The Excitement (and Commitment) of Novel Research

Michelle Ule

Blogger: Michelle Ule, substituting for Rachelle Gardner who is on the road today

(Note: Some readers will think all the Books & Such Agents are fanning out across America to clean house as per the April 1 post. Joke! The rest of us are working.)

I’ve just finished writing a complex historical novel that required an immense amount of research.

It took 15 months to complete and involved marquee characters, historical figures, events in Paris, London and Cairo; ship sailings, travel negotiations, costumes and a war.

It was exciting. I learned a great deal. (My husband is tired of the subject).

Researching and writing an historical novel takes a great deal of personal commitment. Here are 10 things I did to get the research I needed done.

1. I wrote the synopsis of the story first.

research

Only some of the books I read!

Because of the complexity of my subject, I needed to understand WHAT I needed to learn before I began.

Having the synopsis provided me with a framework for what I was going to have to research and made me be creative as to HOW to research.

2. I read like a fiend, everything remotely connected to my novel’s subjects.

I started at my local library’s catalog. I read through Amazon’s suggestions on the subjects. I examined  lists of book suggestions on Goodreads.

I’m not sure how many books I read or checked out of the library. I had to follow timelines and so I read biographies and memoirs as well as simple subjects.

25,000 books have been written on just one facet of my story in the last 100 years. (I did NOT read them all!)

I read fiction as well as biographies, memoirs, history books and several medical studies.

3. I wore out my welcome on Google (joke)

Because this was not a subject area I specialized in, I googled like mad.

I estimate for nearly every one of the 407 pages of my novel, I must have googled at least four or five items.

I had to have the facts right.

4. I joined Internet groups related to my subjects.

I get posts from several Facebook groups daily. One group sends at least two photos and an article every single day.

I’ve read them all.

5. I set up a folder in my email for everything I read.

For everything I read online remotely connected to my story, I emailed the link to myself and put it in the folder I just called “Egypt.” It has 150 emails in it right now.

Since I did a lot of browsing while on my ipad, I just sent those links over. Some I used, some I did not.

6. I set up Pinterest Boards

I’d not done anything with Pinterest before, but when I started hunting for fashion ideas, I realized photos for my other subjects also could be found there.

I’ve got over 2000 repins now and six boards on my subjects. They helped me keep track of what things looked like that I needed to know.

7. I watched movies.

The BBC did a 27-part series on my subject (haven’t watched it all, yet!) My marquee character’s daughter did a five-part series of interviews about him.

I watched every movie in our public library remotely connected to all the subjects. (See why my husband tired of the subject? Fortunately, he loves Lawrence of Arabia.)

8. I traveled.

I’ve traveled five times to London and thrice to Paris, so I wasn’t worried about understanding that setting. Note: Some of these trips occurred outside the range of when I researched the story, but during my research, the aforementioned long-suffering husband had a business trip to England, so I went along and added Paris.  (It was a business expense, honest! See my blog posts!).

Cairo, however, is off limits for an American tourist now; so I had to learn about it through movies, books and photos. I even ate Egyptian food!

9. I discussed my subject constantly.

I picked up a lot of information from people who didn’t even realize what they knew. Many had family stories.

I met a stranger in Glasgow–carrying a book at a train station as per our agreement–to discuss a marquee character.

We dug up more family history, and I pumped my cousin for information.

My military officer husband continually explained what was happening militarily during the time of my novel.

10. I wrote up timelines

My story was complex, and I needed to follow so much information–and had to ensure the marquee character and other historical figures were where they were supposed to be–I drew up a timeline.

I’m feeling pretty good about what I know now. (Indeed, I’ve become an authority, apparently, according to Google on one of the subjects owing to my blog post and Pinterest page.) I’m hoping the depth of that research will be recognized by those who read my novel.

If not?

I’m well-versed on the subject, understand a lot more about Europe and life than I did before, and I’m done.

Thanks be to God!

What sort of unusual research have you done and how? Click to Tweet

The excitement and commitment of historical research. Click to Tweet

Wearing out my welcome on Google. Click to Tweet

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48 Comments

  • Angela Mills says:

    This sounds right up my alley! I need to write historical fiction someday because I LOVE history. I really want to read your book after reading this.

    I am working on contemporary fiction right now, but I have some historical ideas filed away for someday. I think I’ll really enjoy the research. Now, if I could just figure out how to swing a trip to Paris :)

  • Micky Wolf says:

    Wow, Michelle, what an interesting and helpful post! How thoughtful and generous of you to provide the details of your research process. Another article to stash with my Books & Such go to resources. Thank you! :)

    I have a file of ideas with an historical basis. Nothing really developed so far, however, when the time seems right…who knows?

