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RESEARCH FOR DUMMIES

Let me begin by admitting that I hate research. 

I’m going to follow that statement up by confessing that I desperately want to write a historical. I love westerns. More specifically, little prairie romances. Not westerns ala Louis Lamour or Larry McMurtry, although I’ve read some. More like Sarah Plain and Tall and Love Comes Softly. I go all giddy inside when a new western movie comes out in the theaters, even if it is Cowboys and Aliens. I loved The Missing, 3:10 to Yuma, and Appaloosa, despite their obvious lack of romance. 

I’m not sure why I have this passion for the old west. I’ve always loved antiques. I daydream about a simple prairie life while I clutch my Droid in one hand and my DVR remote in the other. I love electricity, online shopping, and my Subaru with its heated leather seats and sunroof. I want my cheese to be orange, my butter to be yellow, and damn it, eggs are meant to be white. And still I long to be swept away to a sleepy little town or a quiet log cabin where I can bake bread from scratch in a temperamental, inefficient wood burning stove. And then scrape the burnt parts off into my dry sink. What is a dry sink, anyhow? Why is it dry? It’s a sink. Okay, clearly I’m delusional about the reality of living in the old west. 

What’s stopping me from writing the great American western romance saga? Research. I’m terrified of “getting it wrong”. 

I suppose I could be ambiguous about the exact year of my tale. I could have the story take place in a fictional town (or in outer-space—right?). I could dance around the details and be sketchy with my setting. But I want to take the reader back in time and immerse them in the world of my story. 

We’ve already established that I hate research. I’m also very busy with a fulltime job, other writing projects, and a family. Okay, I’m lazy too.  So where does the lazy writer begin? My plan: basically I’m going to rely on the knowledge of others. 

Online classes: I took Gamblers & Lightskirts (a.k.a. prostitutes) as well as Pioneering Women, both through the Hearts Through History RWA. I’ll be honest. I wasn’t a great student. I participated very little, but have reams of lessons I placed in a three-ring-binder for future reference. 

Reading the genre: I figure I’ll accidentally absorb some facts if I read enough westerns. I was going to include some books I’d read recently, but wasn’t wowed by any of them. Not many facts to absorb. They were sort of the type of books I’m trying “not” to write. 

Reference books: I don’t have many. The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Costume and Fashion, Victorian Treasures, and We Americans, a National Geographic Society book. The thing I like most about these books—they have lots of pictures with captions. 

TV: I know I refer to my Tivo/DVR often and with great affection and I offer no apologies. I can search for topics with keywords and my Tivo will search and sort. If I’m writing about ghosts, I can record hours of ghost hunters and chasers. Curious about zombies, vampires or werewolves, I just put them on my to-do list. One of my favorite historical research shows was Wild West Tech where they tackle anything from guns to prostitution. I loved the HBO show Deadwood, and I now have the AMC series Hell on Wheels on my DVR.  

Movies: I’m not convinced that Hollywood gets the facts right, but I love to watch westerns over and over. Some of my favorites that I didn’t mention previously are Heartland, Last of the Mohicans, Quigley Down Under, Cold Mountain, Ride with the Devil, and Silverado. I could go on. Okay, I will. I loved Robert Duvall in Broken Trail, Open Range, and Lonesome Dove (even though he played basically the same character). I can’t forget Sam Elliott in The Quick and the Dead, Conagher, and the Sackett saga movies. I won’t leave out John Wayne in True Grit, The Searchers, and The Cowboys just to name a few.  

The Internet: To fill in the cracks of my story, there is always the Internet. I love to Google, but rarely find what I’m looking for. I love to say the word Google.  

Have I set myself up for failure? Do you have any advice for the busy or the lazy? And if you find any “irregularities” in my blog, it’s probably because I didn’t do my research.

48 responses to “RESEARCH FOR DUMMIES”

  1. Hi, Kelly! I love your lazy girl’s guide to research. TV, novels and the Net are great jumping-off points for historical research.

    I watch TV all day for my day job. This has actually expanded my general knowledge! Though, my job demands stringent fact-checking, so that habit carries over into my writing. I do think we need to be careful with Net research. You’ll find some sites simply lift inaccurate info from other sites, and before you know it, people take that info as gospel because it’s found across several sites.

