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Research is one of my favorite parts of a project, and yet it can be one of the biggest obstacles. There’s always that balance that has to be maintained doing the research: staying focused on what you need, while not ignoring other interesting tidbits. Then there’s the balance within the project: remembering to only include nuggets of information, instead of everything you discovered (because so much of it is so cool).
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Research matters, whether it’s fiction or nonfiction. A believable baseline allows the imagination to soar. One of fiction’s strengths is communicating emotional truth by building on contextual truths, but starting at a believable baseline allows for the suspension of disbelief and carries the reader through the story.
Whether it’s script or prose, one of the biggest issues in a lot of the reading/analysis work I do is the lack of a consistent internal logic in a piece. The author stating, “well, it’s FICTION” doesn’t always cut it. As a reader, I have to know what is considered “normal” for a particular world so I can delight or worry about what veers from that. Books like TJ Klune’s UNDER THE WHISPERING DOOR roots his delightful fantasy in a believable reality for that created world that allows the fantasy to soar. It’s not about “this is the way it is” it’s about making the reader BELIEVE this is the way it is in this world.
Many of my plays deal with women largely forgotten by history. I’ve written several plays featuring Kate Warne, the first female Pinkerton, hired in 1856 (and she continues to fascinate me). I’ve written about Jeanne de Clisson (a 14th century pirate), Giulia Tofana (a 17th century herbalist and poisoner), Lavinia Fontana (a painter bridging the 16th & 17th centuries who negotiated her commissions the way men did), the painter Canaletto’s three sisters (18th century), Susanna Centlivre (one of the most successful 18th century playwrights), Isabella Goodwin (one of NYC’s first female detectives, not as forgotten as many of the others), Marie Corelli (a popular Victorian/Edwardian novelist who was obsessed with saving anything Shakespeare related), Dawn Powell, and Dorothy Parker (again, not as forgotten as some of the others, but not as often read as they should be). I have upcoming projects on Marie Bancroft (actress/theatre manager), Marian DeForest (author, activist, and playwright), and Anna Katharine Green (crime writer). Along with plenty of prose that’s tied to history. The central narrative drive of the Gwen Finnegan mysteries is archaeology with paranormal elements, which requires A LOT of research. The central male protagonist of the in-progress heist romance screenplay is a Celtic history scholar. Again, research. Usually at least a year’s worth, for each play.
Along with all those locations, which we talked about back in the Settings post.
How does one research?
There are as many methods as there are writers. I prefer to research my own material rather than hire out to research for others, or to hire someone to research for me. I do that because one of the things I like best about research is all the interesting tangents, which is not what is considered a “professional” way to do it.
I’ll share some of the ways that work for me, why I like them, and where they trip me up.
If you’re completely new to research, the Edith Cowan University site has a great starter page for research. It focuses on Australian resources (since it is in Australia), but you can apply the steps to similar institutions just about anywhere in the world. There are hundreds of other articles about research and you can spend delightful hours going down that rabbit hole. Instead of, you know, doing the actual research.
For the plays built around historical women, I often came across something about the individual which interested me, and then started reading this and that on the internet. I didn’t know what the play would focus on until I did more research.
I rarely try to cover the entire life of an individual in one piece. Especially when it comes to stage plays, I’ll pick an event or turning point in their lives that interests me, and build the play around that. With Kate Warne, where everything about her interests me, I write multiple plays, each built around an interesting case.
Once I’ve read enough that sustains my interest, I decide I want to write about this particular individual.
I set up a physical file folder and a file on the computer. I do both, because technology always fails me. I usually start the research files with the individual’s name. On the computer file, in the main folder, I start the Acknowledgements list. I’d love to boast about color coding the files depending on type of research, type of piece (play, short story, novel), but let’s be real: I grab whatever file folder I have handy. If necessary, and the file gets too large, I might break it down into categories. When I wrote a serial about a female pirate in the Caribbean back in 2004, called CUTTHROAT CHARLOTTE, I split the files into pirate biographies, information on different islands, schematics of different kinds of ships, laws, shipping routes, etc. I’ve used that research for both historical pieces and fantasy pieces since then.
I see what kind of information I can find online. Then I crosscheck those sources, to see if they have any credibility. When I trained in journalism, we were told to find verification from three independent sources. That’s not always possible, and when you’re writing fiction, you have more wiggle room, but I try to check the credibility of sources. This is as important for primary sources such as diaries and letters as articles about something by someone else. If you know Daisy hated Erica because Erica married the man Daisy wanted, you have context for a lot of behaviors and comments. Especially if the guy turns around and cheats on Erica with Daisy.
