I write about places I’ve never been, cultures I’ve never experienced, people I’ve never met. The last time I checked, crusading knights, vengeful monks, and countesses in distress weren’t offering interview appointments. Neither can I afford to globetrot my way to Syria, Jerusalem, Italy, and points beyond, every time I need to start researching. (We won’t even mention the fact that no one has yet to perfect a time machine that would send me back to the Middle Ages.)
But I’ll tell you a secret: I like it this way. Writing novels gives me the opportunity to experience what I don’t know. However, that doesn’t mean that knowing your subject matter isn’t vital. On average, I spend three months researching any given novel before diving into the writing. And I love it. I love discovering the solid facts—the bricks—that will turn the imagined walls of my story into something solid. That said, I’m very much aware that research can be both overwhelming and frustrating. Following are some of the tricks I’ve adopted for my own use.
Know the Questions. Usually, I decide to set a story during a particular period or place because I already possess some interest in and at least a basic knowledge about it. Using that foundational knowledge, I’m able to complete my sketches and story outlines. By the time I officially begin my research, my story is already almost fully formed in my head, and I have a very good idea of what questions I need to answer during my research phase. For instance, in my medieval novel, Behold the Dawn, I knew I needed to spend a lot of time learning about not only the Third Crusade itself, but also the world of the tourneys—the huge mock battles that were loved by the knights and banned by the church.
Find the Resources. The first thing I do is run several searches through my libraries’ online card catalogs. My goal is to pick up every book my libraries have available on my subject, so I try to be as thorough with my keywords as possible. After evaluating whatever I’ve come up with, I’ll complete my research library with the necessary purchases.
File the Gems. Whenever I run into a snippet of information that I think might prove useful to my story, I pull out a notebook and mark down the page and paragraph numbers and the first and last three words of the information I want. For example, if I want to remember something on a book’s thirty-first page and second paragraph, my shorthand note looks like this: 31:2 “First three words… last three words.”
The next day, before settling in for more reading, I take my books to the computer and use my notebook to find the passages I marked the day before. I type them up in a Word document, which I divide into appropriate headings. For Behold, I used headings such as “Animals,” “Home Life,” “Tournaments,” “Warfare,” etc.
This may initially look like a lot of extra work, but when I’m in the middle of a scene and I need to know what kind of food an earl would serve at a banquet, my elaborate note system keeps me from having to dig through piles of dog-eared books in search of a minute detail. Instead, I can either look through my research document’s headers in search of “Food & Dining,” or I can simply hit the Find button and run a search for “banquet.” Either way, it takes seconds to find the information and continue writing my scene.
As writers, our fertile imaginations are what allow us to create something out of nothing. But it’s as researchers, that we’re able to make that something into a solid delivery of facts that will keep readers from blinking twice at suspending their disbelief.
About the Author
K.M. Weiland (http://www.kmweiland.com/) writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in the sandhills of western Nebraska. She is the author of A Man Called Outlaw and the recently released Behold the Dawn. She blogs at Wordplay: Helping Writers Become Authors and Author Culture.
Marcus Annan, a tourneyer famed for his prowess on the battlefield, thought he could keep the secrets of his past buried forever. But when a mysterious crippled monk demands Annan help him find justice for the transgressions of sixteen years ago, Annan is forced to leave the tourneys and join the Third Crusade.
Wounded in battle and hunted by enemies on every side, he rescues an English noblewoman from an infidel prison camp and flees to Constantinople. But, try as he might, he cannot elude the past. Amidst the pain and grief of a war he doesn’t even believe in, he is forced at last to face long-hidden secrets and sins and to bare his soul to the mercy of a God he thought he had abandoned years ago.
The sins of a bishop. The vengeance of a monk. The secrets of a knight.
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