Research: What You Look For and What You Find

My current WIP is a YA historical novel, about a young girl in 1913 Chicago. This is the first time I’ve written a historical story, and I was very intimidated, when I started, at the idea of all the research I’d be doing.

Okay, I’m still a bit intimidated.

I cleared off an entire bookshelf for the history books, and I’m working my way through them. Yes, the Internet is out there, and it’s full of fascinating and incredible information. What I’m really loving, though, is burying myself in a book with the depth and layers of a specific subject or theme. 

When I started on this path, I expected I’d be reading for facts, specific details I would need to flesh out the world I’m writing about–to make that world real for my readers (and me). And I’m finding those–although the ones I know I need are making me dig and the ones I had no idea I’d want are jumping out at me!

What I hadn’t thought about was how full a picture I’d get of a place and time, of the people who were moving along the streets and stopping to talk and making changes, small and big.

For the past couple of weeks, I’ve been reading Twenty Years at Hull-House by Jane Addams. Addams was one of the founders of one of the biggest, if not the biggest, settlement houses in the country–in Chicago. My MC will get involved with the settlement movement in the city, so I’ve been reading up on it a lot. Addams’ book has been on my shelf for several months–for the same reason, pretty much, that I hadn’t read Donald Maass’ book for so long. Someday, I’ll learn.

I read Hull-Houseyears ago in college and remembered only that it was the most boring book of the year. Now I just shake my head at the things “They” expect 18-year-olds to read and connect with. Yes, the book is very densely written, and Addams has a seriously convoluted style. This is why it’s taking me so long to read–I have to back up frequently and restart a sentence or a paragraph. Even then, depending on how much she’s referring to politics or events I don’t know about, I don’t always get the point she’s making.

But, oh, I’m learning. I’m finding out the goals of the settlement houses, and the dreams of their founders and residents. I’m getting solid, concrete visions of the people around Hull-House, the families and the children and, oh, the women! I’ve found a couple of wonderful facts that either fill in a gap or are sending me down a new path I needed to find.

The best, though, is what I didn’t expect. I’m getting to know Jane Addams. At 18, in college, if I’d been able to understand this book, I’d have respected the woman who wrote it, even admired her. Now I get to like her. Yes, she was incredible, amazing, even awe-inspiring in dedication to the things she believed in. She was also, though, warm, generous, and funny–in a way that smiles with us as we chase our own ideals.  The energy of trying something new, the passion of commitment, the sometimes head-pounding dead-ends–she sees them all. She can laugh at her young self and still respect that woman she was–even as she made mistakes. She’d rather have had regrets than never have tried.

I would have liked to invite Jane Addams over for tea.

Do you do research for your stories? What magic have you discovered?


  1. P. J. Hoover says:

    I do tons of research, but mine’s mostly mythology based which I could just devour!


  2. beckylevine says:

    Do you just soak it up and let everything sort of ooze into the story? Or do you go after the detail you know you need? Probably both? 🙂


  3. P. J. Hoover says:

    Yeah, I guess a mixture of both. I read as much as I can on mythology, and then while writing, details will come to mind and I’ll go research them more.


  4. Barrie Summy says:

    It sounds really fascinating. I love how much detail comes out of research. And how authentic all that detail makes a book. As a reader, I really appreciate a well-researched book. I’d love to write an historical some day. Yes, I do research, too. It depends on what I need. For example, in I So Don’t Do Mysteries, there is a gun store scene. I actually visited a couple of gun stores and asked a bunch of questions.


  5. Great post — I especially liked the title. What I look for is so often not what I “find.” As you mention, it’s the surprise of details that can turn everything around.


  6. beckylevine says:

    Barrie–I liked that scene–the details were great, I thought! I had no idea I was ever going to write a historical, until this idea came along. And I had NO idea about how much I’d learn that I might not ever use in the book. 🙂


  7. beckylevine says:

    Jeannine–yes, it’s really amazing me. I go looking just to learn general stuff and I end up with this new acquaintance with a woman I’ll never really meet. Weird. 🙂


  8. Shawna says:


    I loved this post. For me, research is an added perk of writing. For my series, I researched the Middle Ages, herbology (some of which I still use) and martial arts. In my current WIP, I used quite a bit of that and did some researching on biology.

    I think when what you are researching because alive to you, you can then transfer that life to your manuscript.


  9. beckylevine says:

    Shawna–very cool. Middle ages martial arts-that’s fascinating. I think it does become alive–it takes the combination of info and story to come together just right.


  10. Amy says:

    I love doing research. I have not done much of it for creative writing; I think I get a little too lost in it. After reading this post, however, I’m thinking that it might be quite wonderful to do a creative writing project that requires historical research. I love to read history as a hobby-maybe I should take advantage of that!

    Good luck with those books–



  11. beckylevine says:

    I am getting lost in it, which is actually really great. I think if I tried to narrow my range too far, I’d not only miss out on the pleasure, but on details I don’t even know I need yet.

    You should definitely do some historic creative writing!


  12. free2cr8 says:

    Great post Becky!

    Research is all about doing my homework. And if I don’t enjoy the research and the learning process then how can I expect to immerse myself in writing the story. So researching helps me weigh in the authenticity of my interest level.

    I’m really digging deep into my research because I’m writing about something I don’t know. I’m taking something historical (and tragic) and creating a fictional romance story around it.

    I think starting off with the essentials by researching what happened will provide a believability to my story. After all, I have to honor the facts even if I’m weaving them into a fictional piece.


  13. beckylevine says:

    free2cr8–the fiction sounds really fun. I think you’re right about the believablity and honoring the facts. My goal is to write the story and weave the history into that.


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