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The Delirious Delights of Research

FullSizeRender-3Yesterday, a research book about plants in history landed on my doorstep. It’s a big, heavy beauty of a thing, and I ordered it because I’m up to my neck in Restoration-era England and kept having to scour the internet for when particular plants were introduced. It’s a tricky period for plants and foods—explorers were bringing back all kinds of things from all around the world, and you really do not ever know which ones were actually present (oranges) and which ones were not (sadly, orchids).

I actually only need about two chapters of the book, but I let myself order it anyway because I do write about plants. And grow them. And now, paint them, which is another realm entirely.

It’s just lovely. I anticipate many pleasurable hours leafing through its beautiful pages (The Naming of Names by Anna Pavord [1].). It will give me a million ideas. It will lend verisimilitude to sentences that otherwise might lack depth.

That’s what research does. It brings your work alive, sparks ideas, leads to illuminations you will not find any other way.

All books require some kind of research, of course. I spent months on sourdough bread, both reading and baking for How to Bake a Perfect Life [2], and endless hours reading and exploring vintage trailers for The All You Can Dream Buffet [3].

But there is something especially compelling about historical research, about building the world in my head so that I can build it for my reader. I’ve done a lot of it—the medieval decade of 1345-1355 of the plague and its ramifications; the equally dramatic late Georgian era when empires were toppling and democracies rising; and WWII and post WWII segregation. All, you may notice, deal with moments of societal shift, eras of great change. The Restoration, which is the setting of this new serial (called Whitehall, to be published later this year by Serial Box Publishing [4]) is also a period of dramatic change, and there’s a heedlessness mixed with scientific discovery that’s just delicious.

The process of research and gathering material has changed quite a lot since I began, and I want to talk here about systems. How do you go about find the material you need, then keeping it organized in a way you can refer back to it logically? How can you trust the material you find, and how can you create a sense of authority and confidence? Obviously it’s a huge topic, so I can’t cover it all, but we can make a start.

When I started writing medievals, there wasn’t much on the Internet yet. I did my research in the library, and I used a system of file cards and file boxes to keep myself oriented. It was extremely labor-and-time intensive, and inevitably the fact I needed was not in the box when I needed it.

This is when the great book buying began. It was still possible to pick up lots and lots of historical material at used bookstores and library sales, so buy I did. As a result, I have a fairly substantial collection of books in the time periods I’ve worked with, as well as general histories of food and domestic technology through time and in specific locales, and cultural stories. I’ve also collected fairy tales from many cultures. The first meeting for Whitehall took place in New York City, so I spent a day at The Strand and picked up the first couple of books that would help orient me in this new period that weekend. Since then, I’ve added several more.

This is an invaluable library, and makes it possible for me to look up facts quickly and easily. Since I’m familiar with the books, I can find what I need, and remember other details as I flip through the material. Building a first class library of your own is a very important step–but it takes time and money. It’s harder now to find the bookstores that filled my shelves. Haunt bookstores near universities. Always scan Powells, The Tattered Cover, and other like stores for the kinds of material you seek, and never ever skip a hole-in-the-wall shop in some strange town. I’ve found some of my best stuff that way (The Fireside Book of Deadly Diseases, in a shop the size of a postage stamp in Bath, England).

What do you do as you’re building that personal library? Obviously, the Internet is the greatest invention in all of time for this kind of thing. Google Books has tons and tons and tons of material you can access, although sometimes the reading is not exactly easy. I was delighted to find the entirety of Samuel Pepys’ diaries online [5], and most of John Evelyn, both primary—if opinionated—primary sources.

Wikipedia. Beware. You know that it is a great place to begin, but follow the sources back to the primary material. Also beware blogs, which may or may not be grounded in facts.

Once you have your sources, how do you manage the information? I find I’m always writing long lists of things on yellow legal pads as I read—and I finally got smart and started adding them to my journals, with tags marking material I know I’ll need (‘winter, 1662-63’). Old school, but there’s something about writing notes by hand on paper that helps cement facts in my mind more completely. If you’ve done all your note taking on keyboard, you might give it a try.

The downside is that the material is not searchable, not the notebooks and not the actual paper books.

Which brings me to Scrivener [6], which is the best software I’ve ever found for this kind of writing and research. Everything can go into files, and much of it can be copied into those files from the source on the internet. I can create as many files and sub-files as I like (clothing, for example, then women, men, servants, shop keepers), and then it is all searchable, as long as I’ve been thoughtful about tags. The book can also be written in the program, and all the research is right at your fingertips, and—voila! Easy!

I don’t mean to be a sales horn for a particular program, but Scrivener has been a boon to me. It works the way my brain works, and supports my process. It’s written for writers, and while there is a learning curve, I can’t imagine anything better if you are writing anything research intensive (or a series, for which I also use it).

Are you a writer who needs a lot of research to write your books? Do you have tips to share on finding obscure material, or keeping track of it? Let’s talk about it!


About Barbara O'Neal [7]

Barbara O'Neal [8] has written a number of highly acclaimed novels, including 2012 RITA winner, How To Bake A Perfect Life [9], which landed her in the RWA Hall of Fame and was a Target Club Pick. She is a highly respected teacher who also publishes material for writers at Patreon.com/barbaraoneal. She is at work on her next novel to be published by Lake Union in July. A complete backlist is available here [10].