Saturday, July 20, 2013

Reading as Research

Research is not a dirty word to those of us who love history and write historical fiction. While research often involves looking up dates, facts, figures, newspaper advertisements, and fashions, one of the best means of discovering information from the past is simply to read nonfiction books on the subject and/or time period.

There are two reasons reading another author's work helps your research. First, it saves you a ton of work. If someone else has already done so much digging into the past that they are willing to publish what they found, then why not look at what they discovered and see if it fits your purpose? Of course, you will cite their work as a reference. And yes, many publishers of fiction now include a list of references. If yours does not, keep a bibliography pertaining to your story anyway. You never know when you may need to refresh your memory, especially if you speak in public.
Second, a decent book puts you there, immerses your mindset into the time and place, stimulating your imagination to see your characters walking those streets and living through those events. But most of all, reading such a book gives you the context.  For example, I just finished American Tempest, a dissertation on the events and personalities involved in the Boston Tea Party. Starting as far back as the 1750s, the author lays out the events and conditions that combined and contributed to growing discontent--and ever-present greed--on both sides of the Pond which led to the bloody severing of America's ties to Great Britain. Not only was it well-written and documented, the narrative flowed. I actually couldn't wait to pick up where I'd left off. By the end of the book I was riding the rushing river of fomenting war. I felt the conflicting emotions John Adams struggled with, and the gut-wrenching fear John Hancock must have experienced with the dawning realization that the Sons of Liberty hit the point of no return. I have a better understanding of just how bold and terrifying the entire notion of independence was to these men, as well as the farmers, shopkeepers, and average folks scattered throughout the Thirteen Colonies. After all, the Mother Country had been fairly lenient with America, had no standing army present to oppress the people, and only proposed to tax them to help defray the costs of the French and Indian War. At least, that's how most people in Great Britain saw it. But strong-minded personalities on both sides were determined to have the upper hand and refused to negotiate. The result exploded into a new nation.

Why can't the powers that be allow teachers to present history this way? Instead of dull timelines of names with events, they should dive into the context of what else was going on to understand why Ben Franklin was highly regarded in some circles and abhorred in others.

Now the trick is to share some of that information with my own work's readers without lecturing--or "letting your research show.". The beauty of fiction is that I can have one or more of my characters meet the real historical figures and interact with them to illustrate what I've learned. No, I won't burden them with every detail; simply enough to let them feel the indignation rise when Parliament decided British soldiers would be housed in private homes, fed at the homeowner's expense, hired in place of locals and paid a higher wage. But I'll also have a character or two take umbrage at the acts of terror the Sons of Liberty employed that incensed the Crown so much.

My recent trip to Boston afforded me with sights, smells, and a good idea of how long it takes to walk from Braintree (what is now Quincy) to where Samuel Adams roused the crowd at Faneuil Hall. I have one more tome to read about the tribulations of the Blockade of Boston: Bunker Hill-- A City, A Siege, A Revolution by Nathaniel Philbrick.

My goal is to have a reader say, "Whoa, I never knew that" --and of course, "That was awesome!" --after they finish one of my books.

I can hardly wait to begin writing--especially when my protagonist's story is based in truth.


P.S. I was absolutely stunned to learn Paul Revere was all of eighteen years old at the time of the Boston Tea Party--and already established as a silversmith and engraver. Whoa...

Jude Johnson
Author of:

Dragon & Hawk Trilogy, Within The Mists, Save the Last Dance Trilogy

"The Well-Rounded Woman": Seven Dress Sizes
Cactus Cymry(Nonfiction)


Big Mike said...

I do something similar by visiting the locale that forms the backdrop for my novel. Loved the trip to Outer Banks for my book RIGHTEOUS FURY, and you're spot on, you learn so many things that are new about history and an area.

Ref the actual TP, I've pondered if the stock of spirit today for liberty and freedom is the say as back then.

BTW - did you know Paul was a terrible silversmith. He got a contract through nepotism to do several sets of plates for coin and they were so bad the engraving didn't last for squat.

Michael Davis (
Author of the Year (2008 and 2009)
Award of Excellence (2012)

Julie Eberhart Painter said...

Poor pitiful Paul. He got one this right!

Good post, Jude. If history were taught by people like you it would come alive.

Jude Johnson said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jude Johnson said...

HA HA HA Poor Paul, indeed! Then again, maybe he got better at it with age, as many of us try to do. ;-)

And thank you, Julie. Seems to me the real blood-and-guts stories of these guys are far more captivating that the whitewashed hero worship we were fed in school. I have more respect for Washington's accomplishments now that I know how many times he made monumental screw-ups.

*I highly dislike how Blogger doesn't let you edit your comments once they're posted.