I was recently asked if I had any advice on how to do research (for writing fiction), and it seemed like the best way to answer the question was to ask a writer who has a lot of experience doing research (he has a PhD in US History) to talk about how he does research.
Fortunately my query to D.B. Jackson coincided with the release of his latest novel, Thieves’ Quarry (Tor Books), the second of his intriguing historical fantasy series the Thieftaker Chronicles, so he readily agreed, and I am excited to be able to offer this guest post on doing research.
Doing Research for Fantasy Novels
By D.B. Jackson
After writing epic fantasy for more years than I care to count, I have taken a new path in my career, combining my love of fiction and magic with a long-standing passion for history. The novels of my Thieftaker Chronicles, THIEFTAKER (Tor Books 2012) and the recently released THIEVES’ QUARRY, have allowed me to blend fictional elements of storytelling — a cast of imagined characters, murder mysteries, a magic system — with real-world historical events that occurred in colonial Boston during the years leading up to the American Revolution. The result is something I have called Historical Urban Fantasy, or alternatively, “Tricorn Punk.”
The historical details that I’ve sprinkled throughout the books are the fruits of a great deal of research, some done specifically for the books, and some done years ago, when I was getting my Ph.D. in U.S. history. Research is one of those things that writer’s talk about a lot, but never really explain. Many of us assume that if we know how to click a mouse or read a book, we know how to do research. That’s not always case. And in today’s world, where there is a nearly unlimited number of potential sources, it is more important than ever to have a game plan in place before we begin our research. So with that in mind, I thought I might share a few suggestions that I have found helpful while working on the Thieftaker books.
1. Start with questions: This is perhaps the most important thing I do to facilitate my research, and it’s something I start on before I open a single book or visit a single web site. I generally don’t begin my research until I have some sense of what my book or series is about and where I want my narrative to go. So I suppose technically THAT would be the starting point. The point though is that I want my research to be directed. I hear all the time from aspiring writers who tell me that they started researching a book and got so involved in the research that a year later (or two, or three) they still had not written the book. Yes, for those of us who proudly fly our Geek Flag, research is fun. But we’re writers, and ultimately our research has to have a purpose.
When I started researching the Thieftaker books, I knew that I needed to know certain things. My lead character, Ethan Kaille, spends a lot of time in the streets at night, investigating murders. So, did Boston have street lamps in the 1760s, when my books take place, or were the streets dark? (They were dark; street lights were put in place in 1774, with Paul Revere leading the effort.) How many people lived in Boston at this time? (15,000) What industries thrived in the city and its environs? (Shipbuilding, distilling, ropemaking, among others) Obviously, I had more questions than this. And that list of “Things I Needed to Know” was the starting point for my work. Now, to be clear, as I began my research nearly every answer I found led to two more questions. But that was okay. Often the key to learning is figuring out first what you DON’T know.
2. Use books first: One hears jokes all the time about the unreliability of information available on the web. In a moment I’ll address this, but for now let’s just say that while there is a good deal of valuable information to be found online, there is also some sketchier stuff. Traditionally published nonfiction books tend, on the whole, to be better sources, for the simple reason that the information they contain has been vetted. It has been looked over by editors; authors have had to assure their publishers that their facts are . . . well, factual.
Clearly we can’t find everything we need in books. There are so many published monographs out there, and our chances of finding the exact ones that will answer every question we have are slim, to say the least. I turned to a friend in the field — in this case, a historian at the local university — who suggested a number of titles. Our friends know stuff that we don’t. It makes them interesting; it can also make them quite handy to have around.
Yes, the web is fast, it’s convenient. But books are the most reliable starting points. With the Thieftaker novels, I read, or at least spot-checked (using the indexes to find specific details) more than two dozen books and articles. Some I used far more than others. A few became something akin to bibles; others were good for one or maybe two little details. But I was starting with sources I trusted and that was important to me.
3. Be discriminating when using the web: There actually is a great deal of accurate and valuable information available online. The secrets are knowing where to find this information and being smart about what you trust and what you double-check. Sites connected with universities (sites ending in .edu) tend to be reliable, although not all of them. Sometimes these sites will contain the work of established scholars. Sometimes they will contain the work of undergraduates writing a term paper the night before it’s due. Use your judgement. Sites established by historical societies or even private historical enterprises proved invaluable during my research. I went to the web sites of the Bostonian Society, the Massachusetts Historical Society, Colonial Williamsburg (which isn’t near Boston, but which has lots of information about everyday life in colonial America).
But not all sites will be so obvious in their qualifications. That doesn’t mean you have to ignore them. It just means that you should be careful. I found a document online that was written by an architecture firm that does historical renovations. I never would have thought to look for it, but upon finding it I knew immediately that I could trust it. On the other hand, in researching Boston’s political history, I found several sites that had obvious ideological agendas relating to today’s politics. I didn’t trust the information on these sites unless I could find confirmation on non-polemical sites. Use common sense. Use your judgment. Don’t be in so much of a rush that you blindly accept the first thing you find.
4. Know when to stop: This might well be the hardest thing to do when it comes to research. As I’ve said, research is fun, and those of us who are geeks tend to lose ourselves in the research process. That’s why having specific questions to answer is so important. On one level, the easy way to know when to stop is simply to answer all the questions and then quit. The problem is, there are always more questions. But when I’ve reached a point where I am repeatedly spending entire days of research on only one or two questions, that’s when I know I need to stop reading books and searching the web, and start writing my novel.
I will have more questions as I work my way through the book. I know this because it happens with every book. At certain points I will have to stop writing and do a bit of spot-research to find those answers. That’s fine. As far as I’m concerned, that’s part of the creative process. But I am a writer. I get paid when I finish a book. So, the sooner I start writing, the better off I am.
I could say far more about researching the Thieftaker books, but that can only help you so much. Each one of us has unique research needs. What I’ve offered here are starting points, things you might want to consider as you begin to research your next project. But perhaps you have your own ideas of what works best for you. How do you begin your research? What steps do you take to stay focused and not get lost in the process? Let’s discuss it.
D.B. Jackson is also David B. Coe, the award-winning author of more than a dozen fantasy novels. His first book as D.B. Jackson, the Revolutionary War era urban fantasy, Thieftaker, volume I of the Thieftaker Chronicles, came out in 2012 and is now available in paperback. The second volume, Thieves’ Quarry, has just been released by Tor Books. D.B. lives on the Cumberland Plateau with his wife and two teenaged daughters. They’re all smarter and prettier than he is, but they keep him around because he makes a mean vegetarian fajita. When he’s not writing he likes to hike, play guitar, and stalk the perfect image with his camera.