While writing my last manuscript, I trawled the web for books to help me with my research, as all good historical fictions writers must do to be taken seriously. Research is key to making a period come alive—to give your story authenticity and to draw the reader into a world they haven’t experienced before. For quite some time, and I confess—with no clear plan for a story when it begins; instead of searching the catalogues of my local library (which is a very good one as it happens), I immerse myself in the world of online antiquarian book shopping.
It is as surprising for me as it is for you. I’m not shopping for clothes and shoes and handbags anymore, or new bed linen or overseas holidays! Although I confess, I’m drawn to those pages as well. Instead I find myself scanning lists of books from antiquarian bookstores around the globe…so far I’ve purchased books and essays from at least four countries. And they keep arriving on my doorstep…
My lack of discipline when it comes to retail shopping appears to have reared its ugly head. But gone are the days when I wandered the shiny polished floors of major shopping centres, or eagerly perused the eclectic mix of artisan boutiques in Fitzroy. Those days are well behind me. It wasn’t a conscious decision, but I’ve kicked the retail-junkie habit of my younger years. Now, I’m far more interested in writing and reading than shopping. In fact, I hardly ever window shop and rarely set foot inside a shopfront. Those who know me well would see this as blasphemy— I worked for years in retail and loved shopping. I confess it was a favourite hobby of mine. For decades, I was always the one who knew exactly where to go to find things!
Now, just like the dress I had to have or identical shoes in two colour ways that fit so well they were essentials; my new, old books are a must have in my wardrobe. Instead of clothing racks squished tight with garments in several sizes, I have overflowing shelves of books, covering a vast range of subjects. While some of them offer a tiny iota of a relationship to my manuscripts, at other times the content has not touched my work at all. No word—not a mention. Sometimes, once the book I have ordered finally arrives, by boat (or carrier pigeon), I find it’s of no longer of use to my research.
Perhaps I had begun a search for one particular person, place or thing, which led me to another. Or I was on a path of interest when my order was placed, which now bears no resemblance to the story I am currently writing. Or the theme, or the thread of an idea has completely changed direction. Some books are flicked through and then shelved almost immediately— the idea that I began with, has not worked in the current storyline, or by the time the book arrives I’ve forgotten the train of thought that put me on the track in the first place!
A few of the books I’ve picked up have been absolute gems; others I’ve purchased solely because the covers were pretty or the subjects were too interesting to be forgotten. Some I’ve put aside for a rainy day. Ultimately, the field of research has to ‘click’ with me, to interest me so that I can engage a reader without just sprouting what I’ve learned. And believe me, when you find something so interesting that you want to write about it, and you are excited to keep sitting at your desk each day to churn through and get the draft out…it’s very hard not to repeat just how much you’ve learned about a particular subject on the pages!
These are many things I’ve discovered about this writing path I’ve chosen. Each day I learn through doing; finding a way to make things harder or simpler, longer or faster. At the moment, I’m keen to find a better way for to me do my research. But it’s hard not to be caught up in history—it’s like magic, invoking the feeling and excitement of a new subject, a new cast of characters and the prospect of a new world on the page. It’s particularly interesting too; if it’s set somewhere I haven’t travelled to as yet.
For 2020, my goal is to find a way to research more efficiently. More productively. I can spend days going off on a tangent, sourcing people, places and titbits of information that might never appear in a scene, or add any value to my work.
But the most fulfilling part of research is when I find that tiny acorn somewhere in my reading—when I find the place where the research sprouts and then my story grows and extends and flows once again. That’s when the crowded shelves of musty books with faded coverslips and embossed letters, really prove what investments they are to me.
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