.

Digging online for the area's flora and fauna is a good starting place. Palm trees don't grow in Alaska... everyone knows this, but look deeper into nature for the details to add authenticity, the color of sand on a beach, the underwater-green moss growing on the north side of a cabin's roof shingles, the craggy mountain peaks where a moonrise occurs in August. If historic is your gig, go to the city's Olde Towne. Notice how I used the old English spelling? Throw in a sprinkle of those too, like spice, if appropriate for the era and setting. Consider how planter class people two hundred years ago spoke versus a yeoman farmer, a cattle drover, a merchantman.

If an historic novel is your project, read the nonfiction works of trusted historians, usually afiliated with a university. Thereby you can add actual names (if dead a while, people may be legally up for grabs for writers), and personal information, and you might find the actual neighbors of a real person you're basing the novel upon. Add historical events and political times, such as wars, uprisings and depict how these effected your characters' lives and emotions. Did a drought occur in 1854, sending folks trekking west? Was gold discovered, drawing people?

Universities and historical societies have many historical maps posted online, some which date back hundreds of years, and a few have hand drawn stagecoach and migration routes. Some offer copies available for purchase. Spend many days in the State archives or a major library, and take good notes.

Use plenty of time in writing your historical novel, stopping to reflect on the scene for as long as necessary, until you can smell cow dung and the woodsmoke of a campfire, see fingers of coral light in a desert sunset, feel the dust collecting on your skin from a cattle drive, taste the tang of mesquite in the air. Live the scene in your mind, and then when you write what you "live", your reader with also "live" your scene and characters in a satisfying way.

Have fun in your research! Go to museums, read diaries, talk with the old timers. Writing is enjoyable, and even more so when you travel (literally or through your mind) in researching subject matter. More joy in your journey!