My good friend Claire Gebben says it is. I can’t think of anyone better able to pass on excellent research tips than Claire, who writes historical fiction, and who has graciously agreed to guest-post today. To research her novel-in-progress, in addition to the usual book-based research you’d expect, Claire learned German, visited Germany (and investigated several beer halls and wineries), and gained first-hand knowledge about her character’s trade. Here’s what Claire has to say:
Research can be fun. Really.
A short time after I quit my day job to fulfill my lifelong dream of writing a novel, my friend Jackie, an engineer, asked me how it was going.
“I love it,” I said, “but it’s going more slowly than I expected. There’s so much research.”
“Research? Aren’t you writing fiction?”
It’s a common misconception, isn’t it? People think fiction writers just make all that stuff up.
My conversation with Jackie was several years ago, when I was writing mainstream fiction. I have since moved on to the researcher’s Mt. Everest: historical fiction. For the past two years, research has taken over my life, so much so that I am now something of an authority. (At least Charlotte seems to think so. Thanks, Charlotte.) Research at its best helps fiction writers build an authentic world. Here are a few of my favorite research techniques to get the circulation going.
1. Immersion Research – Like immersion education, where one spends a semester in a foreign country to learn a new language, “immersion research” is learning by doing. Case in point: I attended four days of intensive blacksmithing classes to learn about the livelihood of my 19th-century protagonist. (I have the burn scar on my arm to prove it.) Is your character scaling a rock wall? Take a rock-climbing class, or better yet, take a rock-climbing class at the location where your novel is set. Square dancing? Sign up for the next square-dancing night at your community center. Jumping from an airplane without a parachute? No! Don’t do that. Immersion research is about breathing life into your writing, not endangering your life.
So go ahead and immerse yourself in all five senses, three dimensions, and kinetic motion. Don’t forget to take notes, before, during and afterward. And photos. And tape recordings. Describe not only the activities and how you felt, but also make notes on the people in the vicinity — how they look, dress, smell (you think I’m joking).
But what if you can’t immerse yourself personally?
2. Interview someone who knows. The tried-and-true method is to ask the experts. Need to know naturalization laws during the Civil War? Email an
expert, or join a Civil War listserve. But don’t forget, the “someone who knows” could also be your next door neighbor, the grocery clerk, or the friend of a friend. When you find someone who has experience in what you need to know, don’t just ask for how-to’s. Ask her or him what was hardest, and what was easiest. Ask how it felt. Ask what was unique. Ask what he or she discovered. Ask how it tasted and what you have not asked that you should be asking.
But what about the times when you’re just sitting there trying to write, staring at the page or the screen?
3. The arts are your friend. Music, visual art, poetry, dance–surround yourself in the arts appropriate to the time and place of your novel and see what emerges. If your book is set in 20th century Hungary, play Béla Bartók music as you write. If your book is set in the Renaissance, browse the internet for images of renaissance paintings and set them side by side with your document. Or better yet, go to the nearest art museum with renaissance paintings and lurk in the room under the haloed madonnas and velvet-capped lords. Stuck on a bit of dialogue? Pull out a book of poetry from the time.
Who says research has to be dry as a cracked book binding? These are just three of the methods my writing friend Michele Genthon and I call Research CPR, that is, Collecting, Processing, and Resuscitating our research so the characters and worlds of our novels truly come alive.
Claire blogs about her research for her novel-in-progress at Harm’s Way: A Blacksmith’s Journey. Thanks very much for your tips, Claire.
About Claire Gebben:
Claire Gebben holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the Northwest Institute of Literary Arts. During her research in Germany for her novel, she was featured in the RheinPfalz newspaper. Her article about learning the ancient art of blacksmithing was published in the Washington State Historical Society’s ColumbiaKids e-zine. She speaks at history clubs, genealogy groups and school classrooms on 19th Century German immigrant history and on Writing Your Family History. Claire’s debut novel, The Last of the Blacksmiths, was published in 2014.