Every writer knows how important research is, but in a historical novel, next to the hero and heroine, research is the story. Sure, it’s important that the protagonists fall in love and eventually reach the happily-ever-after, but how they do it, and where and when, is just as important.
Some of us are lucky enough to live in or be able to visit the chosen setting of their stories, but if you can’t, how do make the setting real? Research, of course!
When I first began writing my first novel, In Sunshine or in Shadow (Highland Press, 2006), I’d been in love withIreland and all things Irish for a long time. But in order to make my fictitious village of Ballycashel real, I had to decide first, where it was (Galway), when it was (the first months after the Great Famine), and the people who populated the village (only the few valiant survivors of the Famine).
So I dug out the many books I had on the Famine. I searched the Internet for pictures of the area, and read articles aboutGalwayand its traditions until I was bug-eyed.
And so it went. It seemed that for every chapter I wrote, I needed to research another subject. Rory O’Brien, my hero, was a gambler who’d made his fortune inAmerica. Where? On a riverboat. A few hours of investigating went into that topic. What was his game of choice? Craps. More research. He had an old leg injury and needed a cane, so I decided he should have a collection of canes. I spent one entire weekend looking up what kind of canes he might have. One, a “dicer’s cane,” had a pair of dice in the head. Another had a compass concealed in the head. Fascinating stuff.
There’s a wedding in the story, too. I won’t say whose, but I never dreamed the Irish had so many superstitions about weddings. Here’s where the Internet really came in handy. And when Rory decided to breed horses, I needed to know what kind of horses he was interested in, and what they were raised for.
By now you all probably realize how important research is to me. Accurate research, that is. A former journalist, I learned my lesson well: don’t print it until you’ve confirmed it in at least three places.
And once that information has been confirmed, keep a record of it!!! That’s almost as important as finding that elusive fact. Keep it in a notebook, a Word or Excel file, wherever. Just keep it where you know you’ll be able to find it again, so that if ever your research is called into question, you have the facts at your fingertips.
Accurate research is a lot of work. It can be fun, frustrating, and you may want to pull your hair out over that one little detail you just can’t seem to locate. But in the long run, it makes for a much better book.