Having fun with my research
Now that I’ve finally promised my publisher a new novel and floated the general premise past her (she liked it), it’s time to do some research.
Like the Florida Folk Magic Stories, this novel will be set in the Florida Panhandle, so I already know the area. This is one of the benefits of writing a series, or doing a standalone novel that uses the series as a starting point: you have a lot of location information on file that wasn’t used in the previous novels.
Since my main character is a bag lady in 1955, I’ve been looking at clothing manufactured during the 1940s. Needless to say, a bag lady isn’t going to be wearing the latest thing from Paris or even from Sears Roebuck. There’s a lot of material available about 1940s women’s clothing inasmuch as it was greatly influenced by rationing and shortages. A lot of people were mending old clothes, making do with fewer fabric selections, and knitting socks for the troops (and themselves). So, I think I know what my bag lady’s going to wear.
While the novel isn’t historical, I want the cultural references to be right. So, what was happening in Florida in 1955? I already know that the KKK was strong in those years. And I know that educator and activist Mary McLeod Bethune died in 1955 in Daytona Beach. My bag lady would know that because even though 1955 is part of the Jim Crow era, the story would be covered by the press.
My bag lady is–for reasons I won’t divulge now–an expert bow hunter. This means checking on the kinds of bows and arrows used by hunters in those days. I had good luck with this. I found information about the most widely known brand of bow at the time along with a selection of arrows.
Now, since this novel starts where the series ends, I have to make sure that I don’t contradict anything that happened in the series. So, I’m researching my own stuff to make sure there aren’t any continuity problems. For example, if a bad guy was killed in the series, I don’t want him showing up in the new book fit as a fiddle. By the way, “fit as a fiddle” is the kind of thing my bag lady would say–checking the slang of an era is part of the process. I’m surprised at the number of TV series that have characters from years ago using modern slang such as “whoa!” (meaning “wow!”) and other phrases that nobody said twenty or thirty years ago.
When Diana Gabaldon (Outlander) and I were both in an ancient CompuServe literary forum, we found that we had one thing in common that a lot of writers weren’t understanding. The research has an impact on the story the writer is about to tell because it tips him/her off to things s/he didn’t know and is responsible for altering the plot of a novel in ways the writer wouldn’t have considered before the research phase began.
I didn’t care for research projects in school–often for the purpose of writing “themes” as they were called in those days–but I enjoy them now. I once read that writers like Nora Roberts have a staff that includes researchers. While there are times when I wish I could pick up the phone and ask an assistant a question and get an immediate answer, I feel much more in touch with my characters and my story when I have to look up all the stuff myself.