Thorough research is the 4th of The 7 Reasonable Rules of Writing. Details will differ, according to exactly what our Muse has tasked us with writing: be it historical fiction, fictionalized history, literary fiction, contemporary life, or even fantasy world-building, which must achieve consistency and continuity between its wholly imaginary historical and contemporary aspects. But in general, this is the kind of research that writers should expect to conduct:
Verify vocabulary. Outside of misspellings (including homophones and apostrophe errors), there’s nothing quite so jarring to a reader who’s in the know, than encountering anachronistic or culturally uncharacteristic bits of verbiage. Pay attention to the etymology your dictionary provides, and in particular, the dates. (My 1941 Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary also supplies a helpful “new word” list.)
Sometimes readers quibble over local semantics. Writers who are accustomed to the U. S. cultural and linguistic melting-pot should know that there’s no such thing as perfect homogeneity of usage in any smaller country – not even in Ireland, which is only about the same size as the State of Indiana.
But when bad mistakes happen, suspension of disbelief goes out the window – as does reader trust in the author. Sure, readers know it’s fiction, not rocket science, nor even a textbook as elementary as The Bathroom Barber-Surgeon’s Guide to Gallbladder Removal, but if one of them happens to be an anorak about our topic, it won’t be long before Aunt Tilly and other shoppers at A Major Online Retailer will get to read about our faux pas, in a scathing 1-star review.
Cultural immersion. We can’t hope to go everywhere, and we’re not time-travelers, so we have to find reasonable compromises. While I was writing Irish Firebrands, I read the two major Irish newspapers every day, and built a spreadsheet containing thousands of Hiberno-English phrases. For my current work-in-progress, I have a lot of reviewing to do at home, because it’s been a long time since I lived in Germany, and going back is out of the question, now.
In the case of prehistory and ancient artifacts, sometimes even the evidence that’s still on the ground may not always fit with what really happened. And the older things get, the more leeway novelists may have, to re-imagine them. In such cases, our task is to balance artistic liberty with suspension of disbelief.
For example, the shapes of many hill figures are known to have evolved significantly, even to the point of their having been completely revised within the past three hundred years. Before then, what they looked like is anybody’s guess. It’s said that the Uffington hill figure (above) was scientifically dated to about 1000 BC, but that it’s known to have been called a horse only since the 11th century. If I were writing a novel about the prehistoric people who built it, based on its current incarnation, I might choose to call it a cat, instead.
The purpose served by an artifact is yet another story. We have some latitude for reinterpretation, there, too – bearing in mind the limitations of period technology and human psychology (at some times, many things we now take for granted were believed to be utterly impossible). Very old books are likely to be costly collectors’ items, but there may be low-priced reproductions available, or free digitized copies online. Merchandise catalog reproductions can be mined for all sorts of period paraphernalia, along with persuasive descriptions of why the customer should want to buy and use it.
Going to the source. Online archives of old publications and official paperwork abound. Folks are publishing their old family diaries and letters. We don’t always have to travel far afield to visit document repositories; for my work-in-progress, I’m reading from images of German soldiers’ trench newspapers that were published during the First World War. I enjoyed this page, about what to do with empty food cans (“5. We like potato pancakes…”).
Sometimes, good research will cost more than just the writer’s time. When I wrote Irish Firebrands, I went on many a Google Street View stroll in Ireland, but there were still some things I wanted to know about, for which I couldn’t find good illustrations online – like what was outside and much of the interior of the Dublin Airport “T1” (main terminal).
I have about $5000 USD sunk into the writing of Irish Firebrands. The biggest single chunk of change was spent on my pilgrimage to Ireland, during which I spent several hours exploring the T1 at Dublin; rode Bus Éireann across the width of the island; and then recuperated for the remainder of my stay – resting, reading and writing – in a B&B that overlooked a manor house ruin, in rural County Meath. But most of the money I spent went for books and other things that I’ll enjoy having in my personal library for a long time to come.
Simulation. How far can a fit young man walk in a day? On flat ground? What about in sand? In mud? In a forest? In the mountains? How far can a team of oxen pull a loaded wagon in 12 hours? What do your characters eat? Can you cook some authentic recipes? (I cooked from three Irish cookbooks: corned beef and cabbage is not genuine Irish cuisine.)
Consult books with period illustrations, and art books that reproduce period paintings. Visit museums that display uniforms and other preserved articles of clothing. Writing Artists should, however, take a lesson from Theatrical Artists, and be wary of consulting stage and film costume dramas. Such adaptations are rarely authoritative.…
Acting costumes are not constructed with the same level of detail that original fashions may have adopted: it’s just not necessary for costumes to have the same number of buttons, to convey the proper effect across an auditorium. Similarly, neither do writers need to describe in detail every furbelow, unless to do so has some significance in the story, or for a character.
This is because a detailed wardrobe description can easily become an uninteresting catalog of parts – unless what we’re trying to do is to communicate “fussiness.” It’s like the bathroom mirror character-appearance self-inventory: A character had better have a very good reason for doing it – which means it doesn’t work very well in the first chapter. (This kind of detailed self-inventory doesn’t happen in Irish Firebrands until Chapter 20, more than halfway through the book.)
If it’s important to know what it was like for characters to make and wear their clothing, invest in the cloth and a sewing pattern for that article of period clothing in your size, sew the garment by hand, and then wear it around the house (or better still, while on a camping trip).
Do you think there’s not enough time to conduct such a research project? Well, if we consider that, back in the day, folks had to chop wood, draw water, cultivate fields, take care of animals and children, clean house, cook meals, and sometimes spin the thread and weave the cloth, before sewing clothing by lantern, rushlight, or a button lamp, it’s more likely that we can work it into our modern schedules. We can learn to knit and crochet, too. Acquiring such skills can enhance our appreciation of the real workload our forebears endured – and spare us some eyestrain, from staring at computer, tablet and TV screens.
Finally, just because we researched something, doesn’t mean all of it has to end up in words on the page. I didn’t write into Irish Firebrands a tithe of what I learned about Irish history, culture, geography, wildlife, weather, agriculture, politics, psychology, religion, and whatever you’re having yourself. Most of the facts writers learn are important because they help us think and feel the way our characters would, and making their reactions ring true to the wonderful readers who willingly follow us into the Parallel Universe.