Research Wills and Won’ts

Hello! It’s my debut blog with Corsets, Cutlasses and Candlesticks, and I’m very excited to be among so many talented ladies. I’ve also just finished copy edits on MAID OF SECRETS, so I can officially dive into book 2 of my Maids of Honor series: MAID OF DECEPTION.

But like most historical writers, I can’t get too far without realizing “whoa. I need to research this.” And when it comes to research, you immediately run into questions: What details should you include in your story? How much do “the facts” matter… and when does your story matter more? How much is “too much” whether regarding amount of information or some of the grittier aspects of your time period?

My favorite research books for Elizabethan England… So far!

I have found that, for me, it’s much less of an issue of “Research Dos and Don’ts” than it is “Research Wills and Won’ts”. Because first off, there are no hard and fast rules. You can read two books about the same time period, and one could double as a history book… while the other barely dips its toe into the details of era. Even the details themselves can be altered to suit a story: for instance, two or three real-live people being combined to create one more impactful character. Sometimes, too, the experts differ on what really happened at a certain point in history. And then, of course, there’s the ever popular “well, there is no readily-available information on my specific question” issue. When that happens, what do you do?

To tackle these questions, I’ve created a few “Wills” and “Won’ts” of my own:

When it comes to research, I…

WILL: Gather all of the information I can on my key story elements, even if it’s conflicting (which happens a lot more than you might suspect).

WON’T: Put all of that information in my book. I’m writing historical fiction… not history.

WILL: Highlight the unusual, the intriguing and the super-specific details that can give a character or setting life. If something catches my eye in research, it might catch the interest of my reader, too.

WON’T: Research too broadly.Β  I may want to know everything that’s happening in Elizabethan England, but I need to know, specifically, what’s happening where my spies currently are, and in the Court. To start researching too far afield is to invite lost hours and days that should be spent writing.

WILL: Make decisions that serve the story. If I uncover particularly grueling or horror-stricken details in my research, I will not necessarily include them in my tale if they don’t fit the tone of my book.

WON’T: Willfully get the history wrong. There are two kinds of inaccuracies in historical fiction: the first is when the author simply makes a mistake. This I hope to never do, though I’m sure it’s going to happen. The second inaccuracy is more the “bending” of historical details to fit the story. I certainly put the “fiction” in historical fiction, but the details I choose to embroider still result in situations that remain authentic to the time period.

WILL: Continue researching, long after the story is done. You never know when you might find a detail you can use in a future book!

There are many more guidelines that other researchers and writers have, I’m sure. But one thing is certain: the more you know, the better your tale will be, no matter what its era. So keep learning… and keep writing!

Jennifer McGowan has been writing fiction since well before she knew any better. A past Romance Writers of America Golden Heart winner and 2011 Golden Heart finalist, Jenn is represented by agent extraordinaire Alexandra Machinist, of Janklow & Nesbit.
Jenn’s debut novel, MAID OF SECRETS, will be published by Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers on May 7, 2013, assuming she gets her revisions done ;). You can find Jenn online and on twitter.

14 thoughts on “Research Wills and Won’ts

  1. I think about these things a lot, but I don’t think I’ve ever put them in such an orderly, coherent list. Thank you! πŸ™‚

  2. jennmcgowan says:

    Thank you for stopping by! I just found another book to use in research so… the adventure continues!

  3. Excellent tips, Jenn! One issue I struggle with is whether to use the proper historical names for things or the name that is familiar to the reader. Or whether to use the slang of the time period even though readers my not be familiar with it. Such as using the word “Toff” to describe a ‘stylish, wealthy gentleman’.
    How do you typically handle this?

  4. jennmcgowan says:

    Lorie, it’s a real balancing act. If it’s a Historical vs. common name, I usually try to use both–first mention of the formal name, with the more common name quickly following. I love to use slang in context – and learning new words I think is part of the fun of reading! (Like “Toff” – hadn’t heard of that before, but how wonderful!) I think if you make it clear what something like “Toff” means in context, you’re off to the races. I do tend to be careful not to use TOO much jargon or hard-to-understand syntax… The typical Elizabethan would be very difficult to understand today, for example! But if I can add a touch here and there of colloquialisms and manner of speech, I think it makes for a much richer read. Thank you so much for your post!

  5. Laura Golden says:

    Love this post, Jenn! Thank you! πŸ™‚

  6. I like the won’t against researching too broadly. I’m preparing for my first historical novel and I am finding it tempting to try and learn everything that happened all over the country in that time period, but not particularly useful, since I’m keeping all the characters in a single town for the entirety of the plot.

  7. Leigh Smith says:

    I read one sentence about something that happened in 17th century France and I had the most amazing idea. It was like lightning striking. I was giddy. But then I starting researching and got so lost and overwhelmed that I gave up. Everything seemed so important. This helps so much! Thank you!

  8. Elizabeth May says:

    Fantastic post, Jenn! Incredibly helpful. It’s so easy to get overwhelmed with research that I entirely agree that it’s important to keep it focused.

  9. Such good points, Jenn. On the one hand, research can enrich our work, with those little details that make our historical worlds come alive. On the other hand, research can be so much easier than the actual writing. It’s easy to convince myself that I’m working on my writing when I’m doing research, rather than realizing what I’m really doing is avoiding it. Besides, it can be so interesting, it’s easy to get lost in it. Thanks so much for the tips.

  10. jennmcgowan says:

    Thanks, everyone, for stopping by!! I’m glad it was helpful. And believe me, I’ve found amazingly cool things about Elizabethan England that have NOTHING to do with my story, and I’ve wasted HOURS learning more about them. Or I’ve chased the tiniest detail through book after book, hoping I’d have enough to base a plot or scene on it… only to realize that I just don’t have enough information. So I absolutely get the lure and danger of research! And now I suddenly feel like I have to get back to it. πŸ™‚

    Thanks again for helping to make my first blog so fun!

  11. KAK says:

    “WILL: Highlight the unusual, the intriguing and the super-specific details that can give a character or setting life.”

    Unusual and Intriguing facts as a filter for TMI — I like it! ~hides pages of mundane and overly broad facts under chair~

  12. […] Click Here to learn about my Research Wills & Won’ts! […]

  13. Oooh, see, I’ve learned that a broad research might cost you time, but it sinks your mind a little deeper into the overall worldview of the era and can make it much more “true” than knowing the names and dates of interactions or famous happenings. Knowing how people in the past saw the whole world around them gives your take on their story an extra level of depth that can make it really stand out. The trick, of course, is to know how to get that information, and where to draw the line and drill down. πŸ™‚ I greatly admire the authors of historical fiction for the effort and time they have to put into considering their research. πŸ™‚

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