fiction always means doing research, no matter what genre you work
with. If you toss in that it’s historical and takes place in a country
other than your own, research takes on a whole new meaning. Sometimes
there seems to be no end to it.
I heard “write what you know”
from the very earliest days of my writing career. I live in a tiny
Oregon town and there’s not a lot happening here day-to-day. If I write
only what I know, I’ll soon run out of topics. Take a look at my list
of novels and you’ll see I’ve mostly ignored the advice. I’ve written a
stand-alone and two series that take place in Alaska, one in the
nineteenth century and the other in the twentieth, another series that
has dual plot lines—Russia and the United States during the 1930s, plus
two series that play out in Australia (different parts of the country
and different eras). I’m presently working on a book about a woman
pilot in 1930 Alaska. By the way, I’ve never flown a plane.
Two things need to considered
when writing stories about times and places we’re unfamiliar with. One,
stories are about people. Emotions are universal. The human race
experiences fear, greed, heartache, joy, anticipation, sorrow,
disappointment, and a myriad of other emotions; therefore, it is my
contention we, as human beings, are qualified to write about such
I don’t want to oversimplify the
process. Time periods and places affect how people think and react to
circumstances, so we’ve got to study our characters’ environments.
Immersing ourselves into a setting will help us accurately grasp and
then convey the players’ actions and reactions to the situations we
throw at them.
Second, if we don’t know,
someone else does. We’ve got to connect with the “experts.” They come
in all kinds of packages. It may be someone who has personal knowledge
of a place or circumstance or has learned details from others they
know. Your expert might be a professor or someone’s grandmother.
One of the most exciting moments
in my writing career happened when I was researching for the Sowers
Trilogy. I needed to know about coal mining and coal miners. So I
traveled to the coal mining town where the story takes place, and one
evening sat down around a table with a handful of old-timers who’d once
been miners. I set a tape recorder in the center of the table and threw
out questions. Stories flowed. Those men, their perspectives and
expertise ended up in my story.
possible visit the area you intend to write about. Firsthand is always
best. However, it’s not always possible to visit locations, so we have
to do the next best thing: Pictorials and videos can be a good
resource. Even better is talking to people who know an area or time
period. You’ll find them while you’re doing your research.
I’ve been blessed throughout the
years by “ordained” contacts. I’ve found them in books, periodicals,
through friends and online.
have found me and offered their
assistance. While doing research on my first Australian series, I
joined an Aussie chat room. I met some fabulous blokes, had a good
time, and learned a lot. I’ve never asked someone for help and have
them turn me down. Still, it takes courage to ask. Don’t be afraid. The
payoff is huge.
used to check out books at the
library and sometimes still do. But I prefer owning research books.
That way I can keep them, even mark in them if need be. Like most
writers I live on a budget so I generally purchase used books.
Writers can’t afford to get
lazy, so we’ve got to accept that researching a project never really
ends. We should learn all we can and should know. You’ll have to go
back to your experts, books, pictorials, magazines, and Websites again
and again. Getting the background right is hugely important. Some
readers will know if you get something wrong. When you do, you risk
losing credibility with that reader. However, you will inevitably
stumble. We can’t know every facet of a time or place. Still, we need
to do our best at unearthing the facts. At least that way when we do
misstep, we know we’ve done our utmost to get it right.
Finally, don’t forget to enjoy
the wonder of discovery. Learning is growing. I’m always amazed at what
I encounter while I research. There are incredible places on this
planet and remarkable people who have stood against the most difficult
tides of life and yet remain standing. I’ve been inspired by history,
places, and people. Some discoveries have changed my life, and your
discoveries might transform yours too.