Research is vital no matter what kind of fiction you write. I spent almost as much time researching modern-day Chicago for my fantasy novel Dreamers Come as I did the Third Crusade for my historical novel Behold the Dawn. I’ve always found it odd that some authors approach research as if it were the bane of their craft. Since most of us write fiction in an urge to learn and grow, research is a natural extension of that.
On average, I spend three months researching any given novel before diving into the writing. And I love it. I love discovering the solid facts—the bricks—that will turn the imagined walls of my story into something solid. That said, I’m very much aware that research can be both overwhelming and frustrating. Following are some of the tricks I’ve adopted for my own use.
1. Know the Questions. Usually, I decide to set a story during a particular period or place because I already possess some interest in and at least a basic knowledge about it. Using that foundational knowledge, I’m able to complete my sketches and story outlines. By the time I officially begin my research, my story is already almost fully formed in my head, and I have a very good idea of what questions I need to answer during my research phase. For instance, in Behold, I knew I needed to spend a lot time learning about not only the Crusade itself, but also the world of the tourneys—the huge mock battles that were loved by the knights and banned by the church.
Author K.M. Weiland
2. Find the Resources. The first thing I do is run several searches through my libraries’ online card catalogs. My goal is to pick up every book my libraries have available on my subject, so I try to be as thorough in my keywords as possible. After evaluating whatever I’ve come up with, I’ll complete my research library with the necessary purchases. If I have any blanks remaining once I’ve finished my books, I’ll utilize the Internet—although it should go without saying that you have to be careful about the reliability of Internet sources. (Check out my links page for some great research resources.)
3. File the Gems. Research notes aren’t worth much in the long run if they aren’t easily accessible, so I’ve constructed a system of note keeping that, although a bit time-intensive in the beginning, pays huge dividends over the course of the novel. Whenever I run into a snippet of information that I think might prove useful to my story, I either highlight it (if I own the book) or pull out a notebook and mark down the page and paragraph numbers and the first and last three words of the information I want. For example, if I want to remember something on a book’s thirty-first page and second paragraph, my shorthand note looks like this: 31:2 “First three words… last three words.”
The next day, before settling in for more reading, I take my books to the computer and use my notebook to find the passages I marked the day before. I type them up in a Word document, which I divide into appropriate headings. For Behold, I used headings such as “Animals,” “Children,” “Home Life,” “Tournaments,” “Warfare,” etc.
This may initially look like a lot of extra work, but it’s not. When I’m in the middle of a scene and I need to know what kind of food an earl would serve at a banquet, my elaborate note system keeps me from having to dig through piles of dog-eared books in search of a minute detail. Instead, I can either look through my research document’s headers in search of “Food & Dining,” or I can simply hit the Find button and run a search for “banquet.” Either way, it takes seconds to find the information and continue writing my scene.
4. Add the Visuals. Something else I find extremely helpful is a folder of images. Maps and landscape pictures are particularly valuable when I’m writing about a place (such as Syria—or Chicago) with which I am totally unfamiliar. But it’s also nice to have pictures of period clothing, diagrams of weapons and machinery, and maybe even a collection of people pictures for character inspiration.
5. Take the Responsibility. Very probably the single most important facet of portraying authenticity is chutzpah. If you act like you know what you’re talking about, most readers will buy it, whether it’s true or not. But hand in hand with that understanding goes a realization of the responsibility we have for giving our readers truth in exchange for their trust. None of us are ever going to get the facts one hundred percent correct, but checking and double-checking our sources is important lest we convey an incorrect fact or impression. The line between learning as many facts as possible and using our imaginations to fill in the blanks is a delicate one. If, for whatever reason, I ever intentionally depart from the facts (as I did once or twice in Behold, in regard to dates and such), I always make note of it in an afterword.
As writers, our fertile imaginations are what allow us to create something out of nothing. But it’s as researchers, that we’re able to make that something into a solid delivery of facts that will keep readers from blinking twice at suspending their disbelief.
About the Author: K.M. Weiland writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in the sandhills of western Nebraska. She is the author of the historical western A Man Called Outlaw and the recently released medieval epic Behold the Dawn. She blogs at Wordplay: Helping Writers Become Authors and AuthorCulture .