This Thing Called Research
If you've not done so already, I invite you to navigate your way through my brand new website, professionally designed by Michelle Gill at https://www.buffalocreekwebdesign.com/. I'm thrilled at how it turned out! And for any of you who had favorite blog posts, I will be reposting most of them on my new site, as my time permits. Unfortunately, I have to do this manually, so please be patient. I do have them cached, so they're not lost.
This week, I'm blogging on research, because I've been embracing a lot of new material since the last Antonius Trilogy book launched back in October. I've been devouring numerous books on subjects surrounding my new project, which mostly entails anything in early 19th century Virginia. I've been reading about Thomas Jefferson, the Corps of Discovery expedition to the Pacific, a hefty six-hundred some odd page history of Botetourt County, Virginia, letters from William Clark. . . and that encompasses only several books I've had on my lap at various points. It's been really invigorating and something I've thoroughly enjoyed. I've always held the belief that one should never stop learning. And wow--I've been learning SO much these past five months.
One of the most commonly asked author questions I get is how do you research?
First of all, I believe that research can be done in different ways. For me , in this age of COVID-19, most of it (so far) has been done "by the book"--literally with my nose IN a book. Of course I have historical characters I'm writing about. William Clark happens to be one of them, and there are ways I can research him that bring me closer to his world and what it was like BEING William Clark or one of his contemporaries. For example, I recently was engrossed in reading some of Clark's actual letters to his older brother and other family members. Some date from the 1790's. And there are the fantastic Journals that both he and Lewis compiled along their history-making trek to what is now the Oregon coast.
Book research and keeping an active bibliography is one of the most important things an author does during a period of heavy research. Already, I have a steadily growing stack of new texts that I have completed and am compiling as a list to add to my website for those interested. Historical fiction authors do include some fictitious material in their work, but it's vitally important to be credible and accountable for factual portions of one's plot or characterizations. In other words, leave a trail. If research was a crime, could you be found guilty?
I pity my poor research books, although they do know they're loved! I take copious notes while researching and often highlight headers or paragraphs that I may need to reference later. I've purchased these books for this purpose, so for me, this is normal, since I find that jotting notes in margins and highlighting helps me locate things later that I need to reference. Besides, any book I've ever used for research purposes and is marked up will always REMAIN mine. I doubt anybody would want it in its condition, anyway!
On-site research has been something I value just as much as books. While researching my Antonius Trilogy, the time and money I spent on travel to Egypt, Italy, Greece, and Turkey really paid off for me. Sometimes seeing actual plant life, smelling sewers, touching the marble of ancient statuary--it gives a writer a five-senses experience and has helped me envision and describe ancient cities, roadways, and buildings. When there was an actual building to use as reference, then great. But when there wasn't, sometimes it's a vivid imagination that saves the day, common sense, and the memory of BEING at the site. Several times, I had the chance to visit with archaeologists as they were excavating, I met with scholars at the Centre for Alexandrian Studies in Egypt, and in Rome, I was granted special access to The House of the Griffins, which is closed to the public. These experiences solidified which elements were integral to the story I wanted to write, the overall world-building, and the characters I was dealing with.
This past week, I received permission to spend several hours nosing through historical documents in the Botetourt County Courthouse. For those unfamiliar with Botetourt County (the very one where I live!) it was the largest county in the US in the late 18th century. It encompassed the western half of Virginia, most of the Ohio River Valley all the way to Wisconsin, and stretched westward clear to the Mississippi River!!! THAT, my friends is a County! Anyway, I was able to locate the signuatures of two of my characters, George and Peggy Hancock (see photo above). They are the parents of my main character in my current project--their daughter, Julia. This document dates from the 1790's and when I first saw it, I couldn't tear my eyes away from the florid, decorative signatures, the "seals" which were written in to the right of the names. . . I was touching history with rubber-gloved hands--the very page THEY had touched well over two-hundred years ago.
Several years back, I attended the Historical Novel Society conference and heard Jeff Shaara (Gone For Soldiers & Gods and Generals) speak. He was giving practical advice --tips that had helped him achieve his goals. I'll never forget his final words to all of us there--a mixed conglomeration of traditionally published, independent, and hybrid writers. His most important phrase was: "Write what you WANT to write."
This is some profoundly sound advice, because whatever I choose to write about is what I have to research. Research doesn't EVER have to be boring. But it does have to be well-done for a book to be believeable and well-written. This thing called research is critical for an author to get right.