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    • Kelly Fitzpatrick says:

      How can I get a job watching TV all day? And don’t worry, I can’t find anything I’m looking for on the internet anyhow. I get distracted by things I’m not looking for.

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  2. What Vanessa said is so true. You can’t even rely on other author’s books for info because they sometimes aren’t diligent in checking their facts. My suggestion is to write the book exactly how you plan to. Then let someone who is really knowledgeable on the subject read it and someone who is totally clueless. They’ll question different aspects of your story and historical elements.

    Also, if you’re researching something you love, it isn’t so bad. But, in general, I hate research too!

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    • Kelly Fitzpatrick says:

      I have been gobbling up other peoples westerns and I have found some that seem to be historically accurate (to me- you know, “sounds good to me”), but the story is nothing to get excited about. Or I’ve read some that are good stories, but could pretty much be contemporary stories except for a few historical details tossed in the mix. And how accurate can we be? The old west was dirty and gritty and hard. Romance readers don’t want to hear that.

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  3. Diana Layne says:

    Oh! I love research! And westerns! I have a lot of books, but in this area the library is a big help. They seem to always have a lot of historical research books, plus reading biographies of the day are great too. Take the leap! (now I know who to ask to read my western WIP, lol)

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  4. Kelly,
    I’m on the complete other side of the fence. I LOVE research. I love how a small fact can fire my imagination and set the tone for a scene. I love how the different textures and pace of life in another time gives me the opportunity to illuminate the similarities in our human condition. But mostly, I love the clothes!

    What I would do is start the way you have, with rich visual images from movies, and then once you have what I would call an ‘inventory’ of those images in your brain, expand them into art of the period. Seek out images of both scenes and people, because what that can do is give you a visual image to spark your imagination, as well as some insight into how that particular artist saw his world.

    For an example look at images of Winslow Homer’s work at the English Fishing Village of Cullercoats in the 1880’s.

    http://www.cullercoats.pwp.blueyonder.co.uk/org/homer.html

    Homer gives us visually rich vignettes of fisherfolk’s lives. Now you may have no interest in English fishing villages, but there are plenty of artists working all over the American west who may provide you with images that will give you visual facts, insight into the time, and a great spark to your imagination.

    Good luck!

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  5. Elisa Beatty says:

    Ah, yes, research….I do love doing it, but I share the fear of being wrong on some little detail (what? pantaloons didn’t have back laces until June of 1812? My heroine can’t make strawberry preserves in spring of 1802 because of a failed strawberry harvest in Dorset? Who knew? [I made those things up, actually.])

    I have to say, as a reader, I’m not that fussy about tiny things like that. I want a great story, and as long as some HUGE cultural detail isn’t screwed up (like having an earl’s family enthusiastically encouraging him to marry the scullery maid) I’m willing to take little errors with a grain of salt.

    Maybe, though, you can have the best of both worlds by writing a steampunk western. That would be so cool! You could combine what you know of the real west with a bit of world-building of your own, and not have to worry so much about what “really” happened. (Also, I would really, really enjoy a steampunk western. ).

    My other suggestion: check out Lorraine Heath’s early books. She wrote some gentler Westerns that were absolutely fabulous (and I so wish she still wrote in that genre). Tbey felt very grounded and real and “lived,” but weren’t obsessively focused on historical detail. Really wonderful books! (Start with Sweet Lullaby.)

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    • Ooh, Elisa, great suggestion. I had forgotten about Lorraine’s earlier books. (Running to the bookshelf and digging in the back!) Now I can go re-read them! Thanks for this suggestion. 🙂

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    • Kelly Fitzpatrick says:

      See now that’s what I’m terrified of, mentioning an item that has not been invented yet or making a reference or quote that wasn’t around until the next year or decade. I had a friend who wrote a western, which was not her usual genre, and when I asked how she did the research – she said she just made it up. ****Inner scream****

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      • Elisa Beatty says:

        That reminds me…there’s a great little reference book (actually a great ENORMOUS reference book) called TIMELINES OF HISTORY (or something very similar to that) that goes year by year and mentions innovations in various realms: science, technology, politics, art, culture.

