Saturday, October 06, 2007

The 4th of each month is when I have a turn blogging at the HEA Cafe. So here's this month's musings:


Last month I blogged about “writing what you know”. This month I’m blogging about “writing what you don’t know”.

My newest novel takes place mostly aboard a British frigate during the Napoleonic Wars. My desk is now piled high with research books, some from the library and some I’ve purchased for myself. I am full of Royal Navy trivia, and yet I know going into this that there’s no group of reading fans more rabid than Royal Navy buffs (with the possible exception of US Civil War buffs). They will catch your mistakes–or what they think are your mistakes–so fast it’ll make your pixels spin.

For example, I have to figure out the date of my book. If I have it set before 1805, the warrant officer who assisted the surgeon was called the surgeon’s mate. After 1805, he’s technically the surgeon’s assistant, but no doubt most old timers still referred to him as the surgeon’s mate. So if I set my novel in 1811, do I have to have a snippet of explanation saying, “Well, yes, Mr. Expendable is the surgeon’s assistant, but of course we all still refer to him as the surgeon’s mate”?

Decisions, decisions....

This also shows one of the pitfalls of deep research. What a friend calls the “I did this research and you’re going to pay for it!” syndrome, where the author believes because she finds these tidbits fascinating, you must also find them fascinating or face her wrath!

I had to take pages and pages out of my last manuscript because I realized that while I found the story of Anna Jai Kingsley fascinating (Read Anna Madgigine Jai Kingsley–African Princess, Florida Slave, Plantation Slaveowner by Daniel L. Schafer for more), writing about her wasn’t advancing my own story and I had to stay focused on my H&H, not wander off into the delights of sharing research.

And while I’m ruminating on research, I must put in a plug for one of the most underutilized yet valuable tools a writer has, Inter-Library Loan. If there’s a book you need for research, and your local public library doesn’t have it, ILL will get it for you. From anywhere in the US where that book is in circulation. You might not get it this week, but eventually it will turn up. I wanted a copy of Roderick Random by Tobias Smollett, an 18th C. novel. Our library didn’t have it, but within two weeks it was within my hands, shipped from a library in North Carolina. ILL has given me access to many books published by the Naval Institute Press, books that if I had to buy them, even used, would quickly exhaust my budget. Plus, these are often books I don’t need to keep, I just need to see a chapter or two.

Which leads me into my next thought, The Evils of the Interweb! I’m often asked by budding young writers which websites to go to for research. The answer is, “None of them should be a primary source.” Oh, sure, it’s nice to be able to see pictures of the uniform of the U.S. Revenue Marine in 1845 at a website, but it’s much more valuable to read a comprehensive history of the Revenue Marine. Here’s the thing a lot of new writers don’t realize–when you use books for research, you learn stuff you didn’t know you needed to know. Also, books have editors. Websites do not. With a website it’s very much “Researcher beware!” Sure, books can have mistakes too, but at least someone other than the author took a look at it before it got to the presses!

So when writing what you don’t know, consider your sources: visits to historical sites, if possible, are always worthwhile. Read books. Read some more books. Then go to websites to see if there’s any tidbit or update you might have overlooked. And finally, don’t make your reader pay for your pleasure. Save your wonkiness for the next time you’re hanging with the period reinactors.

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