The Research Rabbit Hole
May 25, 2020
I’ve always loved research—research and learning. I remember being assigned to write an essay about lions in the 1st grade. It was my first research experience. I pulled out the volume of my family’s encyclopedia that told about lions and my mom helped me to find pictures in one of our many issues of National Geographic. Being 6 years old, I probably lifted most of my essay from that encyclopedia. I couldn’t tell you now what the essay said. But the fact that I remember it probably shows that the research made an impact on me.
Up until a few years ago, though, I had the impression that research was for essays, not for fiction. If I wrote fantasy stories, research wasn’t necessary. For the everyday stories, I would just write what I know and avoid the need for research there, too. The trouble is, even with the places and things that I know, I don’t know everything.
Over time, I’ve learned that I need to apply my love of research to my fiction as well as non-fiction. I need to read books and watch videos and have experiences, all to enrich my stories.
Since I finished editing The Forgotten King at the end of April and am now waiting for reader feedback, I decided to jump into a new project. This new story is a story about fairies, set in America. These new ideas floating in my mind could be turned into a series of standalone books in the future. Holding onto the familiar right now, my fairies need to be in a landscape that isn’t too different from the landscape of the British Isles where the original fairy stories were born. My new book is set in North Carolina.
I’m doing my homework before I start drafting, though. Although I’ve been to North Carolina twice, I am far from an expert. I’m relying heavily on Brett and his family for this. Our local library is open by appointment now, so I’ve been there twice to check out stacks of books about the Celts, the fairies, North Carolina, and Appalachian folklore. Although I’ve studied fairies extensively in the past, I need a refresher. My online search history is full of research terms like the Greensboro Botanical Gardens, the symbolism of trees, fairy lore, symbolism of stones and crystals, iron mines in North Carolina, and themes in North Carolina folktales.
All of this research is filling my mind with new information. The story is taking more and more shape with each thing I learn. There is a richness to it that none of my stories have had before. Not all of the information I read will end up in the story, but it will inform the decisions I make with the plot and the choices my characters make.
However, the research can’t dictate the story. I don’t want to be so controlled by the imaginations of others that my own imagination is stunted. For the first time, I’m understanding the importance of artistic license. In shaping this story, I’m making conscious decisions to invent new ideas, modify old ones, and exercise my right to accept or reject elements that may or may not affect my story. Like Sharon Kay Penman, though, I don’t want to play too much with the real-life elements.
The weeks of research have made me neglect my blog, but I think I have enough information to move forward. After all, this story is in my hands until it’s finished, and I can research at every step along the way. When I finish the character interviews and the outline, I’ll start the first draft.