  • Michelle Ule Michelle Ule says:

    You’d be amazed, Angela, how loving history and reading it can provide ideas for fiction writing. I picked up quite a few ideas just from doing this research. Now to find the time to write them!

    Ah, Paris!

    • Jenny Leo says:

      In my volunteer work at our local history museum, story ideas are popping up all the time. I’ve been jotting them in a notebook. I need to become a faster writer! So many ideas, so little time…

      • Michelle Ule Michelle Ule says:

        Great scouting location! It’s so much easier to write out of what we know rather than having to figure it all out (see above!). Though, in crafting a novel, of course, who you are and what you know outside of your setting is priceless to story composition.

        Best wishes!

  • Loved reading this, Michelle! You did some extensive research! I loved reading your process and all that you compiled in the process. It makes me want to read you book. :)

    Since I write contemporary, I haven’t had to do quite that amount of research. Though I have spent hours researching certain occupations, ball room dancing and how to lay a wood floor. :)

    Thanks for sharing all that’s available for research!

  • I write science fiction romance, and came to it from historical. Research is one of the things I love!

    For one of my SFR’s it’s set in a fictional town based on Steamboat Springs. I’ve got a ton of stuff saved, bookmarked, and collected about modern day Steamboat Springs. I’m constantly pausing to look at street maps, find restaurant lists, scour Google Earth and maps street view to look at trees and intersections.

    For my other project the scope is so big I have a timeline, divided by character, written out and taped to the wall above my desk. My family thinks I’m nuts, but it saves me time every time I sit down to write.

  • Michelle Ule Michelle Ule says:

    Absolutely, Rachel. I’ve taken to using houses my family lives in as background setting so I don’t have to do THAT much extra research.

    Great idea to use a real place for background, even if the genre is SFR.

    You know, after my husband built submarines in the shipyard, I can’t watch Star Trek, the first movie, anymore. I know how hard it is to build a submarine on land, the complexity of putting together the Starship Enterprise has got to be harder. :-(

    I’ve been told the Scrivener program can help with book writing by including a spot to easily access your research, but I haven’t tried it yet.

  • Colleen says:

    Great ideas, Michelle! I spent time in Venice’s state archive reading Inquisition records, which was great in giving me an idea of the cost of religious belief. For me, it was more of a challenge to learn the mundane details of life–what people wore, ate, what their homes were like, etc. I found clues in paintings from my historical time and place.

  • Michelle Ule Michelle Ule says:

    Wow, Colleen, parla italiana? As a genealogist, I’ve spent plenty of hours looking through microfilm and trying to decipher handwriting. I told my husband I quit when the family jumped the Atlantic because I couldn’t read my current Italian family’s handwriting, much less 150 years ago!

    Great idea to use the paintings. I love to inspect the details of great art to catch a glimpse of normal life during those times. (I tell the children to watch for the dogs . . . )

  • Jim Lupis says:

    Thanks for the information, Michelle. I’m just putting the pieces together on a historical novel and it seems the reseach is just as adventurous as the story!

  • I admire you for taking that on, Michelle. What a daunting task, but clearly you were the right person to write that story!

    • Michelle Ule Michelle Ule says:

      One day I’ll write about this project, Steph. The Lord led in incredible ways . . . all the way up to nearly the end.

  • Lori says:

    Wow!! You are now an expert on World War I. I’m sure your new novel will be exciting and I look forward to reading it.

    I am going to France this Summer for 12 days. I will be in Chartres for about a week and Paris for four days. Any recommendations? Already have hotels and some tours planned (no I am not doing the WWI or Normandy tours and do not plan to). This will be my first time in France.

  • I’m so impressed, Michelle. You put in a tremendous amount of effort for your novel. I didn’t think of Pinterest or Facebook groups to research my WIP, but that’s an excellent idea.

    One thing I find is that the Internet only takes you so far. My hubby insists libraries are outdated and unnecessary, but I can’t tell you how much I rely on them when writing. Just today I picked up three books. Like you, I don’t read everything I borrow; though I recently listened to Navigating Early by Clare Vanderpool on CD because my main character attends a boarding school and I want to get a feel for that. I also watch documentaries or movies.

    Thanks for the new ideas. I’m going to put them to good use.

  • Hello, Michelle! Wow!! Thank you for sharing all you’ve endured. It’s been a blessing to catch a glimpse of it all.