        You can read through ten years worth in half an hour, but it really helps get a sense of what existed and what didn’t.

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  6. Oh, I love SOOOO many of the movies you mentioned. I can just hear the music to Lonesome Dove and I start bawling. Sadly, I’m not kidding. And I remember as a kid seeing The Cowboys. What an amazing film! Such character growth.

    I think you rock for being careful and wanting to get the research perfect. I love research, but there are only so many hours in the day. When I wrote a regency-set historical romance, I researched for six months. Peerage is a b*#@!

    I hope you write that puppy, Kelly. With your voice, I think you could write a masterpiece.

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    • liz talley says:

      Oh, I forgot about The Cowboys. We just let our boys see that one for the first time this year.

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    • Kelly Fitzpatrick says:

      6 months! In a way, I guess I’ve been studying all my life to write a western. I’m really not sure if my voice would be right for historicals and have been grappling with “just because you like to read ’em doesn’t mean you should write ’em” notion.

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      • Hahaha!!! I might should take that advice myself. If I like it, I want to write it! I get very excited! Then I realize I have no idea what I’m talking about. Sigh…

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  7. liz talley says:

    I love Westerns and I’m patiently awaiting their comeback…so get busy, sister!

    I enjoy research and I suscribe to your philosophy of doing lazy research. I watched all five seasons of Friday Night Lights this summer while I wrote my football book, and Law and Order and Cold Case were favorites when I tried my hand at my undercover nanny book. Currently, my heroine is a biologist with Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries, so I’m researching whooping cranes and wetlands. I’m a veritable font of info, much to my family’s chagrin.

    One of my favorite movies is Lonesome Dove. I do love Robert Duvall in that one 🙂

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    • Kelly Fitzpatrick says:

      Liz, sometimes I think we are twins separated at birth (probably in different decades, to different parents, in different time zones) until you start talking about football and wetlands. But we both like westerns and that’s all that matters.

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  8. You should see if there are any on-line renactment groups who would be willing to act as a sounding board for your questions. They are passionate about research and could be a huge resource for you in getting the facts right.

    (I belong to an online group for Regency historians and, man, will they set you straight if you get something wrong. And they’re a great resource if you want to know, say, a likely street in London for a solicitor’s office. They’re amaaaazing!)

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    • Oh… my advice on *writing* the book? Just write it. THEN check facts. Don’t let the facts stop you from writing it. Just pound out that first draft, but put markers in to remind you to check a fact when it pops up in your imagination. You can always go back in and add in that info later.

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      • Oh, I love that advice! 🙂

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      • Kelly Fitzpatrick says:

        That’s a good idea, Eileen. I’m famous for stopping when I trip over a fact and then never restart.

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        • Of course… I rarely take this advice. 😉

          I tend to pop over to Google and start figuring out what new books I’ll need, how long it’ll take me to read them, and then I’m off on a wild goose chase for info I didn’t need in the first place.

          Happens far too often for the good of my ms.

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  9. I’ve always loved (LOVED!) reading historicals, and my friends tell me to write one… but, yep, I’m too lazy to research them. My inclination is toward medieval times. Maybe one day…

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  10. Read non-fiction! Sure, non-fic writers get it wrong, too, but I think … no, I don’t mean “wrong,” except sometimes I do. What I really mean is even the most well-meaning and diligent researchers can only present a point of view. They can only present what’s known, or what’s been recorded. History is written by the victors, right? Historians can extrapolate or imagine details that are missing, but that’s where the “wrong” thing comes into play. At least, that’s where differences of opinion arise. A good historical non-fiction writer will attempt to fill in the blanks, in my opinion, in order to present a cohesive narrative, but will at least let it be known when he/she’s filling in the blanks.

    At any rate, if you read enough biographies and whatnot that take place during your era of interest, you’re bound to absorb the authenticity that you’re looking for. And I bet you’ll have a great time doing it! Just don’t think of it as “research.” Pick books that interest you, and the rest will flow naturally from your own desires.

