The Joys (and Difficulties) of Research for Historical Fiction

My cousin had an idea a couple of years ago: an historical novel about a fictional town based on our hometown, set in America’s Gilded Age. We started working on the project and, since then, it’s morphed into developing a script for an audio drama podcast. Since the idea is historical in nature, it meant we had to do a good bit of research. The research has been fun, but it has also come with its share of difficulties.

I’ve always been a minor history buff. I loved every history class I took in school (especially college). Our work in progress (WIP) is focused on a specific time period in American history, and digging into the research has been enlightening. I’m learning things about what life was like in late 19th century America that I ever knew before.

Because our story also deals with mythology and the supernatural, I’ve also learned a good deal about Celtic mythology. Many of our main characters are Irish-American immigrants, so we’ve dug into research about Irish culture and the history of Ireland, too.

So, historical research has been a blast. For a writer, though, there’s a danger to all this research. Why? Because it can turn into procrastination with a capital “P.” During the first year of working on the project, I was so intimidated by the ambition and scope of the WIP that I buried myself in the research instead of actually writing the book/script.

A fellow writer-friend offered me good advice a while back that I try to remind myself of frequently: just because I write something doesn’t mean I have to automatically show it to others.

So far, I’ve written six episodes of the podcast script with the goal to develop twelve episodes. I’m at the halfway point. Around December 2019, I decided it was time to put down the books and start writing. Still, as I write I find myself going back down the research rabbit hole and – you guessed it – procrastinating with actual writing.

Just write

I’ve always believed procrastination is a form of perfectionism. I’ve read the six episodes I have so far, and I cringe sometimes while reading them. But here’s the thing: they are rough drafts! They’re not etched in stone and, of course, all writing is re-writing. I can, and will, go back and edit them.

One of the hardest things for a writer sometimes is to simply begin. I don’t necessarily have the fear of looking at a blank page or screen. It’s more so the fear that what I’m writing is crap.

A fellow writer-friend offered me good advice a while back that I try to remind myself of frequently: just because I write something doesn’t mean I have to automatically show it to others. Eventually, I’ll show my scripts and writing to others. But sometimes, writing and keeping it to myself is a way for me to practice and avoid criticism I’m not ready to take.

Yes, the historical research has been fun. I’ve learned all sorts of interesting things, and I’m developing a sense of the setting and background for the WIP. But at a certain point, like all writers, I need to put the book down, close the web browser, and just write.

Keep writing, everyone!

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