My Writing Process: Step 2 – Research

Happily, I have delivered my manuscript concerning the Laurentic to my editor the other week.  So now I am preparing to work on a new topic.

I have about four topics that I will be pitching to my agent.  What I am hoping is that he loves all of them, so I can just line up future writing projects.  My apologies, but I am not going to divulge any of my potential future projects, but needless to say that if my agent goes for one then I’ll be preparing to slog through the book proposal, a curious marketing piece but invaluable when writing a non-fiction work since the proposal creates the skeleton upon which the narrative rests.  This of course means research — tons of it.

The most valuable source for narrative building is to obtain primary source documents that relate the story from the perspective of one of the main characters.  This may include diaries, narrative accounts, or even newspaper clippings.  It is a grab bag and locating it is more of an art than a google search.  My day job is managing a library and after being in that vocation for a number of years I can avow unequivocally that there is only a tithe of the research out there on the open internet to write an original historical narrative.  There are often research items out there which are unindexed which means that the only way to learn about their existence is to know somebody or simply to discover it.

For example, when I was starting my Laurentic project, I had no idea what documents were out there and if what existed could tell a story.  I knew that there were items at the British National Archives, but I could not tell its size and scope.  Now the British Archives had a digitization service so I put in for an estimate — they wrote back a few days later quoting several thousand British pounds!  The good news was that this tidy sum indicated thousands of pages of documents.  The bad news was that I was in the U.S.  What to do…

I started estimating the costs of flying to London for a few days so I could work in the archive.  But I needed to know if it would be worth it.  So I contacted the archival staff asking what the exact scope of the papers in question were.  My surmises were correct and there were a number of documents there.  But after I explained to them my situation they recommended hiring a researcher to photograph the documents for me.  This proved to be the most cost effective way to do it and I engaged the services of Ruth Bloom (I am sure she won’t mind the plug), who sent me gigs and gigs of images which I promptly converted to PDF and studied for months.

The Admiralty records in this case were indexed and known.  It was only through repeated probing that I began to locate persons who were related to descendants of figures in the Laurentic story or were still involved in its ongoing tale today.  This level of research is the most serendipitous where I had to rely on snail mail correspondence and in-person meetings to gain the trust of these persons of my qualifications to write the Laurentic story.  As a result, I obtained documents that had not been used before.  There was, in particular, one memoir of my primary character that his family gave me that ended up expanding my story by about 20%, adding richness of detail that wasn’t there before.  This, mind you, came after I got my book deal on Laurentic.  In fact, the same happened for both Four Years Before the Mast and Seventeen Fathoms Deep.

Now that I’m working on new topics, my research is the most cursory kind, since I am trying to probe if there is enough material out that warrants a book treatment.  This normally includes looking at secondary books about the topic and then checking their sources.  Based on these results, you can usually surmise just how much material is out there.  Typically, there is almost always more than you think, but as in the case of my Laurentic project, much of it is hidden and requires digging.


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