Do Your Homework First
I remember one morning when I was four, sitting at the table scribbling furiously on a pad of paper with my stubby pencil. After I had worked diligently for a while, I took my masterpiece to show Mom.
“Is it writing?” I asked. “No, not yet,” she answered, meaning, I suppose, that I didn’t yet know how to write or was not yet ready to learn.
But I went back to busily scribbling in just the same way, it seemed to me, grownup writers did, hopeful that the next time I showed her, the lead on the paper would have been transmuted into fine words.
I since found out that writing involves a lot more than earnest desire. Obviously, writers need a strong background in grammar and usage if they’re going to write intelligibly. (Knowing how to read is helpful too.) Just as important, you have to have something to say.
When I was an English teacher, I often ran into lazy writers who didn’t seem to realize they were supposed to actually do research—you know, read stuff— before writing their research papers. Granted, it’s so much easier when you go about it the way they did.
1. Decide what you already “know” (your topic)
2. Find books in the library that support what you already “know”
3. Decorate your research paper with quotes from the books (Don’t worry if you take them out of context or don’t understand what they’re saying. And don’t ever read anyone’ dissenting opinion.)
4. Be sure to properly footnote the concoction. Call this a research paper.
Doing the research is important for fiction writers too, especially if you’re writing historical fiction, for with it, there’s the additional challenge of creating a fictional world different from your own. The language, customs, and knowledge have to fit the time period or the novel just won’t ring true. Take these clips from a historical novel set in 1887 that I recently read:
I grew up having a crush on Jackson.
At least I had one person I could count on.
William came running out of the house to read me the riot act.
Coming across these modern phrases, I was immediately jolted out of the world of 1887 and cast upon the shores of 2012 reality. After repeated joltings, I lost interest and put the book aside.
In another historical fiction set in the 1600s the heroine gives her little boy a daily bath—even though no one else in that era bathed daily and even though servants had to carry water up the castle stairs to her and even though she was herself a prisoner with no standing. Right. That could happen.
And then there was the book I recently read set in Minnesota in January. The heroine dug into the permafrost to set posts for a fence. This is a job that would have taken muscular men days to do, and yet for her it’s a snap. Later our heroine butchers a hog in the middle of the night with no light and a pack of hungry dogs watching. If the writer had done her research, she would have realized it would take tremendous strength to handle the carcass and cut it up. And the dogs wouldn’t have waited so politely at the sidelines. She could have saved herself all the work, because it was a bad idea to butcher a hog that had lain all day without having the blood properly drained. It probably would have been frozen anyway.
Sorry, I’m obsessing here. But you get my point. If you don’t know about butchering hogs or setting fence posts, find out. Do the research.
And there’s no longer any excuse not to. Twenty years ago, if I wanted to find out how to butcher a hog, I’d have to go to the library and spend hours chasing down some out of date book that sort of explained the process. If the library didn’t own the book, I’d have to order it and wait for it to come in. Meanwhile, I’d be tempted to resort to guessing so I could just get on with my writing.
Not so today. When I was writing Unclaimed Legacy, I suddenly realized I needed to know how Frances would have cooked meals in 1870. Would she have used an open fireplace, or did they have stoves by then? After a quick Google search, I found out that by that time everyone, even in remote areas, was using a cast iron cook stove. I found more interesting stuff about cook stoves than I could use in the story, but I had a clear picture in my head as I wrote.
And I found out about the kind of corn planter Reuben would have used. And the type of writing
instrument Sergeant Ordway would have used to write that letter to his parents. And I found out about Lewis and Clark’s four foolish privates who were ordered to build a cabin for the washer woman. And there was the snippet of information about the origin of jelly beans, and…Well, you get the idea.
Actually, the research was half the fun of writing Time and Again and Unclaimed Legacy. And now, before I even begin writing book three, I’m spending time doing my homework. This time, I need to know about slavery in southern Illinois. What were the laws and how did people circumvent them? Where and how did “servants” live? What was it like then? (Oh, no, I’m starting to dream about having a WABAC machine again!)
I’ve learned a few things, since I was four, about the hard work of writing. I’m still earnest about my “scribbling.” I want to get it right so that when you read it you won’t get jolted out of the past and into today. I’m polite like that.It would be so nice of you to share!