Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Finding an Expert

Professional Makeupphoto © 2010 Amie Fedora | more info (via: Wylio)

Quite often I write about things I've no experience with. Not only have I never lived in the 19th century, but I've never been a professional photographer, a mining engineer, or a ship captain.

That's where research comes in.

I love to do research, and it was a hard lesson when I learned that research for a novel is like an iceberg.

Only 10% of the cool stuff you learn actually makes it into the novel. 90% stays under the water line.

Nothing will stop a reader quicker than an "I'm so smart, lookit all my research, isn't it shiny?" info dump.

And yet, the reader expects you to do research, not to put anything in the story that isn't plausible for the time period and situation.

So where does a writer get information? Lots of places, but some are more reliable than others.

1. The Internet. We've become a Google generation. The Internet is my first source for a broad overview and to see what the possibilities are. It's for pedestrian information like who was the US President in 1885 or When was Hawaii made a state? But you do have to be careful. Anyone can slap something up on a website, but that doesn't make it true.

2. Books. I love research books, esp. those published by university presses or state historical societies. Books tend to carry more credibility than just Internet research, but you have to be careful here, too. If you read an historical fact in a book, find at least one more source, but preferably two to corroborate. You might not always be able to find backup sources, but try. And a helpful tip: keep a list of your research materials just in case one of your editors queries something. It's always good to keep a bibliography.

3. Original documents. Diaries, letters, census information, newspapers, etc. This past week, I got to peruse a book of life insurance policies from 1905. Medical histories, family histories, occupations, incomes. A cornucopia of cool information. One man's sister was murdered in Africa, another man had Charlie Mayo as his personal physician. More than half the applicants had suffered from pneumonia or typhoid, and it seems a lot of dentist and bankers wanted life insurance. The annual income of a farmer in 1905 was about $600.

4. An Expert. A musuem curator, a professor, a person who has experience in the field you're exploring. Just this week, my daughter's college roommate Siri Thofson, who is a theatre major at Northwestern College, was kind enough to help me with some theatre terms, procedures, and makeup tips. With Siri's help, Willow Starr will be an authentic character, a stage actress.

Thank you, Siri!!!

So, what is your favorite source of information?


  1. Talking to experts speeds up the process SO much. Great tips Erica!

  2. ACFW is full of experts in almost any field. I post on the main loop first, and if that doesn't work, I Google for information to find credible sources. Although you really have to be careful for unexpected eye trash. Oh my.

  3. I'll follow your suggestions as I've been told I do "near graduate level" research. Guess I still have a ways to go :-D

  4. I'd like to believe I know everything, but alas I know almost zilch. SO yeah, I don't think I could have been a very effective writer without the Internet.

  5. The internet is an amazing place, isn't it? Although I hope to seek out some experts with my current project.

  6. You've covered important points, Erica. I google for some information but always want to double check on two or three different sites. For technical or specialized info I like to talk to people 'in the biz' if I can, but once again like to have everything corroborated by at least one other source. I do keep my research info but you've made a good point that we should actually document sources with a view to having it for agents or editors if required. I hadn't thought of that aspect so much as maybe wanting to return to the info myself for further clarification.

  7. I love watching documentaries. Especially those relating to the 1800's since that is the time period I write in. I'm always amazed at how little people had and how hard they had to work to survive. I always walk away wondering, "Could I have made it back then?"

    Another really fun resource that I like to use/look at is the 1895 Montgomery Ward Catalogue and Buyer's Guide. =)

  8. I wish everyone started out with the 10/90 ratio in mind. I recently read a new historical romance and I thought it should have come with the disclaimer "This author did a lot of research and she's not going to let any of go to waste!" It was absolutely ridiculous. Details and even characters appeared out of nowhere and each time it seemed to bring the story to a screeching halt. Instead of enriching the prose and pulling me into the world I was immediately reminded of the author behind the work. Not a good thing.

    After doing weeks and research for my first book I'll admit I made the same mistake. I was so excited about all that I'd learned (and didn't want to "waste" any of that knowledge) that I crammed in every possible detail. By the second edit it was glaringly evident that most of those details weren't needed.

    And to answer the question you asked in the first place - I use the internet, research books, and as many old photographs, blueprints, city maps, and letters as I can get my hands on.