The Research/Writing Interface

I’m going back and forth between researching and writing, on my new novel draft. I don’t follow any sort of organized plan so far as historical research reading goes. I don’t finish all my research reading before I start to write, or even after I’ve finished writing. I don’t read everything there is to read; sometimes I skim for what’s relevant or might be relevant. Sometimes I decide I don’t need a particular source, and return it to the library, mostly unread.

Even a writer who attempts to research everything they’re writing about won’t be able accomplish it, because some of what they want to know simply won’t be available; even if, like me, your interest is in the early twentieth century rather than, say, 1300s Europe. I’ve long since accepted that even if “everything” exists for me to find, I don’t want to commit the time to find it. At some point, I have to write the story.

For example, I could go hunt up the insurance maps for a particular city, for a particular span of years. I could find the exact house where it would be possible for my characters to live. I could then get the phone book and find out who really lived there. But do I need to do that? Will it add to the realistic feel of the story if #317 housed a bookseller in both real life and in my novel? I suspect that sort of resonance would have meaning for absolutely no-one besides the person who did the research. And aside from that, if you go that far, when do you stop? A real person lived there! Do you have to copy their furniture for your character? Their ultimate fate? That path leads to mimesis rather than storytelling. At that point, you might as well be writing a biography.

That isn’t to say I wouldn’t like to know everything about my chosen time period. I would! I began writing stories set in and around World War One because I was interested in the time period, and was already reading about it. I still read about it, all sorts of books that may or may not be relevant to what I am writing. I also fantasize about the invention of some sort of time travel camera where I could spy on real events of the past without the risk of being smushed by a runaway wagon or something.

Facts are important. Significant details are very, very important to worldbuilding; they can give a level of reality to fiction because they are, well, real. The trick is finding those significant details in the first place, the ones that will stand out, and using them in ways that will resonate for the reader. You won’t always recognize the facts when you see them, and sometimes you’ll have no idea that one of those facts will show up in your research reading. Accepting serendipity is sometimes much more important that slavish attempts at historical accuracy that serve no story purpose.

And then there are the facts you cannot find, or do not have the time or resources to find, even with the internet. That’s when it’s time to MSU – Make Sh*t Up. The trick there is to MSU thoughtfully, using what you already know and and trying as hard as you can to make your S feel real. Sometimes, this will fail horribly. Sometimes, no one will ever notice except you.

I guess what I’m saying is that I don’t make an idol out of Historical Accuracy. It just isn’t possible, and though I do try, I know that I will always fail, no matter what. So I try not to freak out if I can’t find out the price of persimmons in 1911 in Manchester, England, or even if you could buy persimmons at all.

Published by Victoria Janssen

Victoria Janssen’s writing showcases her voracious lifelong love of books. She reads over 120 new books each year, especially historical romance, fantasy, and space opera, and incorporates these genres into her erotic fiction. Her first erotic novel, The Duchess, Her Maid, The Groom and Their Lover (Harlequin Spice, December 2008), was translated into French and German. Her second Spice novel, The Moonlight Mistress (December 2009), was translated into Italian and nominated for a RT Reviews Reviewers’ Choice Award. Her third novel is The Duke & The Pirate Queen (December 2010). She has also published erotic short stories as Elspeth Potter. When not writing, Victoria conducts research in libraries and graveyards, lectures about writing and selling erotica, and speaks at literary conventions on topics such as paranormal romance, urban fantasy, erotic science fiction/fantasy, and the empowerment of women through unconventional means. Her daily writing blog features professional writing and marketing tips, genre discussion, book reviews, and author interviews. She also guest blogs for Heroes & Heartbreakers and The Criminal Element. She lives in Philadelphia.

6 replies on “The Research/Writing Interface”

  1. “So I try not to freak out if I can’t find out the price of persimmons in 1911 in Manchester, England, or even if you could buy persimmons at all.”

    I live in the UK in 2012 and I’d never heard of a persimmon, never mind bought one. But I did a bit of Googling and according to the Daily Mail

    “In Latin it is Diospyros and in English it was also called the date plum. Then growers in Israel dubbed it the Sharon fruit – apparently in an attempt to make it more attractive to customers. But they reckoned without the connotation with Essex girls for British buyers.

    With sales suffering, at least one UK supermarket chain – Tesco – has gone back to calling it the persimmon.”

    So then I did a bit more Googling and found an entry for “date plum” in an 1838 edition of Arboretum et fruticetum Britannicum; or, The trees and shrubs of Britain.

    Not sure you wanted to know that, but I enjoy researching things ;-)

      1. I did get the impression from reading the Arboretum that they were pretty rare and that most of the varieties don’t produce good fruit in the UK even when grown in the south of England, which Manchester certainly isn’t, so you’re probably much better off not including them. Unless, of course, you actually want to send a fair proportion of your nitpicky readers off to find out if it’s a mistake …

        Actually, that’s something that you didn’t mention directly, but in relation to

        Facts are important. Significant details are very, very important to worldbuilding; they can give a level of reality to fiction because they are, well, real. The trick is finding those significant details in the first place, the ones that will stand out, and using them in ways that will resonate for the reader.

        I think there can be facts which readers think are wrong, even if they aren’t, and then they probably have the opposite effect on the reader from the one that was intended.

        1. I think there can be facts which readers think are wrong, even if they aren’t, and then they probably have the opposite effect on the reader from the one that was intended.

          I once saw, in a panel discussion, the writer of a couple of YA novels set during and after WWII – she’d had to consider her modern audience when she wrote about characters smoking. In her time period, in that place, pretty much all adults smoked, and quite a lot; they did so less in the book. I can’t remember the exact example, but she also had the issue of a true fact that readers would likely not have accepted.

  2. I loved this post, which reminded me of dissertation-writing (well, I didn’t exactly love that!). You have to accept that you cannot know or read everything that has come before you; you have to stop reading and write.

    I’m always interested in hearing writers talk about the choices they make in historical world-building, because it’s something I think about a lot from a reader’s point of view.

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