Monday, April 18, 2011

Research--Joy and Tears (of Frustration)

Research Is Exciting

Writers must love to research, no matter what genre they’re in. Most have their stories of that one research experience they recall with fondness--or frustration. Mine happened when I first began writing fiction about five years ago.

When I was researching Richard I for my first book, I tried everywhere for one particular source that had been referenced and footnoted in another research publication I’d consulted. It was a detailed itinerary of Richard I by Roger of Howden, a cleric of the 12th Century who traveled with him frequently.

I tried tracking it down, only to come up short until an online search showed that “Howden” was also written “Hoveden (the original spelling of the name). That discovered, I set out to find the itinerary that had been published earlier in the 1900s.

Unfortunately only two books were found in Missouri, according to an online library search. One was in the law library in a university in St. Louis. I called. The work could only be accessed while the researcher was in the special collections section of the library, I was told.

However, a second was located in the open stacks of the state university’s main campus library, a short three-hour drive. Thrilled, I called and was assured that yes, it was there and available. So early one summer morning I loaded my briefcase and notebooks in the car and took off for a long day trip.

I could hardly believe that finally, after so many weeks of trying to track it down, I would at last get to look at the documented record of Richard I’s movements. With names and descriptions of what took place. Reported by people who were actually there some eight hundred years ago. For someone who is manic about accuracy, it was a dream come true.

The July day was very warm and the two-lane road was packed with tourists headed to the lakes and resorts not far from the city where the university is located. Every stop-and-go delay fed my impatience.

At last I arrived, only to find parking non-existent in the area of the library. Finally nabbing an on-street space nearly a half-mile from my target--no open parking lots or parking spaces in the immediate area--I stuffed the meter with nickels and set out to find the right building--and the right entrance.

It seemed to take forever to gain computer access, find the location of the holding, and then get directions to that particular floor and section. Let me just say--it’s a big library. Finally, finally, I found the aisle and began looking for the title on the spines of the books wedged onto the shelves.

There. On the very bottom row. Two volumes. Suppressing an age-inappropriate desire to giggle and do a victory dance, I sat cross legged on the floor, drew the first volume out, and reverently opened it. And stared. NO.

I opened it to the center. Hadn’t changed. I tried the back. Same there. Pulled out the second volume, just in case. No luck. The annals of Roger of Hoveden had been dutifully reproduced--in Latin. I don’t read Latin.

I did laugh then. Better than crying.

The next week I sought help and turned the problem over to a librarian at the college where I’d taught. A few days later, she called to report she’d tracked down a copy of the book in a California library that would consider an inter-library loan. I asked her to verify the volume was in translation before she ordered it. It was.

And for the record, reading (at long last) the account of those events turned out to be every bit as exciting as I anticipated.

Do you have favorite research stories you’d care to share?


  1. Oh, good grief. Most of my research consists of me, a bag of Soy Crisps, and my good friend Google. Of course, there was the time I took a Ghost Tour of New Orleans with my girlfriend Tara. No Soy Crisps. Margaritas... Yeah, that was cool.

  2. Ghost tour. What a blast. Definitely calls for a little Jose. Or a lot :)

  3. I took two trips to Carter and Oregon counties last year...partially historic research and partly to refresh my was wonderful. I walked where my characters walked, saw what they saw, interviewed some wonderful local was a great experience.

  4. This is why I don't write historical - research! I prefer to write about what I know. Easier for me. But I suppose I do love learning about other professions, etc. Great post Barb! and I do love learning about history but for fun - not because i have to! LOL

  5. I love to read historical, however when I tried to write one, my head spun. With so much information out there it's difficult to know what's accurate and what's not. That's my frustration. I also learned that no matter what you write, there is always some form of research, so you have to make peace with it and find ways to make it...enjoyable. Great post, Barb!

  6. Great story, Barb. Like Cecily I do a lot of my research on line. One of the things I find frustrating in my research of the Regency period is getting accurate dates. Three sources might give three different sets of dates. That can be frustrating.

  7. I love the research part--I can spend hours and hours reading background material for my stories. In fact, my muse gets perturbed with me and starts prodding me with stern looks and hands-on-the-hips attitude. I'm going to schedule some personal write-ins at the library this summer--in one of their study rooms. There are too many distractions when I try to write at home--my husband being a major one!! Not complaining--just trying to figure a way to accommodate all the time demands.
    My favorite research incident was when I was struggling with a scene in the early stages of my "Saddlesores and Prairie Biscuits." I had set a date (April 9, 1867) and a place (San Antonio, TX) for a scene with Buffalo Soldiers. I wanted to use an authentic setting and was checking some online sources when--lo, and behold--I found a Harper's Weekly picture that depicted just the situation I needed AND the date/place matched mine EXACTLY. Talk about an omen!! It's still one of my favorite scenes in my book.