Thursday, January 18, 2007

The Perils of Research

Having grown up on Victoria Holt, I adore the Victorian era. It seems so mysterious, so Gothic, and no matter how much research I do to shed light on it, the Victorian era still feels that way to me.

And I do a lot of research.

I didn't originally; I just wrote the story and assumed that if my characters used candles instead of electric bulbs, I was doing it right. I was, of course, proven wrong, but I don't regret those days. Back then I wrote for the pure joy of living the story. I wrote with fire and enthusiasm, and I suspect that if I had been worried about the research, I'd never have finished those manuscripts. For a beginning writer, knowing you can write an entire book is everything.

Now, though, I do that research. I do it before the book is started, in the middle of writing and at the end. Most of the time it's not a burden, but a pleasure. Sometimes it's too much of a pleasure. It's very easy to get caught up in what I'm reading and forget that I opened the research book to find out one little bitty piece of information, which, incidentally, probably will only get one line in my manuscript. And that one line is only to establish mood and atmosphere, and will probably be skimmed by the average reader. And yet, I want that line badly. Eight hours and 20 pages of notes later I've got lots and lots of information related to what I was originally researching--but I still don't have the one line. And the information I have, I may never use.

I did this with Victorian Jewelry. For the record, researching Victorian jewelry was not my favorite thing to do. I was reading the book while my sons and husband watched the Super Bowl in another room, and their occasional yelps and cheers reminded me strongly of what I was sacrificing for the sake of my career. But I kept reading the book on jewelry because my hero was going to darned well buy my heroine a necklace for Christmas, and I wanted to know what it would look like. And actually, any other necklace any other of my characters in any other book might wear. So I read this book and took pages and pages and pages of notes. I got the necklace figured out and finished the story. Yay!

Except that recently I went back over those notes. They make no sense at all. I can barely read my own writing. If I ever want to write another novel with Victorian jewelry in it, I'll have to take the book out of the library again. Probably in the middle of the World Series, (but NOT if the Red Sox are in it because, really, some sacrifices are just too great) while my family screams and groans, and I read an entire book once again so I can make sure that yes, my character would wear a dragon-fly brooch encrusted with emeralds in 1885.

Only to decide later that she's way too poor for that.

In my next life, I'm going to write contemporary romances.


Kristin-Marie said...

It truly is amazing how many hours can go into the tiniest detail of research for a story.

Susan Macatee said...

I know the feeling, Dee.

No matter how much I know about the Civil War period, there's always some little tidbit that takes me hours to look up.

If I can even find it at all.

Jolie Mathis said...

I do the same thing. I research and research, and in the end, might just use one or two tiny bits of what I've learned. Still, the knowledge helps me to "see" my fictional environment, so I'm not bumping around in the dark.

Great blog!

Denise Eagan said...

Thanks Kristin, Susan, Jolie. It's nice to know that I'm not the only one who gets caught up in the research, frustrated at finding everything but that illusive tidbit!. I guess it is true, though, that in the end even the "useless" bits of information we learn adds to our understanding of the times and comes across as "atmosphere".

Welcome to our blog Jolie!

alternatefish said...

Not only do I get distracted while searching for one little detail for a story...

I'm still in college, and I run into problems when I'm supposed to be researching something like, say, children in modern theater, and I end up with books about the rise of the Victorian actor. Or the time I was supposed to be reading gay literary theory and I ended up with a couple of books about boys' schools in Victorian England.

Denise Eagan said...

Okay, alternatefish, gay literary theory? And boys schools in Victorian England? Am I bad because that totally cracks me up?

What sort of info on a rise of a Victorian actor. That sounds like a lot more fun than children in modern theatre, although all of it sounds fun.

Welcome to our blog!