When I was doing research for my papers at university during the 1960s, this is what I learned to do. First, I’d visit the library and plan for many hours of scouring the card catalogue, standing at cabinets filled with drawers of index cards that described and located the relevant books on the subject I was planning to write about. The card catalogue contained items by author, title, or subject, or combined all three into one alphabetically arranged system. Once found, I noted the reference books that I’d have to work through in the library and those I could borrow and take home. I always began with introductory texts to acquaint myself with the subject. I took those home to read and make an outline of my paper. Then I returned to the library to pour over the reference works, adding depth to my research. I hand-copied relevant passages and quotations on small cards, which I collected in a small box. A typical card would contain a handwritten subject, quote or definition meticulously copied from the reference book. I noted the details of reference documents I would use as references in the paper.
My research completed, I sat down for several hours to structure and write the paper in my neatest handwriting. I had a small portable typewriter, but I was a painfully slow two-finger typist. So, I enlisted the help of my future mother-in-law, a trained secretary, to type the paper for me. I then bound the essay and delivered it to my professor. It was a long and arduous process, but we knew nothing better and embraced it with enthusiasm.
Now, whereas past novelists may not have gone to such lengths with research, they also had to write their works by hand. Going back far enough, authors wrote with quills. They used quills for writing with ink before the invention of the dip pen, the metal-tipped pen, the fountain pen, and, eventually, the ballpoint pen. Editing has always been a painful process, resultin
g in scratched out words or paragraphs and replaced in the margins as best one could. It usually resulted in a very messy manuscript. They may have then rewritten their work, or if affordable, have it drafted or typed by a secretary before handing over to the printer. The printer had teams of typesetters to prepare the plates for printing, after which a lengthy print process prepared the book page by page. Publishing a book was a long and laborious process.
Historical fiction writers do extensive research. We write our stories within a historical context–the period and places in which the action transpires. Many authors choose well-known historical personalities as central players of their novels. My Rutherford Chronicles take place in the 20th Century on four continents and includes both known luminaries and working-class folk. It begins in the dockyards of Tyneside, North East England at the end of the 19th Century, then continues in South Africa during the 2nd Anglo-Boer War from October 1899 to May 1902. It then moves on to British Colonial India. The story continues within the trenches of France and the POW camps in Germany during the First World War.
We then find ourselves back in England during the postwar period and the boom and bust years of the 1920s and 1930s. Then World War II begins. The story follows the lives of Britons and their Canadian Allies in the United Kingdom during the first few years of that war, before following the Canadian invasion of Italy and the pursuit of the Nazi forces all the way through Italy, France, Belgium and the Netherlands before defeating the enemy in their own country. But the story doesn’t end there. It continues through the second half of the 20th Century dominated by the Cold War, with all its tense moments. That’s a lot of history!
And I’m not a historian. Even though I knew a lot about these events from books I have read and movies I have watched, I needed to dig a lot deeper into the times and conditions in which the characters lived throughout that 100 years. And I couldn’t rely on Hollywood’s versions of history. I didn’t want to mislead or misinform my readers. 😊 So I make an in-depth study of every period I write about. I read a lot of non-fiction books. But I don’t go to a library and search through card catalogues, which have died out and been overtaken by online catalogues. The nearest library is more than 2 hours away, and it may not have been entirely up to the task. I replaced that inconvenience by marvels of our modern life – the Internet and the World Wide Web. I spent hours researching each of those significant events on the Web in the comfort of my home, ordered my books online, which were swiftly delivered to my door. I watched libraries of documentaries or period films at my desk, thereby absorbing the atmosphere, images and knowledge of each place, crisis or conflict I was researching. And I collected quotes, or photos or made notes on my laptop, carefully filed in easily identifiable folders. I had everything I need at my clumsy fingertips. I then compiled outlines in the form of slide shows or tables of content before launching into the writing of my books.
I had found my ideal formula for research, something I have always loved doing. But writing novels is still a very different, arduous and lonely occupation. I have read an awful lot of fiction and non-fiction books in my time, including many written by recognised masters of the art. But I had no formal training on how to write a novel, nor how to write well in my language. Yes, I took a couple of English courses in my first years of university, but they only touched on the subject. So, I was on my own, and I dived right into it. And to be honest, my first drafts were appalling. But I didn’t give up. I found that I couldn’t burden my friends with criticising my books, so I enlisted the help of experts. I had a professional reader-editor assess my works, pointing out strengths and weaknesses and offering suggestions on how to improve my writing. I was too focussed on “background”, i.e. history, and didn’t have the right balance between background, narration and dialogue.
I listened and learned, and rewrote and rewrote and redacted and refined my first drafts into more balanced readable novels. Then there were the minor details of grammar and style. My vocabulary is extensive, and my grammar isn’t that bad, but I learned that my style had been corrupted by decades of writing technical and business reports. Reports are typically written in the “passive voice”. I was told that novels must be written in the “active voice”. Adverbs and hidden verbs are strongly discouraged in novel writing. So, again, I went on the offensive and found some excellent apps that were coupled with my word processor and not only highlight my errors but gave suggestions for how to fix them. They are incredibly helpful, thorough and work brilliantly, although I learned not to go overboard with their automated pedantry. The main goal is to make your books as informative, readable and enjoyable as possible.
Now, this all sounds so logical and easy, but it was a long and painful process for me. It was gut-wrenching in that, despite my many years of writing in English and taking pride in my work, it wasn’t good enough. I learned about my weaknesses. But that’s okay. It was a learning process, and by sticking with it, I’ve learnt a lot and added to my strengths. In my final preparation for publishing, I enlisted the services of a professional editor with many years of publishing experience, to do a final proofread. Of course, she is far away from me on another continent. We use the Internet to communicate and exchange documents, and that works very well. The same is true of my artistic team using computer tools to design the book cover and format the book into the pure form needed for printing. I haven’t physically met them. We work the way people are forced to during a pandemic – remotely. And then the books are made available to a public dying to get their hands on them via online shopping. When the online-customers order and pay, the books are printed-on-demand and shipped via the post or courier worldwide to their doorsteps.
That is how it works these days. Gone are the days and nights of monks pouring over large beautifully copied and illustrated works of the Middle Ages in the dim light of candles. Gone is the romance of bohemian novelists scribbling and editing their words in candlelight on scraps of paper. And gone is the manual process invented by Gutenburg in 15th Century Germany. The modern novelist huddles over his laptop or screen, day and night while communicating, or not, with the rest of the world. I worked an entire career with information technology. I have watched it grow from its primitive beginnings in the 1960s to become ubiquitous in everything we do in business, at home and in the arts.
So, there you go. Choose your favourite topic. Start your research. I’ll be giving you more research clues in subsequent posts. Create an outline for your writing project. Enjoy the satisfaction of a job well done, and who knows, possibly lucrative.