    I’ve been working on a middle grade fiction … and I had to do a little research on things like – possums and a Great Horned Owl! I googled … used Wikipedia mostly accompanied by our unique experiences of country life!

    • Oh, and chickens!! Ha! Can’t leave that out!

      • Michelle Ule Michelle Ule says:

        The handiest way to do your type of research, Shelli, is with the appropriately-aged children in the household!

        And if you need help, I’m the granddaughter of a chicken rancher and I have a friend whose chickens visit regularly to clear the yard of bugs!

  • Way to go, Michelle!

    I loved learning about your research process! You made me excited to read your book!

  • Lori Benton says:

    I saw the last ten years of my life flash before my eyes, reading this post. Except for the traveling to Europe part.

    There is always a season in the researching and writing of each historical novel that I swear I’m never going to do it again, because it’s so overwhelming, the amount of material that has to be learned (thinking of that iceberg analogy). Then I push through it, finish the novel, and forget I ever thought that. Until it happens again.

    • Michelle Ule Michelle Ule says:

      Often the challenge becomes knowing when to stop the research and do the writing. Your Burning Sky shows lots of depth because of all your research, Lori.

  • I LOVED the research that I did for my historical fiction series.
    Shall I bullet things?
    -I have 22 books I used for my research, and I’ve read most of them…and cried through most of them.
    -I’ve been to Bosque Redondo twice, and only climbed the fence and enter the property…freelance…once. On my second visit, I went with a Navajo man whose grandfather was a prisoner there, as a child. VERY heartbreaking.
    -I’ve been to Canyon de Chelly, where hundreds of Navajo were trapped and captured.

    To see, feel, smell and cry where my story takes place is a blessing I never knew possible. I know I’m blessed to have the experiences to translate into stories, but it’s also a reminder to get things exactly right. Because when writing on a historical event, accuracy and a level of knowledge that borders on that of a historian, are offerings to the descendants of those who suffered.

  • Michelle Ule Michelle Ule says:

    You’re correct, Jennifer. When you’re writing about real people, it’s important to ensure the families can accept what you’ve written. It shows respect for their story, if nothing else.

  • Elaine Manders says:

    Oh I love historical research, reading the books, immersing myself in the time period. Most of what I learn never makes it into my writing, but I hope I’ve learned enough to cover authenticity.

  • Bravo, Michelle!

    The details really do make the difference, and getting them wrong cripples the story.

    True in nonfiction, as well, and it’s important to verify some source material. A recent book covering an important event during WW2 had numerous detail mistakes, some of which were so basic that they called the veracity of the rest of the author’s research into question.

    I think that a writer really has to be an expert in the field to begin with – for either historical nonfiction or fiction. But I guess that’s…uh…what’s the word…

    Platform?

    • Michelle Ule Michelle Ule says:

      “They” tell me platform is not so profound in fiction as it is absolutely necessary in non-fiction.

      I suppose being an expert in my subject area would help, that certainly would have shortened the amazing amount of time I’ve spent reading and “catching up,” but it also means I came at some of the information as cold as my readers will.

      The reason being accurate for me is so important is I can give an author some leeway on one error, maybe two, but beyond that I start to doubt how thoroughly they understand the topic and I don’t trust them anymore.

      I want to be trustworthy!

      • You are trustworthy. Personally, having followed your descriptions of the extents to which you’ve gone in research, I have complete confidence in your veracity.

        Coming to the subject matter as cold as most readers will is an interesting point. It’s a process of discovery that you share, and that can give a freshness to your work that can be lacking in the pen of the expert.

        One interesting aspect of research is how wrong the ‘experts’ can be. Walter Lord was long considered the doyen of historians on WW2′s battle of Midway – yet his analysis, based on original American and translated Japanese source material, was fundamentally flawed in that he repeated misconceptions (and outright fabrications) from those sources.

        Parshall and Tully’s “Shattered Sword”, published in 2005, paints a convincing picture of how much in error previous historians had been, and how easy it was to fall into those traps.

  • Sue Harrison says:

    I love the enthusiasm in your post, Michelle! I think there are few things in life as exiting as researching an historical novel, and some of the most exciting journeys I have ever undertaken were to complete necessary research for one of my novels.

