I write historical novels. Most of my books are Westerns, and I strive to properly reflect the lifestyle, technology, and politics of the era. Tempest at Dawn, my big historic novel, is a dramatization of the Constitutional Convention. Even The Shut Mouth Society, my contemporary chase-thriller has strong historical content centered on Abraham Lincoln.
When I’m busy and I discover an interesting web article, I bookmark it in a browser folder to read later. This morning I read Joseph Finder’s article Research: A Writers Best Friend and a Writer’s Worst Enemy. I think Finder has it just about right. He alludes to my worst habit: using research to procrastinate, but couches it far too narrowly. When I’m on a roll, I never let research get in the way of me getting the story down in black and white. On the other hand, when I don’t really want to get into writing, I bounce around the web and tell myself I’m making progress through research. Somehow, I convince myself of this even when I’m watching the GoPro video of the week.
A few years ago, I wrote an article on the hazards of web-based research. I even put together a Powerpoint presentation for a writer’s group. Today, I use the web more frequently for research. One reason is the proliferation of primary source documents. The internet has become easier than a library to find primary sources. The second reason, and the more important reason for my writing, is that reputable institutions have digitized their content. The web has grown up. Except for odds and ends, I rarely use Wikipedia. There are many more authoritative sources. You just need to know how to look for them.
I still need to walk the ground of my novels. I’m not a visual person, so I take gigabytes of pictures so I can look at them as a write descriptive prose. Walking the ground has another purpose. Every locale has a distinct feel to it. When I deplane in Phoenix or Honolulu, I know where I’m at as soon as I feel and smell the air. Some writers are geniuses when it comes to decretive prose, but for me to describe ambiance, I need to experience it. Besides, this is the fun part of research. Wandering around Virginia City or Old Denver sure beats trying to verify the exact time Virgil Earp lived in Prescott, Arizona.