2. Be as specific as you can when researching.
When you’ve chosen your time period, or when your time period has chosen you (as it occasionally happens), narrow your topic to a workable size. This is particularly true if you’re dealing with a vast subject, like the American Civil War, for example. To research the entire war would be too huge of a project, that is unless you’re Shelby Foote and willing to dedicate 20 years of your life to the task. There is simply too much material to shift through. If you can narrow your focus to something like a single event, a single year, or a single battle then the research will be far more workable and not as burdensome. When I was researching my Civil War story, My Brother’s Battle, I kept my focus on one regiment during the last year of the war. That is still a sizable topic because a lot happened during the last year of the war, but the fact that I was concentrating on a single regiment helped me from falling too far off the track. It was easier to search specifically for the information I needed to tell my story since I knew exactly what I was looking for.
Sometimes, however, it’s hard to narrow your topic if you’re not really sure what years or which events your story is going to cover. That happened to me when I was researching Victory Garden, a story set around World War I and the woman suffrage movement. As with the Loving Husband Trilogy, which is about the Salem Witch Trials, I knew very little about the World War I era. I have this odd habit of coming up with story ideas set during times I know little about, but for me that’s part of the fun of writing historical fiction—learning about the history. For the suffrage story all I had to begin with was a vague idea that I wanted to explore the difficult fight for women’s right to vote. To begin, I did some general research to get some sense of the era. As I learned about the time, I was able to get a clearer sense of how the events would fit into the fictional story I was weaving about a woman involved in the suffrage movement. After I did enough general research I was then able to focus my attention on the specific aspects of woman suffrage that intrigued me. With a lot of reading and even more notetaking, I discovered that I wanted my story to take place between the years 1918, when WWI ended, and 1920, when women finally received the vote. Through more research I learned that Prohibition was important around the same time, too, and that gave me another angle to work with. Soon (as in a few weeks into my research) I was able to see my fictional character Rose Scofield moving around these true-life events between the years 1918 and 1920, participating in the suffrage movement, watching friends come home from the war, going to Prohibition meetings. I wish the HBO series Boardwalk Empire and Downton Abbey had been on then. It could have helped me get into the spirit of the times as I was writing.
Even when you are interested in the era you are researching, the task of digging through piles of information can seem overwhelming, not to mention tedious. But if you are genuinely intrigued in the era and can narrow your topic to a workable size, then you are helping to make your research time purposeful and even enjoyable. Yes, I said enjoyable. Or am I the only one who loves to sit with books and take notes. Anyone? Anyone?