    One of our “classic” stories about research for my Alaska books took place when my husband and I traveled to the Pribilof Islands in the Bering Sea. When we boarded the 2-prop plane, they handed each of us a life jacket. (Somehow that’s just not reassuring!) My husband,a pilot, knows how to claim me during daring flights, so we were good during the journey, but after we landed and disembarked, (just a landing strip, no airport) everyone else took off in pickups or four-wheelers. It was October and a good wind was clipping across the island so we dug into our luggage and got into our survival gear to await whomever was supposed to pick us up. My husband looked out across the Bering Sea and said to me, “Why couldn’t you set your novels in Hawa’ii!”

    • Michelle Ule Michelle Ule says:

      As it happens, Sue, my daughter and I were in Hawai’i last week and when we went to church, our former pastor greeted me with a hug and a question: “Are you here on research?” :-)

      I do have a couple Hawai’i stories in my back pocket . . .

  • I’ve always admired historical fiction writers. The amount of research involved intimidates me. In lesser volumes though, I do find studying new things one of the most enjoyable parts of writing. I hope I get a chance to read your novel. It sounds like it’s going to be good, and obviously well researched. :)

  • Cool post, Michelle. I write historical romance set in Alaska, so I’ve done a lot of research about that part of the world. There are so many great stories to be discovered in research! :-)

    • Michelle Ule Michelle Ule says:

      Very nice, Lynn. I think there’s something to be said about visiting the place where your story takes place. I wrote a novella last Christmas, The Gold Rush Christmas, that takes place in 1897 Skagway.

      I relied on my memories and photos from a trip we took on the Alaskan ferry many years ago. (Plus tons of research, of course) Having been there, I remembered the looming mountains and how isolated we felt. That was even more true in 1897, for sure.

      Best wishes and thanks to all for your comments!

  • Kristen Joy Wilks says:

    That must have been wonderful to travel to some of your locations. Sadly, like your Egypt dilemma, my location is Iraq…even if I had the money it is not quite the place for American tourists yet. Although I did interview a friend who was stationed there. So much amazing information comes through research. Even if my story never sees print, I am glad for the decade that I have lived it and learned it and loved it. Good times.

    • Michelle Ule Michelle Ule says:

      I have a story in my files set in Iran. I’ve watched independent films made in Iran, read all sorts of books about it, and interviewed people who’ve lived there.

      My husband refers to it as “the Iranian prison story,” and can’t imagine why I want to write it.

      Iraq, I’d think, might be easier because so many Americans have been stationed there in the last twenty years. Maybe even Andrew above.

      Best wishes with your story and I’m thankful for what you’ve learned and loved in writing it.

      • Iran’s a tough one, because that lovely, benighted country is really torn by a dichotomy of love and hate for the West.

        The radicalization that took place after the 1979 revolution, and the disillusionment which followed, left such profound scars on the soul of the people that that a delicately balanced and nuanced portrayal of Iranians is vital for a story that stays true to the situation.

        I think you’re the one to do it, Michelle. I would love to have the honor of being a beta reader.

  • Michelle Ule Michelle Ule says:

    LOL, I’ll keep you in mind, Andrew, if anything ever comes of it . . .

  • Historical research is so fascinating!

    I once wrote a short story centering around Pearl Harbour. I needed itty-bitty details correct for the sake of the story. I can’t believe how much research I did for a 2K word story.

    Are you considering another book set in the era you researched?

    I researched another time period, and that gave me enough material for several historical romances. Then again, the level of detail probably doesn’t need to be as intense as your novel.

  • Michelle Ule Michelle Ule says:

    Thanks for your questions, Heidi–

    I turned up some interesting information in the course of writing my project which might make for another novel or two. It certainly makes sense to write more given the amount of time I’ve already invested!

    The answer: we’ll see. :-)

    And yes, on Pearl Harbor–there are SO many experts, you have to get all the facts dead-on correct.

  • Admittedly, I don’t enjoy research. So much so that I had to call it writing (including counting the word count) and assign myself two tasks a day so I would make sure I did enough. It doesn’t help that the details that research makes up are a very weak area for me — I enjoy the bigger stories, but not picking out details like what kind of needle a character would use to sew (from a workshop A.C. Crispin was at a year before she passed on).

  • Michelle Ule Michelle Ule says:

    Interesting comment, Linda.

    If you’re writing what you know well, detailed research might not be important. For example, the (unpublished) novel I wrote about being a Navy wife required no research beyond my memory.

    An you’re absolutely correct that some details are so tiny, who cares? OTOH, I spoke with a viola player friend the other day about a current project and she talked about whether or not the strings would be steel or catgut, then laughed, “Who would really care but me?”

    Exactly. Which is why I asked her. :-)

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