Writing tip #11: Research wisdom

When I was young I hated research. It seemed like homework – making things up seemed much more fun. But now I love it. Sometimes, too much. Reading and taking notes often makes me want to keep reading and to take more notes. And sometimes I get obsessed with a detail I cannot find. What was the most common cosmetic brand sold in Harlem in the twenties or how close together were boats docked at the turn of the century near London? How did they make sandals in first century Palestine, I mean, step by step?

What I found was that I needed to know when to keep digging and when to move on.

I love reading about a subject for one of my novels. So often I find cool facts that enrich my stories. There’s nothing quite like that particular thrill. But I also love the freeing sensation of saying to myself, “Okay. I tried. I’m going to go with the closest thing I could find.”

So maybe I couldn’t find a historian who was interested in the spacing of boats in 1903. I discovered a photograph on Google images of the West India docks from 1912. Close enough, baby. And maybe I couldn’t find instructions for making Jesus’ sandals – I looked up a book at the library on communal living that included a chapter on making your own sandals and those sandals looked pretty Biblical. I couldn’t find anyone writing about the Harlem Renaissance who mentioned the names of the lipstick or face powder, but I could write about it without using a brand name. A name would have been great, of course. But describing the details of the color and scent and texture of the cosmetics that I pulled out of my imagination would have to satisfy me.

I’ve had some fun research adventures – discovered the concept of a Fetch while reading about supernatural beings for a different story, chose names for characters from volumes of family trees at the public library, came across details of antique tools from sketch books of a farm boy turned artist, got tips on travel during WWI from a history prof at a local college via email, pulled setting descriptions from places I had traveled or lived, and used bits of stories from my own dreams and nightmares.

If you have an interesting research story, please share!

p.s. I’m calling this tip “#11” only because I’ve written ten other posts on writing before this. Just so you don’t have to try to decode the tip hierarchy of which there is none.   =)


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