I’m now one chapter from completing Book Two of By the Hands of Men, which has the working title of “To the Colonies and Beyond.” As I really want my historical fiction to feel authentic and, thus, for the reader to feel as if they have lived the story, I have had to do a lot of research on almost every chapter, and the final chapter is no different.
I have a complicated relationship with research. On one hand, I love it. It’s the written/oral equivalent of going up into the attic of your grandparents’ house, the home they’ve owned for decades (if not millennia), where odd bits of everyone in the family’s lives have ended up. Maybe you started to look for a tennis racket, and there, back in the corner, is a banjo. Which leads you to the old steamer truck, which turns out to have some momentos from your uncle’s tour of Korea, and, you discover, his march out of a reservoir called Chosin. Before you know it, your siblings have started and finished the tennis game without you, showered, and gone out to dinner, while you are still uncovering all these treasures, all this life you never knew existed.
Research can be like that for me, since what I tend to be looking for is a sense of time and place, and the people who made it that way. Usually, the time and place help narrow down the sources that I’ll start with, but the more I read, the more side alleys of curiosity lead me from the path of strict righteousness, like the proverbial trenchcoated figure in the shadows whispering, “Hey, want to see something cool?”
Just to pick one tasty fact at random from the stack of books I’m working my way through: in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), the jaguar was Royal Game, and was only allowed to be hunted with a permit. Or, from another book that was close at hand: Karen Blixen, who wrote Out of Africa (as Isak Dinesen), was kind of a pain in the ass, who always insisted on being addressed by the noble title into which she married, “Baroness.”
That’s the fun part of research. Discovering the small detail, the every day idiosyncratic behaviors that make these long dead names into real people. The odd facts that (cottage cheese hanging to dry from a muslin bag) put me immediately into those lives.
The part of research I don’t like? That fact that doing it keeps me from the act of creating. But maturity (and experience) reminds me this is necessary prep, salting the creative mine, leavening the novelistic dough so that it can rise to tasty and nourishing heights, rather than lie there like hard-baked road kill, something that possesses everything needed except a mysterious and hard to capture essence of life.