I’m often asked at writer’s workshop and book club gatherings about how I research my novels. Do I:
(a) Do all the research and then write my novel?
(b) Do a bit of research, and then mix writing and researching?
For me, the answer is B, with a whole lot of double, triple, quadruple checking. And I’m always nervous that I’ve made a mistake in the tiniest detail, or some other historical research faux pas.
Which explains The Egg Beater.
I’ve told this story often.
One day, my Very Patient Husband came home from work and asked, “How did your writing go today?”
“Ohhhhh, it was TERRIBLE,” I wailed.
“Oh no! Unsure of the character arc? Clunky dialogue? Plot snafus?” he asked. (No, he’s not a writer. He’s just been married to one for a very long time.”
“No.” I sniffled. (Yes, I did. I really, really did.) “I just don’t know what kind of eggbeater Lily would have used in 1925! I’ve been on eBay, looked through my research books, and I’m stuck!”
Pause. Blink. “Um, couldn’t she have just used… a fork?” he asked–without a hint of exasperation or sarcasm. (He is also A Very Kind husband.)
After another long pause, we both burst out laughing.
Of course Lily could have used a fork to beat eggs in 1925. I had just fallen into the trap that writers often do–a research rabbit hole because, well, sometimes it’s more fun to chase research rabbits than to face the challenge of writing. But truth be told, if Lily using a fork versus an egg beater gives a reader pause, then, well, I’d better revise that scene for pace, suspense, and so on!
A few months later we happened to be at an antique shop–a rare occurrence for us, as we’re not antiquers, and honestly, I can’t remember why we were in one. I think we were whiling away some time in our younger daughter’s college town.
In any case, I found an old egg beater, circa 1925, and of course I bought it!
Not to beat eggs. (I have a whisk, after all… and plenty of forks.) But to keep in my office near my history books I often consult as a reminder: choose wisely the historical details that truly *matter* to a story.
Recently, I gave a presentation to Wright Memorial Library on using historical research to enhance one’s fiction or memoir, whether historical or contemporary. If you’d like more of my tips and techniques on historical research for writers, you can watch the presentation on YouTube.