But that’s partly because I’ve been writing, reading, and watching historical fiction for a long time. So, I already have at least a sense of the era.
I know the basics about what the people wear, how they travel about, what conveniences they have and don’t have, etc., so when I sit down to write a book set in the past, I have enough information just to be dangerous.
But the fun part comes as I’m writing, because that’s when things start to happen. Usually, I have the bare bones of a plot, but not the details. And the details, in my opinion, are what make a book. And the details are what I research when I’m in the process of writing.
When I have to make decisions–about what someone is wearing in particular, about where a certain house or building is located, about what they might eat at a ball or fete, about a political event that’s happening–that’s when I do the research for that particular thing. I stop writing and start searching.
I think this works partly because it keeps the whole process from being so intimidating. I don’t have to know everything before I start! You can’t eat the elephant all in one bite, as one of my bosses used to say–and that’s a great mantra for historical research.
For example, when she wrote Unmasqued: An Erotic Novel of the Phantom of the Opera, Colette Gale says she didn’t have the best sense of 1887 Paris. “I had enough to start off (I’d read the book, seen the movie), but I didn’t have the details.”
She explains, “So when I had Christine and Raoul take a drive through Paris, I had to find out what it might have looked like, and what they might have seen. I was able to answer this question by using three tactics:
1. Googled “Paris 1887” and got lots of stuff
2. Looked at paintings of Paris that were done in the late 19th century
3. Read fiction set during that time period
Paintings particular were helpful to me, because I’m a visual person, and seeing a picture of Paris with the Eiffel Tower just being built gave me an image to work from.
And reading fiction written (and set) during the time in question is really valuable. I can hear how people speak, what words they use, and often get little details that I wouldn’t have found otherwise.
So it was fun for me to learn, through this research, that in 1887, the Eiffel Tower was just being built and the Parisians hated it. They thought it was a monstrosity.”
And that brings me to another serendipity about research, and why I do it as I go: it’s the gems I find. The little nuggets of detail or information I’m not looking for, but I find accidentally. If I did all the research up front, I may not find these pretty little things.
Here’s an example from my own experience: I’m currently writing the third Gardella Vampire Chronicles book, which opens in Rome. I had to decide where a particular church that is important to the Venators (the vampire hunters) is located.
I guess I didn’t really have to exactly identify where the church was, but I wanted to. It gives me a better sense of place, too. So I spent about three hours, literally, poring over a book about Rome and then validating my decision to locate the church of Santo Quirinus in what is called the Borgo.
When I started researching the Borgo, I found a lot of interesting information about that area; details that I included in the setting: that the umbrella makers were relegated to this quarter because the wet silk they used smelled so bad, that rosary makers lived in the Borgo, and I even found a painting of the area.
Another question that I’m asked a lot in regards to research, since I write paranormal historicals, is whether the world-building in a non-contemporary time period is more difficult than in a modern one.
I don’t think that paranormal world-building in a historical setting is any more difficult than it is in contemporary settings. In fact, in some ways it might be easier.
It’s a lot of fun to take a historical fact and twist it to fit my world-building. A perfect example occurs in Rises the Night. I introduce John Polidori, who is the author of The Vampyre (the first book that really portrayed vampires as aristocratic, mysterious creatures that lived amid Society).
My research taught me that John Polidori died in 1820, which is the year in which my book is set. How convenient is that? I also learned that there was some mystery surrounding his death. Hmmm.
Some said he died from poison. Others said he died in an accident.
I decided that he died from a totally different reason–related to the world I’ve built–and made that an event in my book.
So, to sum up, let me just say that for me, as far as research goes, once I have the basic idea of the time period, the research is just for little details. But the little details (hopefully) are what give the book its flavor and color and authenticity, and paint the picture.
I don’t use everything I learn. I don’t describe my characters’ dress every time they come on the scene, or every single carriage or room. I give enough to paint a wide swath, with a few well-placed details, and that usually works to give a good flavor of setting without bogging the book down.