Before becoming a full-time writer, I spent thirteen years working as a research librarian in the corporate environment. My favourite part of the job was hunting down answers to questions, and I have kept hold of that passion throughout my writing career.
If you notice a lot of my writing is involved in history, and even the fantasy series like the Books of the Order are based off of it. I have always been fascinated by people who lived in the past, what they experienced and what they thought. Also, for a writer looking at history, its politics and events. In the last episode of behind the scenes in Game of Thrones for example, they talked about basing a lot of the struggles against slavery, around how Abraham Lincoln tried to find a diplomatic solution with the South first.
So how does one go about researching? Well let’s dive in to how I approach it.
The Broad Brush
First I like to get a broad understanding of what was going on. So right now, I am in the midst of researching New York City in the Gilded Age. So first I hit Wikipedia…now don’t start foaming at the mouth.
If this was way back when I was at university, I would have gone to an encyclopedia to get a broad overview, but right here and now Wikipedia is just the same. Be aware that it is crowd-sourced information, so don’t just take it as gospel. However for broad sweeps it is a great way to jump in and get a lay of the lan.
Note down dates, and important people since these will the be tentpoles your story revolves around. Keep an eye out for little nuggets of information that fascinate you. My Iron Lily concept came from another project I was researching, when I came across information about strong-women of the nineteenth century. I believe my eye might have lit up from the inside…
Organization is paramount now, here at the beginning, before you get buried in all sorts of interesting facts.
For first drafts I work in Scrivener, and I find this is a great way to keep all your notes organized. I make new folders for characters, places, and events.
Down to the Nitty Gritty
Now that I have a broad overview, I want to get down and dirty with the history. To get a real feel and texture for the place, I head to Pinterest. What…another indrawn breath? Seriously, if you are looking for images of the past, Pinterest is a great place. Also fashion, including historical fashion, is easy to find on Pinterest. Here is my board of pinned images for New York City as an example. I also tend to make my own Pins if I find anything offline.
If I am lucky and working in an appropriate timeline, I may even find things on Youtube. Working on the Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences series, I found some wonderful early footage of London street scenes. Moving images are pretty unlikely if your book is set in the Viking age though…sorry…
Now we start to get down into the nitty gritty. What we’ve been dealing with is all secondary sources, but if you are lucky enough to find them, you can’t get better than primary sources. For example, for the Iron Lily, I was hipped onto a book by Leanna Renee Hieber, called King’s Handbook of New York City – 1892. Bliss! If the area you are writing in is not as large and well documented, you can probably still find primary sources, like diaries or images at a local library or museum. Even if they are small they will be concentrated on your area. If you get a chance talk to someone at the museum. When I was working on Chasing the Bard I visited Shakespeare’s birthplace, and was able to clarify some facts about his father’s glove selling business.
Go There…virtually or otherwise
Finally, the last piece of research which can’t be found online, is going there. At the end of this month, I’ll be traveling to NYC. I’ve been there before, but for a couple of days I want to immerse myself in what remains of the Gilded Age. I plan on hitting the Musuem of New York City, but I would also like to stand in the places where my characters will go. Even seperated by time there is nothing to compare to going to a place. And hey, if you are making money off it, tax deduction! If you cannot realistically get to a place, then go online. Look at the streets if they have been mapped by Google. Search out travelers who have been there and read their blogs, and look at their images. We are so lucky to live in an age where we can access such information, and for a writer it is pretty heady stuff.