Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Getting the Research Details Right

My guest today, Meg Mims, touches on what is the hardest yet the best part of writing historical for me...research.  Check out what she has to share.

Reviews for my first book, Double Crossing, have touched on page-turning chapter endings, rich settings and historical details. Writers might ask how they can find an easy way to do all that in their own books. I have good news and bad news. First the bad—great chapter endings take hard work in the revision process. And the good news? Research is fun.
Some writers might argue with me over that, but give me a stack of books or photo-studded websites to trawl, and I’m there with bells on! I love research. More than writing? No, but I can’t explain that wonderful “Aha!” feeling when I stumble over a really great detail I can use for my books. Call me crazy. Call me an old-fashioned library hound. But I can usually make a call on spotting a research detail problem in a book—from a modern phrase to an inaccurate setting or the wrong costume for a character. Why? Because I made those mistakes too.
And learned from them. That’s the key, to know better and take the time to do the hard work rather than take the easy way out.

Long ago, I entered a contest with the first twenty or so pages of a novel I planned to write. Lucky for me, well-known author Cheryl St. John judged my entry and pointed out very kindly that I hadn’t researched historic Omaha for the time period. How did she know? She lives there, and has extensive knowledge of that history. I scrambled to take her advice and was amazed at how lazy I’d been, making up things when I had plenty of sources that told me otherwise. And that early start eventually became part of Double Crossing! I’m still grateful to Cheryl for her timely tips. And after selling my carefully researched novel, I asked several other published author friends for some nice “blurb” to help promote it and sent them a few chapters.

One mentioned a tiny detail about using photographs in newspapers. “Didn’t that start after the 1870s, not 1869?” she asked me. Red-faced, I realized that illustrations had been used, not photographs. Such a TINY detail could have undermined all the hard work I did researching other details. I’m grateful to her for pointing that out. I prefer accuracy in books I read. While few people might have noticed, I feel much better in having my own work be as accurate as possible. To me, it enriches the experience for the reader. I take pride in hearing “I feel like I was right there with Lily on the train, seeing everything!”

A few tips I can give you about research are: ALWAYS try to verify your source—if you find a detail in more than one place, then it’s bound to be accurate. Key word is try, because sometimes you won’t find more than one. ALWAYS go beyond Wikipedia to find actual historical books on costumes, places, history, etc. My daughter has often told me that she knows people who “fiddle” with Wikipedia and put inaccurate stuff on there. And last, ALWAYS rely on critique partners, friends, family, contest judges, whoever, to catch mistakes. Never assume you are right unless you are certain some detail is set-in-stone accurate. They might be wrong. But chances are good that if more than one person questions something, then so will a reader.

And the key is to keep your readers hooked and returning for more of your hard work. So take your time and produce quality. The devil is in the details, after all.

To find out more about Meg Mims, you can visit her website or her author's page on Facebook.  Click on her picture to get there.


Jacquie Rogers said...

Hi, Meg! Double Crossing is a fabulous book and I can hardly wait for the next one. :)

Some things we've been around our who lives, well, it's hard not to think it was always that way. I used the word "clobbered," and a critique partner thought it was anachronistic. I looked it up and sure enough, it's a 1930s word. It sure seemed western to me, but not.

Good article, Meg, and I agree with your assessment of Wikipedia. It's a great resource to get started, but use the sources cited and go from there. Another thing--always be skeptical about internet sources because many times, incorrect information is copied, typos and all, to multiple sites.


Meg said...

Ain't that the truth, Jacquie!! I would have thought "clobbered" is old west too, although I bet "clabbered" is... lol. Always good to check!

Anita Clenney said...

I wish I loved research. I love learning and I enjoy the ah ha! moments, but I get frustrated at so much conflicting information or when I can't find specific info, and when I do find it, I get so distracted that I forget what I was there for in the first place. :)

Meg said...

True, Anita! I'm often going off on tangents... but we have to remember that we're writing FICTION - and there are ways to get around things. I've had to change things up or just not use certain things if I couldn't nail down a specific in a historical. And research is just as important in writing a contemp, because saying 'car' vs. a 'Ruby Red Saturn Sky' makes a big difference.