Primary sources are great. When I write historical pieces, I read as many journals and letters as I can find set in the time period. I do so even if they have nothing to do with any of my characters, because I get the flavor of the time, and I find lovely little details to insert that make it more texturally realistic. Newspapers are great for that, too. For instance, THE TREES WHISPERED DEATH has been resting since the first draft was finished in December 2022. It’s set here in the Berkshires, starting in 1957. Before I start the revision, I am going into the archives of local libraries and historical societies to read newspapers from the months in which the story takes places. That will give me little details to sprinkle in here and there to bring it even more to life. I did nearly a year’s worth of research on the area at that time, and on the Spruces, which is the inspiration for Whispering Poplars, before writing the book, and had to stop and research specifics while I wrote (placeholders did not work). It was a reminder that historical fiction is the wrong choice for me to use as a National Novel Writing Month project.
Years ago, I picked up a copy of the diary of Edward Robb Ellis, who kept a diary for over 70 years, and I’ve used it as background research on multiple projects, and will on THE TREES WHISPERED DEATH revision. Edmund Wilson’s diaries of the fifties feeds into the above project, and I’ll re-read relevant selections of Dawn Powell’s diaries and letters from that time period. I’ll also re-read various memoirs by people connected to THE NEW YORKER magazine, since the protagonist’s daughter-in-law works as a fact checker there when the series opens.
99% of this I won’t use. Or I’ll put it in a draft and cut it when it becomes a tangent, rather than texture. But I need to know as much as possible, and then decide what to feed the reader.
When I researched Kate Warne, I found out that the Library of Congress held microfilm of the Pinkerton case records. Kate’s records were lost in the Great Chicago Fire (of Mrs. O’Leary’s cow fame), but records held in other offices, and reports of later operatives referred back to her cases. I was living on Cape Cod at the time, and had just come into possession of both microfilm and microfiche machines. LOC suggested I get the film from Harvard, who had a copy. They were so unpleasant, I ended up getting a different copy out of a university in Indiana.
I spent all my spare time for the month I had the microfilm out via ILL on my machine at home, going through case files. It was fascinating. The details around the cases and around people in the lives of the various agents add flavor to the plays, even if those individuals never appear on stage.
As a wardrobe person in theatre and film, The Triangle Factory Fire in NYC in 1911 has huge resonance. David Von Drehle wrote a fascinating article about his research into it for The Smithsonian. I spent time in the New York Historical Archives researching the fire. I have not yet found the format in which I can best tell the story I want to tell, so I keep doing research and accumulating notes. I also stumbled across information about some of the young women who died there when I visited the New York Tenement Museum (one of the most interesting museums in New York, because they have artifacts of the individuals who lived in these actual apartments, and it feels like their ghosts are with you). By accident, when I was researching something in the Belmont Family papers about the racetrack in the manuscript room of the New York Public Library, I came across how horrified he was by the fire. He was one of the men who campaigned to create workers’ compensation insurance. If you read his original proposal, and how it reads now, there’s not much difference. He was furious because the argument used to protect the owners of the factory from murder charges was that the workers who died were immigrants and women, not voting citizens (women could not vote in 1911), and therefore, it couldn’t be “murder.” That makes no sense, because non-citizens are murdered all the time around the world. Belmont helped fund the IRT subway – in his papers, he talks about a subway system anyone could access, rather than the green line (now the 4, 5, 6 trains) that the rich east siders had for exclusive use of their staffs. He also made the Cape Cod Canal a reality, something I later learned when I moved to the Cape. (I hadn’t gone through those boxes of the family papers during my time at the NYPL).
When I was in the National Archives at Philadelphia doing research on Betsy Ross (along with materials at the Betsy Ross House), I stumbled across the diary of Dr. James Allen. The name caught me because I grew up with a guy named Jamie Allen, who was smart and funny and talented. (We were in confirmation class together at my hometown’s Episcopalian church). Out of curiosity, I ordered up the diary.
It was written in the most beautiful penmanship. He was in Philadelphia at the start of the American Revolution. He stood there in the crowd in Philadelphia, when the original Declaration of Independence was read. His writing was so beautiful that I got chills reading his experience as someone hearing the first public reading of it. He was a doctor, and joined the army, serving under George Washington. I kept reading and reading, holding my breath at each entry. I knew the Americans defeated the British, but there were plenty of times it didn’t seem possible to him. His joy and relief when the war was over nearly brought me to tears, as did his struggles to settle down into a “normal” life after the war.
There are so many threads you can find if you don’t hyperfocus. At the same time, tangents can lead you away from what you want instead of toward it.
Archives, Libraries, Historical Sites
When you go to a reading room or archive to research in person, read their policies ahead of time. Is their catalog available online? Can you/should you put in a request for materials ahead of time, or do you need to wait until you are there? What materials can you bring in with you? Most reading rooms/archives only allow pencils or mechanical pencils, not pens. You have to leave your backpack/purse/briefcase in a locker and bring in a notepad, your pencil, and maybe your laptop (without its case). You might be given a clear plastic case for your wallet and your keys. I find these clear plastic cosmetic cases in various sizes useful for research. I get them at Target. They’re great for travel, and use in archives and library reading rooms. I usually wear jeans to archives so that I can stuff my keys in my pocket. I don’t like leaving them in my bag in a locker.