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    • Kelly Fitzpatrick says:

      The online class I took on pioneering women focused of actual biographies of extraordinary women who came west and it was facinating. Reading the diaries and memoirs written by the women themselves in their own words is invaluable. But I wanted to know facts. What did they take, what did they eat, what did they wear, what did they do for fun? I want details dang it.

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  11. Vivi Andrews says:

    I’m lazy when it comes to research too. One of my main motivating factors for writing paranormal is that I get to make everything up and no one can tell me I’m wrong. If I have a story I think is best suited to a historical setting, I think I’d rather write it as epic fantasy and make up an entire world to fit than try to get all the details right. But I LOVE reading historicals – you’re so right that it’s all about being swept into the time period. And a Kelly Fitzpatrick historical? That sounds pretty badass.

    My favorite western (if it qualifies): Support Your Local Sheriff.

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    • Kelly Fitzpatrick says:

      That qualifies. Was it James Garner? I admire your paranormal aptitude. I’ve always been so cemented in reality. I didn’t even think I could veer from reality enough to write This Side of Dead. Maybe I could really step out of my comfort zone and write a paranormal western.

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    • Making up a whole fantasy world sounds like work, too! LOL So does coming up with boundaries for your paranormal world. I don’t think I’d call you lazy. 😉

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  12. Elisa Beatty says:

    Oh, I forgot to mention my favorite easy-does-it approach to research: read novels actually written in the time period!

    You get all kinds of info about how people talked, referred to the objects around them, spent their days, etc..

    I figure if I see a reference to a certain kind of coach or article of clothing in a Jane Austen novel, it’s perfectly fair game for a Regency.

    I also love, love, love reading journals and letters from the time period. You get such an intimate view of how people thought and lived (and broke the rules!!!) and you’re not going to get any anachronisms ’cause it’s all written RIGHT THEN.

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    • Kelly Fitzpatrick says:

      I agree. Love reading journals and diaries from the day. I’ve tried to read some novels, but the language is so…different…it’s not always easy. And shamefully, I have never read Jane. I’ve seen some of her movies though.

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  13. Rita Henuber says:

    I LOVE research. I have to be mindful of the time I spend doing it. Hollywood tends to put their own spin on how things were. Robert Duvall makes sure movies he’s in are historically correct. Guess that’s why we like them so much.
    The Cowboys. The only film John died in. Made the saying, we’re burning daylight, popular
    Great post Kelly. Thanks.

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    • Kelly Fitzpatrick says:

      I love The Cowboys, even though there is no romance. A Martinez was so dreamy as the bad boy of the bunch. Still is kind of dreamy.

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  14. I’m so glad you took today’s post, Kelly, and I’m in the love research camp—except I tend to get lost in it. So many interesting tidbits! Trying to figure out where or if I can use them makes me nuts (and Laurie is the first to assure me other people don’t find those tidbits nearly as fascinating as I do.)

    Go for the Western, Sister. Don’t trust movies for details (think Greir Garson in Pride and Prejudice!), however. Hollywood took much more license in the past, from what I can see, but I still double check everything. The bottom line is, when it comes to historical fiction, the buck stops with the writer.

    Have fun!

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  15. Late to the party, as usual, but if you’re still reading Kelly, you might check your state historical society, or the historical society in the state where you’d like to set your story. The Minnesota Historical Society has these sites with paid re-enactors that are absolutely fabulous, if you’re interested in 19th century lumber camps or early 19th century forts or. . . Some of the “cowboy states” might have similar programs. A wonderful way to learn a whole lot and have a nice vacation in the bargain.

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  16. Gillian says:

    I’m late to the party as well, but was going to say the same thing as Nancy. I’m from SE Kansas, and actually my home town has a fully restored fort, a national historic site, it’s the center of our town, and absolutely amazing. The reenactment folks along with the daily staff who run the place have mountains of information and would discuss it with you until–well, the cows came home! Maybe if you just narrow down what area of the country you want your western to be in, then find out what some of the local towns can do for you.

    And if you ever need information about Kansas, give me a shout! 🙂

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  17. Kelly Fitzpatrick says:

    Better late than never Gillian and Nancy. My little town does have a little volunteer museum and historical society. And I have a history book of the small community I live in, which started out being sort of the center of the community and then somehow faded away to being an offshoot.

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