Making it Realistic: Is Research Worth It?

WorthitResearchToday’s genre for Indie e-Con is Historical Fiction.

If you’ve followed me for any amount of time, you know I do not write Historical Fiction. For the most part, I don’t write stories set in our world at all! However, that doesn’t mean that I don’t have to know anything about history. On the contrary, I find myself doing a ton of research as I write my books, because even though they aren’t set on our world or in our history, I do want them to have a modicum of realism and be relatable to you, dear Reader. And that means grounding them in reality at times.

As most of what I’ve published to-date is set in worlds that hearken back to a medieval or middle-ages England, with knights and castles and things like that, most of my research has revolved around these things. The important thing with research is not to take anything for granted. I’ve found that what I tend to look up most is food… did this dish I just mentioned or anything like it even exist anywhere relatively close to the time-period I am modeling for this story? And if not, what did they eat?

I’ve spent hours perusing books on styles of clothing in every time period since 1100 AD trying to figure out what style of clothing I wanted to base my characters’ dress upon.

I’ve researched buildings and architecture in various historical time periods and cultures.

Most recently, I published a short prequel story to my epic fantasy series: The Minstrel’s Song, and in the story, my main character’s father was a candle-maker. Because of this, I spent hours… yes, HOURS… researching bee-keeping, when did people start keeping bees, when did they start using beeswax to make candles, how did they keep bees, and various methods of extracting beeswax and honey. I easily spent three or four hours all-told on this study, and the results of my efforts yielded this:

“Careful now,” Gwyna’s father cautioned as she lowered the final frame into the apiary. He held the smoker up to the hive, keeping the bees quiet. When she finished, they stepped back, pulling off their veiled hats and grinning at each other. 

“This has to be the best harvest we’ve ever had,” Gwyna exulted. She surveyed the farm, dotted by orderly hives. The cloudy sky belied the heat of the Warm Term afternoon. It was a relief to peel off the long gloves and heavy outer garments she wore to protect herself from stings.

Her father nodded his agreement and wiped the back of his hand across his forehead. He glanced down at his daughter, a glint in his eyes. “Next thing is to extract the beeswax. You ready to help me with that?”

Gwyna groaned. Her father laughed, putting an arm around her shoulders.

“I’m teasing,” he assured her. “Go on. I know you’re dying to get out in the woods with your bow. Thank you for your help over the past few weeks. After all that, you deserve at least a few hours to yourself.”

Gwyna squealed and threw her arms around his neck. “Thank you, father! I promise, I’ll help with the wax tomorrow.”

Doesn’t seem to merit the effort, does it?

So, why do the work? Because I believe the effort is worth it to add that little touch of reality, that bit of grounding to the story that could make a completely different and made-up world feel familiar and homey to the reader. It’s the little things, the sprinkling of reality that help connect a reader to your work. When in doubt, ask yourself, “How can I go SMALLER? What seemingly insignificant details can I use to capture a reader’s heart?” Especially, if you, like me, write fantastical stories that beg the reader to suspend much of their disbelief for things like magic and dragons and other worlds.

With regards to my bee-research: I recently received a note from a reader asking me if I or my family had ever kept bees. Hers did, and she wanted me to know that my segment about bee-keeping sounded like I knew what I was talking about! So yes, I think it was worth it.

~ jenelle

13 Comments

sarahtps

I admire your dedication, and you’re spot on; it is the little things that make a difference. (Plus, on the subject of food, if you figure out a reasonable thing for people to be eating that isn’t generic stew and porridge, it helps set the story apart.) And that’s really impressive about the bee-keeper’s response to your story.

Out of curiosity, where do you do most of your research? Online? In books?

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jenelle

I do a lot of my research online. But I did borrow several textbooks from a friend who studied fashion design in college in order to learn about various clothing styles in older eras. The bee-keeping research was a mixture of online and books. It just depends on how easily I can find the information I’m looking for… sometimes the library is still the better route. :)

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sarahtps

Ok, cool. I wasn’t sure; most of the research I’ve done has been online, but it’s usually not very extensive.

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Allan James

I love hearing the “back story” that goes into your writing…….but in all honesty…….I just figured……..you inherently “KNOW” all this stuff!

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Kendra E. Ardnek

Oh, I quite agree. Even though I write fantasy and make everything up … there are still times when I have to go figure out if what I’m making up makes sense.

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Guy Worthey

I’ve gotten a historical detail wrong in print twice, sigh. But maybe I should shut up now, before I incriminate myself further. Heh.

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To be a Shennachie

I like that little detail about the relief of removing a sweltering bee-suit. I know how that feels!
As a reader-and a bit of a stickler for accuracy at that- I appreciate a book that has been well researched. As a writer- and amateur historian- I find research to be fun.

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I love hearing from you, dear Reader!