TURN YOUR DAMN PHONE OFF. If you’re even allowed to keep it with you. I have been amongst those cheering when some asshole was ejected for refusing to turn off his phone in the space. It’s not “forgetting” when it’s in the paperwork you sign to come in, on a sign on the door, the librarian reminds you when you are seated, and it’s taped to the table. It’s being an asshole.
It is highly unlikely you can use your phone (or a digital camera) to photograph documents. Just because characters get away with it in fiction doesn’t mean you will. Always ask first. Old documents are fragile, and easily harmed. You may need to pay for copies or printouts.
I usually take paper and pencil with me to an archive rather than a computer. I have a laptop now (there were plenty of years where I only had a desktop). In my upcoming travels, I may have the laptop with me and take notes on that. I usually think better and make stronger connections between various dots if I write in longhand. It also allows me to scrawl across the page and map thoughts, rather than working linearly.
When I start working with a new source, I write the bibliographic information at the top of the page. For my own purposes, I do Title, Author. Publisher. Copyright date. Then I put the name of the organization from where I got it. If it’s a book through the library system, I’ll put the name of the library. If it’s a microfilm at an archive, I will note that it’s microfilm and where I am when I use it and where it’s from. If necessary, I convert to standard bibliographic format if/when it’s something that goes to an editor, or if I have to submit a sheet for a fact checker’s use.
Keeping track of your sources is vital. You will need to consult them again to check a detail. You will especially need to consult it again if you haven’t kept track. Learn from my mistakes. I tend to remember research resources by title or subject rather than author, which is why I use the title first in my own notes, rather than the author. (As an author, that fills me with guilt).
If I take notes in longhand on site, I type them when I get home. I try to type on the same day, while it’s still fresh in my memory. I print a copy as well as saving the file. If I don’t have access to a printer, I email the file to myself, even if I save it to the hard drive, cloud, and USB.
As I take notes, if I get an idea that is pertinent to what I’m working on (dialogue, plot point, character detail), or I get an idea to search for another source, I put that a few lines down, and in [ parentheses ]. Sometimes the notes will run a page or more, if I get an idea for an entire scene. Sometimes I even draft the scene itself.
I type those up into a different file at the end of the day, marked “fragments” or “other sources” depending on their purpose.
Sometimes I’ll get an idea for a different project that can use some of the same material and put that in parentheses as well, and either put it in the “fragments” document or create a fresh file for a new project.
Re-reading the initial handwritten notes will get me into the headspace I was in when the idea hit me, which is one reason I keep them. I refer to them more often than the typed notes.
If I have copies of photographs, I write details on the back of anything I print out (as much detail as possible: photographer, source, content of picture, date photographed, date I found it). If it’s a jpg, I try to keep a sheet with those same details so I can access it easily. I’m still working on digital photography archiving systems for myself. If I’m downloading from an online archive, I download all the details and keep it on a sheet for cross reference, making sure I’m consistent in naming or numbering.
Research will often support multiple projects, so if you see something that interests you, make a note so you can return to it when appropriate.
If I go to a museum or an historical site, I pick up every brochure, especially maps of the site, and probably buy at least one of the souvenir pamphlets. File jackets are easier to store these materials in than regular, open-sided folders. I ask if I can take photographs. If the answer is yes, I photograph extensively, and make notes in a reporter’s notebook (these are skinny, top-bound spirals that easily fit in a pocket). Remember to write legibly – this is where I often stumble. I prefer using a digital camera to my phone. I need to keep SD cards (I don’t wipe mine, even if I upload files) organized by project and/or date. Google Photos doesn’t cut it.
I’ll add the names of the individuals who helped me and the institutions to the Acknowledgement file as soon as they help.
Keep your receipts, for taxes: entrance fees, book or pamphlet purchases, copying fees, supplies, parking fees, museum fees, meals, hotels, mileage, train/bus/cab/plane fares. If you’re on a research trip, get a small manila envelope before you start, put the name of the trip and the project on it, and keep it with you (even in your clear plastic bag). Put every receipt in it as you get it. ALWAYS ask for a receipt, even if you’re not sure you need it. Sort the receipts into the proper categories/files within three days of returning home. This is especially important if the research is grant or publisher funded, and you have to fill out reports or expense sheets.
Should one research before starting a project or after the first draft?
My answer to that is before, during, and after.
The longer I do this, the less placeholders as I write work for me, even in early drafts. So much of what comes next in plot and character growth is defined by these details that I need the details so that I can move forward with the draft.
That means doing preliminary research before I start. It means as I write, I learn there are a ton of things I had no idea I needed to know, and I need to stop and put them in, or at least something close to it in, or the structure and story fall apart. It means as I revise, I fact check and work the details so they make sense while supporting the vision for the piece.
How much research do you do on your projects? How do you go about it? Do you have any favorite research anecdotes? I’d love to hear about it in the comments.
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