Saturday, 15 January 2011

The Joys and Perils of Research...

I received a comment on my Awards Night and Novel Feedback post from last week about research. So I thought it would be a good subject to consider.

Research is something you usually can't avoid when you're writing, whether it is fiction or non-fiction. At some time you need to do it.
All writers are different in their approach. Some research first before they begin writing, others as they go along. Or like me, I research first and do additional research as needed when something in my manuscript needs clarification.

I admire the writers of earlier generations who didn't have Google enabling them to access picture libraries, museum websites, old documentation and all those things we take for granted today. They did it the hard way.

Travel has opened up to the average person since the latter half of the 20th Century so if we can't go to where our story is set then someone else will have- and written about it. You'll even find photos on the web-though they won't always be of what you want but it will give you something to start with.

But nothing beats actually visiting: absorbing the sounds and scents; the light and darkness as you move through the day.

My family have likely seen enough of Dorset now, so my notes and photos will have to suffice as I tackle my novel...

Chesil,shingle,sky,clouds,grass hills
Off Chesil Beech

Nottinghamshire author Elizabeth Chadwick actually belongs to Conroi deVey, a member group of the Regia Anglorum society who concentrate on portraying the early Middle Ages.

Aside from her links to the living history group she has an interesting page on her research techniques explaining primary and secondary source material she uses as well as those valuable location visits I mentioned above.

Even if you don't want to go as far as joining a group like this- and there are a number of time periods covered by such groups- they are worthwhile visiting to get an impression of the time and find out how everyday activities were done.

Many years ago a weekend visit to a small village museum sparked an idea after watching and talking to a small civil war group. (That idea is still in my notebook and will be used in the next few years).

When we're writing and researching we can't avoid building up our own reference selection relating to our genre and time period and with so many sources available for searching out old items you can build up an invaluable background for your writing.

(Older reference books often have comprehensive lists of books that were consulted and referenced by the author, so always have a look through them to see if particular books or documents are mentioned.)

But remember, the research has to stop at some point and the writing begin...

If you have a favourite research method or source then do share it with us using the comments box.


Helen Baggott said...

Over the past ten years research resources have changed beyond our dreams. Just this week I obtained (on-line) shipping records confirming two separate journeys to Canada in the 30s. All I needed was an approximate age and the full name. A full list of the passengers confirmed a second marriage and that the children from the first marriage did not accompany them.

It was nothing earth shattering, but it confirmed verbal information.

Carolb said...

That's wonderful Helen. Even small pieces of information can open out into other avenues.
I do think the massive increase in access to family history records has had a knock on effect to many other areas of social research which has been useful for writers.

Helen Baggott said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Helen Baggott said...

I agree. One of the most poignant features of the 1911 census is the declaration by women as to how many children they've given birth to, how many have died and how many survive.

Census returns are more than just official pieces of paper.

Carolb said...

There is a Census coming up this year.
It does make you wonder what researchers in a hundred years time will make of our responses.

Helen Baggott said...

Probably not a lot. Some folk seem to think they're an opportunity to take the Michael.