Me, I just finished pottering about in an online forum of women's fiction writers where a question was waiting for me in my inbox. This particular writer is working on her first novel-length manuscript and finding the necessary research she needs to do in advance a bit daunting. So she asked me:
"How did you get your information and – especially – your feeling for the period your book is playing in? From books, movies? I learned, to get in touch with the ‘right people’ is a tricky business. So it seems."To which I've responded:
"I agree with you that researching for a story is so challenging. The two novel manuscripts I’ve written so far both have historical story lines woven within a modern-day plot, so I luckily didn’t have to research time periods for either book in its entirety. But for the amount that takes place in Victorian times or the 1920s, I first read several nonfiction books about those eras to get an authentic feel for the way of life back then, really immersing in the atmosphere of that time and sticking with the facts versus someone else’s fictional interpretation of it--unless it’s literature from the actual time period, which also helps for “hearing” an authentic voice and understanding a contemporary’s perspectives. And as I wrote, the internet was of course so useful for verifying little details as they came up in the story--slang, fashion, etc.--or that certain locations existed back then and served a particular function that might be different from now. For my 1920s story, I also listened to a lot of jazz from the period just to feel in the zone as I wrote.
I admittedly didn’t consult with many people directly for information, but there were a couple of sources that provided useful archives--one being a local museum and another a connection through a personal friend who had a fascinating relative that inspired one of my characters. He was able to provide comprehensive photos of her home (on which I modeled one of my settings) and a eulogy detailing this amazing woman’s life. So it’s surprising where even simple conversations with friends and family can take you and how pleasantly forthcoming some people can be when they know their information might end up in a book! I find that stuff comes up when I least expect it, when I’m not even looking for it but end up drawing spontaneous inspiration from it. For as much as I might plan in advance, I love leaving stories open to that kind of organic development, too.
While research can often feel like a necessary evil, sometimes I’m grateful for it--first of all, because it’s always fun to learn something new, but also because when my creativity is in a rut, it’s nice to have to research so that when I’m not writing, I can still move the story forward in another way. It helps me feel productive while also allowing a moment for pause, if that makes sense.
I hope your research starts to come more easily and is very fruitful! Your story will certainly be richer for it."
I send the same sentiments your way, darlings, if you're grappling with that quest for historical authenticity. Even modern-day tales require a good amount of fact-checking if you don't have first-hand experience with your settings and situations. Where locations go, I say when in doubt--or simply when feeling too lazy to put the research effort in--fictionalize them. Then you can loosely base them on real places you know but won't have readers calling you out on inaccuracies if you haven't done the legwork to verify your claims. Can you set your story in London if you've never been there? Sure! But don't reference a specific park/hotel/museum/etc. if it actually exists but you're making its details up as you go along. Either make up the place itself or go the distance to learn about it. And never underestimate how far the Internet alone can take you, as long as you vet the credibility of your online sources!
Research is an ongoing discipline to master, and I can't stress enough how important it is for diving ever deeper into your writing--not only in ensuring accuracy but simply adding flavor and substance to the story at hand.