Céline asked me to do my next writing craft post on research. A welcome suggestion as research is one of my favorite parts of writing historical fiction. As with many facets of writing–plotting, character development, drafting–i do my research in layers. Often it’s a piece of research from an earlier book that gives me the original idea for a book. My fascination with the Congress of Vienna. My research into Waterloo and the White Terror for the backstory of various books (and the central plot of Shores of Desire). An intriguing historical character like Wilhelmine of Sagan or Dorothée Talleyrand. As I plot the book, I need to do more research, and that research in turn inspires plot developments. A duel between Dorothée Talleyrand’s husband and lover became an important sequence in The Paris Affair. One of the early things I do is make a timeline of historical events for the period of my book (Scrivener makes it easy to keep the timeline and other notes handy0. Then I can layer my fictional events in with the real ones as I plot.
When I’m writing the first draft, I do more specific research, particularly into settings. For instance, with Vienna Waltz I knew enough about the Carrousel to know it would be central episode in the book, but I didn’t research it in depth until I was writing those scenes.
With later revisions, as now with The Paris Affairohv , there are details to check like whether or not there were benches in the Luxembourg Gardens in 1815 (which resulted. after inconclusive hours, in me having the characters sit on the ground).
I like to use primary sources–letters and diaries and other accounts by people who were actually observers of or participants in the events I’m writing about. I used to spend a lot of time at the Stanford and University of California, Berkeley, libraries. i still use those libraries, but I can find more and more on the internet now. A lot of the books I used to check out are now available through Google Books (mostly free because they’re in the public domain), so I have a research library I can carry with me. And I can highlight and type notes in the books. much easier to decipher than my handwritten scribbles. Some details that don’t make it into a book end up in the Fraser Correspondence as in the letter i just posted where Mélanie/Suzanne writes to Simon about a military review.
I also gather up nonfiction books by contemporary authors about the events I’m researching. Then there are some resources I return to again and again like my Oxford English Dictionary with historical usage examples, so I can see when a word came into use and how it was used. even though I’ve been writing in the same era for all of my writing career, there are always new things to learn. which is one of the challenges–and one of the delights.
Research is one of my favorite things to talk about so do ask any questions you have. Writers, how do you balance research and writing?
Photo: Raphael Coffey Photography