Stephanie Morrill is the creator of GoTeenWriters.com and the author of several young adult novels, including the historical mystery, The Lost Girl of Astor Street (Blink/HarperCollins). Despite loving cloche hats and drop-waist dresses, Stephanie would have been a terrible flapper because she can’t do the Charleston and looks awful with bobbed hair. She and her near-constant ponytail live in Kansas City with her husband and three kids. You can connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram, and sign up for free books on her author website.
Research is intimidating. Before I wrote The Lost Girl of Astor Street, I thought I would never write a historical novel, as stated here in Go Teen Writers: How To Turn Your First Draft Into A Published Book.
I remember thinking there was no way I could know everything I needed to know to feel confident that I had done a good job. How could I ever be expected to know what 1920s era Chicago was like? How do you find out details like what was served for school lunch? Or what was taught in science class? Since I write YA and the parents are still involved in shaping my main character, I thought I also needed to research and understand not just the generation of my character, but the generation before!
Not only that, but I knew from talking to historical writer friends that there are book reviewers who seem to delight in pointing out history-related errors that authors make. If I attempted to write a historical novel, I thought, it would surely be obvious that I'm not a real historical writer.
Have I talked you out of writing a historical yet? Here are a a few things I realized that helped me get over my fears, and I hope if you're feeling nervous this can help you too:
1. I realized I don't need to know everything from the moment I start. I learned how to research in phases. More on that in a bit.
2. I'm telling a story, not writing a textbook. Most readers of historical fiction care about the history, yes, but they mostly care about the story.
3. I'm not claiming to be a scholar. I'm a novelist. Someone is going to read my book who knows more about my subject than I do. Maybe they'll knock me down a star on Amazon if they notice a mistake, or maybe they won't. But it says there on the front that it's a NOVEL. I did my best, but mistakes happen.
4. What, exactly, do I think makes somebody a "real" historical writer? I never once worried that someone would think I wasn't a real contemporary YA author, so why did this mess with me so much? I think this is just a part of writing in a genre that wasn't your first love. Contemporary YA is what I grew up writing, what I wrote in my early days as a published author, and what I had self-identified as for a long time. That was more about me and my perception of myself.
(If you feel other barriers about writing historical fiction or historically-inspired fiction, I would love to interact with you about those in the comments section!)
Let's go back to number one on that list and talk about the research process. I'm often asked, "Should you research before you write your book? Or while you write it? Or at the end?"
The answer? YES!
I'll have more posts in the future about research, but today we're just going to talk about phase one of your research.
Like I talked about last week in my Story Spark to Story Blurb post, developing my idea into a sentence and a few paragraphs typically takes very minimal research. I needed to know the time and place of my story, so I had done a bit of research about that to identify some plausible locations, but that was it.
After writing my blurb, I like to write a chapter or two of my story so I can get a feel for my storyworld. For me, that's the most effective way to think through the rest of the story. I used to think this was weird, but now I've talked to more and more writers who are the same way. There's just something about mucking around in your character's heads and hearts that helps figure out where the rest of the story needs to go. (Shan talked about this some last Friday in her post Discovering My Protagonist.)
My research goal at this point is to know just enough to write those chapters and get a 2-3 page synopsis together. The more you understand about what you need to know the less time you'll waste researching stuff that never makes it into the book.
Reading through my story blurb, I identified a few questions I needed to answer and research:
- Where did Italian American and Japanese American families live in San Francisco in 1941? How would Evalina and Taichi have met?
- What did America's involvement look like in the war in 1942?
- After the executive order was signed, how long was it before the Japanese American families were removed?
- What did those removals look like? How did families know?
- When the Japanese American families from San Francisco were evacuated, where were they sent?
- After I discovered several options and settled on Manzanar in southern California, I also put "research life at Manzanar" on my list.
- What did the average teenage girl do after she had graduated high school in 1942?
In phase one of research, I try to do as much online and through the library as possible. I tend to be a bit of a binge shopper at my library. Here's a stack of books I picked up early in my research for Within These Lines:
That's a lot of books. But it's important to keep in mind that you don't have to read all of the research book, usually. Within These Lines takes place entirely in 1942, with a few flashbacks to 1941, so when I researched WWII and the evacuation and life at Manzanar, all I focused on was 1942. (I found, and you probably will too, that I was so naturally curious about how things turned out that I frequently read more than I really needed to just to find out what happened to certain people after the war.)
And I'm constantly amazed by what kind of information I can find on the internet. In The Lost Girl of Astor Street, I have a very important scene where Piper makes a long distance call, and I wanted to get it right. I was shocked to find video tutorials from the 1920s on how to place a long distance call. Who felt the need to upload these on the internet? I have no idea, but I'm sure grateful to them!
Some questions you'll be shocked to find answers to by simply Googling them. Others you'll have to dig a bit. Next week we'll talk about keeping all your research organized!