By Donna Schlachter
Researching any topic in the past can be a fun and exciting adventure. Sometimes, however, it can also be a series of frustrating dead ends. You can even compile a history for places you make up. Simply base it on another town or area nearby.
Here’s my process:
Decide on the setting and the year for the story. Look for something interesting that happened during that time in that area. Begin with the internet, but look for several articles that agree.
Once you have the nugget of a story, locate newspaper stories, books, journals, and diaries to give you more background.
If possible, visit the setting before you start to write. See what the lay of the land is like. How would that impact the story and the characters?
Read books and watch movies set during that time, but don’t believe everything you read and see unless it was written/filmed contemporaneously. Sometimes authors and producers tend to don rose-colored glasses when looking back.
Keep notes. Print everything, especially web pages. Photocopy everything. Record movies and other references you used. You might be asked by an editor to validate a fact that’s crucial to your storyline.
Once you start writing, don’t let research distract you from writing. If you arrive at a point where you don’t know a particular fact, insert a symbol (I use @@) in the manuscript, and carry on. Go back and look it up later.
In Double Jeopardy, because I wanted to include mining in the story line, I researched and found that the Colorado Gold Rush ended around the late 1870s, and the Silver Rush began in 1879. This was perfect for the backstory of how Becky’s father went to Colorado a year before the story began.
I’d visited the Durango area, and loved the landscape. I’d talked with people who lived there, went up some of the canyons, saw old mines, some ghost towns, and decided I wanted to set a story there. I created the fictional town and valley of Silver Valley, and I visited some museums in Colorado where I learned about sheriffs and law enforcement in the 1880s.
For specific details such as silver mining, I did online research then visited a mining museum. For minutiae such as when women began wearing dungarees (not until about 10 years later), when fountain pens came into common use (around that time, but they were still expensive and a luxury item), and Fourth of July celebrations and Indian relations, I relied on various articles from Wikipedia and history books.
So you can that much of your research can be done online from the comfort of your home, but don’t rely on any one online source.
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Donna Schlachter lives in Denver with husband Patrick. As a hybrid author, she writes historical suspense under her own name, and contemporary suspense under her alter ego of Leeann Betts, and has been published more than 30 times in novellas and full-length novels. She is a member of American Christian Fiction Writers, Writers on the Rock, Sisters In Crime, and Christian Authors Network; facilitates a critique group; and teaches writing classes online and in person. Donna also ghostwrites, edits, and judges in writing contests. She loves history and research, and travels extensively for both. Donna is represented by Terrie Wolf of AKA Literary Management.
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