When you’re a writer, research is part of the job. But here is the thing: some writers would rather have root canal surgery than endure what they consider the drudgery of research. I, on the other hand, am one of those writers who forgets what time it is when I digging into historical journals or pursuing history.org websites. I love research. I love discovering fascinating details they never taught us in school, and then working those gold nuggets into my story.
Given enough time and effort, you can generally find more information than you need. That’s not to say it’s all right to dump a truckload of facts into the middle of a scene with the hero gazing out the window, wondering how to tell the heroine he loves her. I can’t think of a faster way to lose your reader’s interest. One must be careful not to unload so much research information that your story reads like a textbook. The idea is to draw your reader into the story, not bore him/her to death by showing off your researching skill. Use restraint when inserting research tidbits. Sprinkle them into your story as one might season a stew. Work those pieces of information into your plot so they read smoothly and naturally.
When I start brainstorming a new story, one of my first go-to places is Amazon where I scrounge for books. Caution is the word here, however. Make sure the author of any research book knows his stuff. Try to find out something about the author’s background that makes him or her qualified as an expert in any particular subject. Otherwise, you could be wasting money on an inaccurate or undependable research book.
With the development of the Internet, research has become easier and faster, but not necessarily more accurate. A writer might find a dozen websites at which to glean information. But the rule of thumb is: make sure your facts are substantiated by at least two other dependable sources before you trust them. Websites supported by historical societies, schools, or museums are the most accurate, so look for websites with a .org, .gov, or .edu suffix. Sometimes a little-known website can be a wealth of information. I found a website one time called Wheels That Won The West: http://www.wheelsthatwonthewest.com/ The owner and operator of this site is David Sneed, and he knows everything there is to know about every type of wagon, hitch, stagecoach, or other conveyance used in the 19th century. He includes an email link, and I’ve sent him questions—the height of the tailgate on a farm wagon, the diameter of a wagon wheel hub, the maximum weight a freight wagon can haul…and he has gotten back to me with detailed answers. Not only will he answer your questions, he also offers research books for sale. When you find a source like this, bookmark it!
Searching out experts in the field can be an amazing experience. Once when I was researching information for my hero’s background as a World War I army chaplain, I learned there is a chaplaincy school at Fort Jackson in Columbia, South Carolina. Not only that, but they also maintain a chaplaincy museum there: http://www.chaplainmuseum.com/chaplains_museum.htm I was so excited! I called ahead and spoke with the curator to arrange my visit. I sat in his office and picked his brain for more than 3 hours, after which he gave me a personally guided tour through the museum. What a gold mine of information!
Reference books on antiques are another excellent source. They will tell you when and where certain items or goods were made, where and how they were marketed, and often how much they cost at the time.
Another fun fact-gathering activity is taking a research trip. If financially possible, travel to the setting of your story. Listen to the variations of speech patterns used by the locals, take note of the trees, wildflowers, and underbrush. Take the time to watch the way the clouds move across the sky. Talk to the people who live there and ask about the typical weather patterns during the season in which your story is set. Tramp around the area and get a feel for the topography. What kind of soil and rocks are common? One time I sat in the middle of a field and smelled the grass—and yes, it had a unique fragrance. I even once immersed myself in a hot springs spa (all in the name of research, of course!).
As I begin accumulating information, I like to open a new document that I entitle NOTES for my current project. As I find vital information, especially when it relates to my timeline, I keep a record of it in this file along with the source, be it online, obtained through professional experts, or through printed materials. It’s too easy to forget where you read something or the name of particular website. Document every source you use for researching your work because one day an editor or a reader WILL challenge a detail of your story. If you can show you’ve done your homework, you validate yourself as an author whose work is authentic and dependable.