I’ve started researching my next story.
Research! On the one hand, wonderful discoveries await you, to help layer realism into your story and its world. On the other, so does a potential time sink. It’s much easier to read the fascinating history of people and places than it is to write, but write we must. How do you know what to research? Where to begin? It can be a tangled web. I had the basics of my story (characters, one arc, minor plights) but didn’t know specifics (location, date, major plights/obstacles), so it was time to delve a little deeper.
Research always starts innocently enough. When I couldn’t decide on a location (and rolling a die to pick a time zone didn’t help me narrow as much I’d hoped), Shimmer publisher Beth randomly said “New Orleans!” My brain perked up at that. Mardi Gras would be a perfect tie in for this story with its pageantry and deceit. I narrowed the timeframe by stealing the era Beth is using in an upcoming project: the 1930s. Randomly, I picked 1936, but based on other things I’ve done already in this fictional universe, it ties in perfectly: poverty, wanderlust, people looking for better lives but not always daring to hope for them.
Finding a map of New Orleans around that time proved a challenge. What I found along the way were pictures of the farmers’ markets, and these markets were often filled with nuns and pineapples. (The nuns weren’t for sale (I don’t think)).
In my image search, scans of census reports came up. I realized they would be another fantastic source of period information (and would also contain lots of gorgeous penmanship). Census reports contain names, ages, races, house value, education level, where the person’s parents came from (often immigrants), professions, and much more. Census reports are an ideal snapshot of a time frame, a wonderful springboard.
When I mentioned to Beth that the moon would be in its new phase during this Mardi Gras, she wondered if I’ve developed a sense of what to research over the years. What comes up that makes me say say “oh, better check the moon”? It’s dominoes.
Since I was working with Mardi Gras, I wanted to know how the week stretched out, and when exactly Fat Tuesday/Ash Wednesday fell. This led me to a calendar of February 1936, a calendar which also showed moon phases, and I thought “hey, new moon, dark nights, fantastic.” It plays right in. Wondering how the city was lain out–where to put one of my main characters so they don’t draw undue attention–led me to wondering where my train can go, which meant I needed to know railways, which meant I also wanted to know what else was around the city for other atmosphere (cotton warehouses, distilleries!).
I wish I could say I have a constant Spidey-sense when it comes to knowing what to research. Sometimes you do, sometimes you don’t. Sometimes you have to leap in and see where it takes you. This story was not going to involve nuns or pineapples, but now probably will. When you research, one thing often leads to another. You are shown a path you didn’t expect.
But like all tools, it shouldn’t be abused. It’s easy to spend hours and hours reading documents, admiring photos, getting lost on those paths. Part of being a writer is knowing when you’ve amassed enough information and are ready to write. Don’t let the research consume the story. As you leap into your research, sometimes you also have to leap into the story and see where it takes you.
Even if that means nuns, census reports, lots and lots of pineapples.
Links to help you leap in:
The Library of Congress is filled with amazing things. It’s like a curio shop sometimes, but doesn’t have everything–you may yet need to visit a library and employ that wonderful tool called a librarian.
Census Reports give you a snapshot of a specific time and place, its people and how they lived.
Sometimes I just wander to the Solar System Scope because it exists. If you are writing science fiction based in our solar system, this is the ultimate tour and exploration tool.
Generate a Random Wikipedia Page can be a fantastic place to start if you don’t already have a start point. Whatever comes up, turn it into a story, or keep clicking until you find something that will shore up what you’re already working on.
If you’re writing in a historical time period, Online Etymology Dictionary will help you learn when phrases and words came into use. It can also illuminate things you never knew, like “baleen” which I looked up for another story (early 14c., “whalebone,” from O.Fr. balaine (12c.) “whale, whalebone,” from L. ballaena, from Gk. phallaina “whale” (apparently related to phallos “swollen penis,” probably because of a whale’s shape).