Contributed by Laura Feagan Frantz
I've yet to meet a writer of historical fiction that says anything but "ahhh!" to research. They're usually quite at home in history books. My friends who write contemporary fiction usually say "ugh" to the same, one of the reasons they choose to write in their genre. Research, to them, is often dry, dusty, stale. I must admit some history, like midwifery, is far more interesting to me than say, fishmongering. And I've discovered that there are ways to make your research sing, avenues you can take to make the leap from antique facts to flesh and blood characters more appealing.
During the years I spent writing The Frontiersman's Daughter, research became more ah-inducing when I created characters who were involved in the things I loved and wanted to learn more about. Here are two of them...
I'd always had a love of herbs, flowers, and the woods and wanted my protagonist to find her calling there. The Kentucky hills and hollows became Lael's second home in the novel and she was taught their charms and secrets by Ma Horn, a healer and herbalist. To get into Lael's head and heart, I planted a large herb garden full of 18th-century things like comfrey and bee balm and lavender and chamomile. This became my own special spot and the delight of my heart. I scoured the woods for materials to build a wattle fence and spent hours crafting one just like Lael would have done. Imagine my JOY when those flowers and herbs wended their way around my lovely fence and cast me back to another time and place. I also learned to match remedies to ailments as I delved into what plagued colonials back then, then poured that knowledge into Lael.
When readers say they felt at home in Lael's woods, that the words on the page became vivid pictures, I think it's because the research became a reality via my garden, fence, and woods. If you want your research to spring to life for you, your characters, and your readers, try tending a garden, churning butter, cooking over a hearth, firing a musket, spinning, or a million other old things. Visit a historic site and pay careful attention to the reenactors. Sometimes they let you lend a hand with whatever it is they're doing. Absorb the sights, smells, and sounds therein. Look for amazing resources like the Foxfire books that give in-depth instruction as to what your characters would have done in detail. Your writing will be better for it.
Another love of mine is the violin. No, I can't play a note so the next best thing was creating a hero who could play in my stead. I made my Ian Justus Scottish. Such a rich fiddling history there! If you haven't read the book, Ian was a doctor and erstwhile fiddler:)
As I was writing TFD, my youngest son expressed a desire to play the violin. When he broke a string or was horribly out of tune, played a song flawlessly and almost made me cry, I instilled this in my hero. I still can't play a note but Ian can - as can my Paul. I agree with one of my favorite characters regarding fiddle music, "Surely the devil had a hand in something this seductive." Heaven did, truly!
Ramp that research up by indulging in some hands on history. You - and your readers - will be glad you did and it will enrich your life in countless ways.
Every writer is different, each story unique, including research methods. How does research work best for you? What sources do you find most compelling? Do you research prior to writing or throughout? If you're a reader instead of a writer, do you prefer historical fiction with lots of detail or just a little? When is too much detail too much - or too little too little?
CQ note from CFP: Leave a comment on Laura's research post (or the Fiction Sampler of CML) with your email address for a chance to win a copy of Courting Morrow Little by Laura. Drawing will be on Monday morning, Memorial Day.