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?