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Yes, Virginia, Fiction Writers Do Have to Do Research!

The front pages of a novel have a disclaimer stating something to effect:  


All events, dialogue, and characters are the product of the author's imagination and are not to be construed as real. Though the mention of some characters, events, or places is based on the historical record, the work as a whole is a work of fiction.


It's the last line about the "historical record" that forces this author to plow through the Internet, historical documents, period newspapers . . . and more to get things right so that my characters and their locale become real for the reader.


How many sources are needed to support the "historical record" in my novels? Well, it depends, but here are some raw statistics:

  • In Adrienne's Choice (the novel I'm currently working on set in 1899-1900), I've amassed 102 published resources (plus 100 or more unpublished letters and dozens of period newspaper articles) to develop a realistic historical backdrop for my readers—everything from train timetables to academic papers describing the period. Yikes, and I'm only one-third of the way through writing this novel.
  • In Blackhorse Road, though the novel's 1966-1986 period is within my memory and experience, the story still required extensive research. To provide a realistic backdrop, data on small details like the temperature and the phase of the moon on specific dates or the cost of a long-distance phone call in 1966 were tracked down. Research articles and dissertations were explored on heavier topics such as  "Crossing Into the Blue: Cadet Culture and Officer Development at the U.S. Air Force Academy"
  • Flower Girl (time frame 1976-1986) required the "mundane" weather and temperature checks for specific dates, geographic and road and highway verifications--(yes, State Route 256  really existed, and on January 14, 1986, it was -2 degrees in the Alfred, NY area). But the story also required research pm some unpleasant issues relating to domestic and emotional abuse, narcissism, the Vietnam war, and PTSD.

How much time do I spend on research versus writing the story? That's a great question. I sometimes spend hours to days reading through period newspapers, magazines, published and unpublished diaries and letters, and searching through Google Scholar, ResearchGate, and other sources.


Putting a number on it, I estimate that 30-40% of my time is spent researching and getting the historical record as correct as possible for my readers.


I guess there's a good reason why this fiction writer is curious and nosey!


Cheers and happy reading.

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