Here we are at the end of March and I hope that March is going out like a lamb for you. We’ve had a record winter all across the country, apparently, with heavy rains and snows that are hitting record highs in some parts of the country. So before we begin our topic today, let me extend a wish that March will hold true to form and “go out like a lamb.”
There are many would-be historical authors out there who might grace our world with their voices, who yet aren’t doing so because they find the subject of research daunting. So I dedicate this blog today to all those (including me at one point in my life) who have looked upon research as “beyond them.” In the hopes of making this easier, here are a series of 5 lessons on research:
Lesson #1: Do you have friends or acquaintances who tell you their problems from time to time — or tell you their adventures? Have you ever gone to a dance, a bar, an opera, a play? Ever had tea with the elderly lady next door? Did you know that this is all research? Whenever I’m yearning for the solution to that next scene, one of the first things that I realize I have to do is go out and live. A very wise writer once said that the whole world is a stage. It’s also research material.
Lesson #2: Vacations. Okay so I cheated a little and chose a picture with a hunky guy on it — but it’s a beautiful picture of a waterfall, too, isn’t it? Did you notice or couldn’t you drag your attention away from the “center” of attraction? Okay, all that said, vacations are great for research. Want to write about the Old West, but live on the East Coast? Convince your husband to take that vacation to the Old West instead of to that ballgame in Chicago. There is nothing like vacations for research. Because I write Native American Historical Romance, my husband and I usually vacation on a reservation. We even honeymooned on the Blackfeet reservation. So when you think vacation, think research.
Lesson #3: Do you like to watch movies? Like to turn TV to that favorite channel? One of the first things I do when I’m researching a book is to rent movies that cover the topic that I’m trying to write about. For instance, in the book, THE LAST WARRIOR — a Berkley March 2008 release — the setting for the book is Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show. Imagine my delight when I discovered there were not on stacks of books with pictures in them, including his original schedules, there were movies taken of the show itself. Paul Newman even starred in a movie about Buffalo Bill — can’t recall the name of that movie — but all this supplied a visual reference that was invaluable when writing this book. Now you have to be careful, because Hollywood versions of events aren’t always accurate historically. But the visuals should not be overlooked as important.
Lesson #4: Experience. If you’re writing about cows, there’s nothing better than going out and looking at cows. If you’re writing about a cattle drive, there’s nothing better than going out and going on a cattle drive. The next book that I’m writing (which is due to my publisher very soon) is about the Iroiquois. Not only have I rented books from the library — which is usually the first place I go to for research — but in one scene there is a tree that plays a dominate role. In order to visualize this more exactly, I got in my car and drove around the countryside until I found the tree that would be a perfect tree for my scene. Well, not only was it important to see the tree, but I got out of the car, went and touched the tree, smelled the tree, and listened to it as it moved in the breeze. When researching, there is nothing like real experience to bring your story to life.
Lesson #5: Know what you know. Okay, I admit the picture doesn’t go with the title. But this is one of the handsomest Indians I’ve ever seen. Be still my heart. Okay. Know what you know. Anyone can write anything about anything. That doesn’t always mean it’s true. Know your source of information. If it seems too sensational, or too unlikely, check other sources before you trust that information. This is particularly important in researching Native America. Many of the writers of Native Americans in our past have been, not Native Americans, but settlers, some of whom held prejudices stretching back generations. Some of these writers even imbued their own unworthy characteristics onto a people who did not deserve them. One of the best examples of this that I know of is that pertainging to the Native American attitude toward women. Did you know that in most American tribes (not all of course) that the women held the balance of power in the tribe? Did you know that the Iroquois could not take a move without the elder women’s approval? That it was the elder women who could make or break those men? This is true not only with the Iroquois, but with the Crow Indians, the Navajo — even the fearful Sioux traced their lineage back not on their father’s side, but their mother’s side. And yet the stigma remains to this day that the “squaw” was misused and abused. While there might have been isolated cases of this, it is one of those facts that is simply not true — not as a whole. In an early meeting between an Eastern Indian tribe and the white settlers, the Indians asked the settlers, “Where are your women? Where is your heart?” It was unreal to the Indian that the white people might contemplate making treaties without the heart of the tribe being represented. So this is an important point and is why I’ve listed it last. Know your sources of information. Know what you know. If it seems too critical, too sensational or simply doesn’t ring true to what you know to be, go elsewhere, look elsewhere and remember, simply because it’s written down by someone doesn’t make it true.
Well, that’s all for today. I’ve covered a few tips on research. Do you know any more? Or more importantly, what is your experience with research — is it a pain in the @#$@# or is it more like a little heaven — some thing that might actually spark the fires of imagination? What is your experience? And don’t forget I have two books out on the stands right now. RED HAWK’S WOMAN, which was released in May of last year and THE LAST WARRIOR, which has just been released. If you don’t see them on the bookstand, please ask your bookseller to order it in for you.
So come on in and let’s chat.