Avoiding the Pitfalls of Research

by Laurie Brown



While researching my historical novels, Iíve encountered a few dangerous pitfalls; dangerous in that they stymied my writing productivity.  And over the years Iíve learned several ways to avoid those pitfalls.

Pitfall #1:  More is Better

I love reading about history so doing research is not a chore for me.  And thatís the problem.  I can easily forget the purpose is to gather information for the real goal of writing.  For the first book I wrote, I read  one hundred forty-nine books on the period of the American Revolution. (Yes, really.)  That research is on index cards sorted by category.  Dated and annotated.  Five long boxes of  3x5 cards.  I even have the sources and where I got them in case I should need them again.  I loved doing it. (Obviously.)  But what did I write during this period?  You guessed it: not much.

When I started writing on deadline, I no longer had the luxury of immersing myself in the research.  My methods had to change.

Solution #1:  Now, I read four to six general information books to get the flavor of the period.  Even if Iím already familiar with that particular time, this reading helps me get in the right mindset.  As I write and find I need a specific piece of data, I put a couple of asterisks and a number in the manuscript, write the question on a notepad, and keep writing.  For example:  **3  Who was the Prime Minister in 1854?  Or **11 How much does Big Ben weigh?

When I have a list of questions, I go online and find those specific answers.  The numbering system makes it easy to find that particular spot in the manuscript by using the search function and I can then plug in the information needed.

Pitfall #2:  More is Better, The Sequel

Because I had put a lot of time and effort into my research, there was a tendency to want to include all of it into the book I was writing.  And since I write romances and not textbooks, the dumps of historical data that slowed the pace to a crawl was not a good thing.

Solution #2:  One of the things I like about reading historical romances is the little tidbits of information I learn about another time period.  And that is the very solution.  Give the historical data to the reader in little tidbits that are worked into the story line.  Then method outlined above actually helps me do that.


Pitfall #3:  Getting Sidetracked

The term sidetracked comes the early days of the railroad when a less important or slower train was shuttled of to a short piece of track that went nowhere to allow the faster train to pass it by.  An interesting fact, but is it relevant to what Iím writing?

The precise piece of data you need will generally be surrounded by lots and lots of other interesting details.  When you go online, you can find hundreds of articles/references even if you ask a very specific question.  You can spend hours and hours of enjoyable reading.  Hours and hours that you arenít writing.  I only wish I had that kind of time.

Solution #3:  Give your list to someone else to go online for you.  Spouse, friend, anyone else.  This is a great chore for older kids.  I pay my teenage son two dollars per answer he finds.  He prints out the pages and I can go directly back to that source if I need to.  Since he has no personal interest in the subjects, heís really fast.  And if he happens to learn a little bit about history or researching methods in the process, well thatís a side benefit.

Solution #3a:  Cultivate friends and relatives with a particular knowledge base.  My bother-in-law is an absolute font of information about the Civil War and heís just a phone call away.  Recently I needed a battle in the spring of 1862 that the Confederacy lost, and he knew the answer right off.  In addition, he gave me a number of other tidbits that I used.  I saved hours and hours of research.  Hours that I used writing.

Other writers are also good sources.  I find answers for a friend when sheís on deadline and she returns the favor when Iím under the gun.  So far we havenít both needed help at the same time.  Here again specific questions are necessary.

Pitfall #4:  You may be right, but...

Some time ago I had a manuscript that mentioned a wife who packed up her two young children and followed her husband when he went to fight.  I entered that work in a contest, and every single judge replied that no Ďrespectableí woman would do such a thing.  Well, I had done my research and they were wrong and I was right.  (I told you, I researched everything about the American Revolution.)  Since then Iíve met a number of other historical writers with similar experiences.  Itís sad to say but the general public has little knowledge of the facts of history.  And if a reader or heaven forbid an editor thinks your facts are incorrect, you as the writer lose credibility.  You can also lose contests and sales.  But if youíve done your research and youíre right, what can you do?

