Did someone say research?
Did someone say research? This isn’t grad school….. which is what I have to keep telling myself as I delve into books and articles about a subject I’m considering for a new book. Preparing for graduate degrees in history I read a lot. Let me repeat that: a lot. It quickly became clear that I needed to absorb the essence of the argument, and not necessarily every supporting detail. When in a real hurry I would read the first and last sentence of every paragraph, stopping for a more complete read only occasionally. Why did this work? Because I needed to understand the history of history. What were the arguments supporting or deflating theories of the Why about our past. How had opinion about cause and effect changed over time with changing attitudes and newly discovered primary resources? This was what I needed to understand. Researching to write fiction is entirely different, at least in a few important ways. Reading quickly is still an asset. However, now I’m searching for interesting tidbits, facts, stories, details, descriptions. It is a needle in a haystack. There are a few go-to places for descriptions of, for example, clothing. There are collections of photographs (and paintings) of places. But what did people eat? Who ate what? (Today, if I hear that someone loves fast food from Bojangles I assume they have lived or traveled extensively in the American South. If they love McDonald’s that tells me nothing about geography, it is truly worldwide.) Most ‘history’ books are still about great events, although this is changing. Still, even books about women, or workers, or peasants/farmers (depending on the era and location) bring information together to make generalizations: nursing becomes a socially acceptable profession for women, or nutrition improves among the working poor, etc. As a writer, I want more; more daily detail. Therefore, I turn to memoirs. An historian evaluates the memoir in the context of other known details (aka facts), for example, checking to see if the village really was overcome by the Allied forces and the residents forced to flee. As a writer, I might not be interested in this (maybe I’m writing about a fictional village or a different one). I want to know what the residents felt as they fled (maybe they weren’t ‘forced’ to flee but chose to? After all memory is hazy…..). What were the relationships, the wants, the needs, the threats? What did they regret leaving behind, what did they choose to take. Until recently, memoirs available to the general public were mainly those of famous people or people made famous by circumstance (for example, the memoir of a world leader or that of Anne Frank.). Now there are many more memoirs available, often self-published and sold on line. Can each line be taken as fact by an historian? No. But as an aid to a writer, there are many memorable stories that create a collective fabric of life in other places and other times. So, I’m eyeing my tall stack of books collected from the library, eyeing the memoirs first as a window into actual lives. Later, I’ll read the dry facts. In both cases I hope to avoid the rabbit hole of information overload! What tools do you use to research the past?