stack of books surrounding notepad

I visited the Clinton Public Library last night to talk with some writers about using research in writing and, as always, I learned more from them than I think they learned from me. In no particular order of importance or priority, here are some of the “rules” of writing from research that we agreed upon.

  1. Yes, all that background reading is necessary. No, it shouldn’t keep you from the actual writing; if you’re drafting or revising a scene or passage and know you need to plug in some detail, make a note to yourself—add a comment using your word processing program, put instructions to yourself in brackets, or add a sticky flag to your piece of paper. But knowing your historical world is another example of the iceberg effect: you want to be familiar with all this background detail so you can show the tip of the iceberg to the reader, pulling out the detail, event, setting, description, or context that will make the world come alive. So, yes, keep trudging through those piles and piles of newspapers. And make sure you have a system for organizing all that interesting info you find, because you never know when a scene or paragraph is going to call for it.
  2. Make use of your local libraries, museums, and historical societies. One thing that some attendees were surprised to learn is that residents of the state have free access to the state-run university libraries. It’s called a community borrower card, and all you need to do to procure one is present proof of residence, like a driver’s license or other ID. The community borrower cards don’t give you access to all the resources that you would have as a paying student or paid staff, but these places exist because of your taxes. The same is true for your city libraries, community colleges, historical societies and all government-funded museums, parks, and other cultural resources. Don’t forget about presidential libraries, things like the Smithsonian, and community publications like local newspapers. Your local library likely has troves of wonderful information in archives that haven’t yet made it to the public shelves. Ask for a peek!
  3. Tread warily online. While laudable for its virtues of high speed and easy access, research on the Internet holds some particular dangers. Erroneous information can be widely duplicated, especially if it originates with a Wikipedia article (remember, anyone can make an account and edit a Wikipedia article. Consider editing or creating one on your topic!). Conflicting information might abound. Some sites are more carefully curated than others; some publications on offer are more rigorously and scrupulously edited than others. I like the world-wide web for getting quick, fast overviews or checking facts I think I know, but when it comes to deep information, I prefer to get into a library and get my hands on the real resources. (Yes, libraries have increasing swaths of information online, but those resources tend to be creditable, indexed, searchable, and curated, which makes them more valid if sometimes less easy to use than, say, Google. But that is why we have librarians.)
  4. At some point, you have to start writing. You have all this information: now where to begin? My answer for nonfiction is the same as for fiction: begins where the story starts. Find your subject, your main cast of characters, the people or family or group who are going to put a human face on this era. Plot their narrative, and begin. Don’t think you have to do more research before you start writing. You’re smart enough to multi-task—write some, read some, think and write some more.
  5. Know your audience—who you’re writing your book for. This makes a big difference. Some readers thirst for historical detail and are willing to wallow in pages and pages of it. Some readers (especially in certain fiction genres) want a few fast orientations in time and place before they jump into the scene. Are you writing a family history for kids and future generations? Are you unearthing a local history that will astonish and interest your community? Are you writing an entertaining historical narrative, offering a biography of an unknown person, or creating an academic-type study with all the attendant apparatus? Once you have an idea of your genre, read other books like it to get a sense for how your audience likes the historical detail to be handled. This will also help you in marketing. One of the workshop attendees wrote a memoir about her time at a very special summer camp. The first thing she did was contact the camp’s board of directors to ask them if they would be interested in helping her publish and market the book. Other attendees and families familiar with the camp are going to be the huge audience for her work, so this was a smart move.

These points, we decided, are some of the most important reminders that historical writers might need. If you’ve got lessons, advice, tips, or secrets of your own, feel free to share them here. Happy writing!

Some thoughts on writing with research

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