Solution #4:  If several readers question something, you have two options.  You can provide enough detailed information that even a skeptic will buy it as the truth.  For example: General Washington encouraged families to follow their soldier husband/father for several reasons.  Not only did it drastically cut down on the major problem of desertion, but the wives provided valuable services such as cooking, laundry, nursing, and packing and unpacking.  The children gathered wood, fetched water, tended campfires, cleaned lamps, emptied slop jars, helped with the horses, and ran non-military messages.  This freed the soldiers to concentrate on guard duty, scouting, drilling, caring for their weapons, and fighting.  Congress even issued military rations to family members, half rations for wives and quarter rations for children.  When battle was engaged, families and supply wagons were sent to the rear.  There were prostitutes in the camps but if they were found out they were run off, usually by the respectable campfollowers acting under general orders.  Many women who could not survive on a small farm without a manís help had no choice but to Ďfollow the drum.í  The more affluent soldiers brought servants with them to look after their needs and the high ranking officers had soldiers assigned to attend them, and their horses.  The wives who had the means to do so came to the camp during quiet periods and then went home when fighting was expected or long hard marches were ordered.  Martha Washington joined her husband often, as did other officersí wives.  (Note: many of these practices changed drastically by the time of the Civil War, which more readers are familiar with.)

The drawback of providing adequate documentation is that you can wind up with an information dump (example above) in the middle of your otherwise exciting scene.  Youíll have to work the information in bit by bit without making it read like one character is lecturing another.  Sometimes this is difficult.  On the other hand, if you just inserted the interesting fact because it was part of your mountain of research that you didnít want to go to waste, and it wonít affect your story if you leave it out, then cut it altogether.  Yes, I know it hurts but if your credibility survives so will you.

Pitfall #5:  Everybody knows that

When youíre writing, you skip an explanation because the facts are so well-known.  Or you give a major detail, like the end of the Crimean War, and assume the reader will then know that the year of your setting is 1855.  Or since you know it took three months to cross the Atlantic from England to America and only six to eight weeks to go back due to prevailing winds and tides, you assume that everyone else also knows this.  If the reader doesnít know these things, they become confused rather than intrigued.  Yet at the same time, you donít want to over-explain something to an reader who has read fifty Civil War novels and doesnít need an explanation.

Solution #5:  The easiest way to establish your date and setting is to use a log line.  Those few words at the beginning of a book, chapter or scene can resolve many issues without convoluted machinations.  You wonít be forced to have your characters recite information to each other that would have been generally known at the time and thereby making them sound like idiots.  For example: ďReally, Father, itís 1885 and modern women no longer need a chaperone to go shopping.Ē Or ďAs you well know, the Crimean War ended six weeks ago and therefore we can expect Robert, our dear brother, home from the front in Russia any time within the next two weeks.Ē  Okay, maybe thatís a little over the top, but you get the idea.

Ask a person who does not generally read historical books (preferably one who owes you a big favor) to read your manuscript and mark all the terms and references they didnít understand.  Offer to baby-sit, wash their car, weed their garden, buy them chocolate.  When you get the manuscript back you must decide whether to:

a) leave it (a reference to the ton which my reader thought was a misspelling of town)

b) change the context to make the reference clear (Ďshe said she wanted to attend the auction at Tattersalls and he replied he didnít know she was interested in a new mountí edited to Ďshe professed an interest in seeing the horses offered for sale at Tattersallsí)

or c)  take the reference out altogether (see Solution #4 above).

Then ask a person who reads your historical period to go through your manuscript and mark all the places where you explain too much.  If either of these readers are fellow writers, offer to return the favor.  And buy them chocolate.

Remember your ultimate goal, and make the time you spend researching not only enjoyable but productive.  These are the five pitfalls I have encountered so far.  If there are more, Iím sure Iíll find them sooner or later.  Until then, I continue to read historical books when Iím not writing.  I read for new plot ideas but I donít take notes.  And I read them for pleasure.  Especially for pleasure.

Laurie Brown writes because it keeps her sane and because it gets her out of housework.  Twice a Golden Heart finalist, her debut novel THE TRUTH ABOUT CASSANDRA (Jan., Zebra) received a four star rating from RT Bookclub.  THE NIGHT WE KISSED, the second in the continuing character series, is scheduled for an October release.  Her website is www.lauriebrown.net.

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