How to Research for a Story

Hello, and welcome back to the blog.

In case you’re new, I’m a twenty-something college graduate, currently jobless, suffering from severe depression, generalized anxiety disorder, and social anxiety disorder. (Yes, I do have actual diagnoses from actual doctors.) I am also single, hopelessly romantic and baby-hungry.

And most importantly, I am a writer.

I see myself as a writer almost before I see myself as a person. I consider this a sort of protection. In a previous post I discussed the concept of Matryoshka Identity, where you have layers of yourself in a Russian nesting doll kind of thing. I have a Professional Worker Sarah layer, and that does include my skills at writing and communication— but Writer Sarah is that deepest doll that I see when I look in the mirror. There are other components to the innermost layer, but Writer Sarah is always what I have seen first. My inner world is my writing world, and so it makes sense that the innermost layer of my Matryoshka Identity is that of Writer.

I like to write fiction. Specifically, fantasy; specifically, romance; specifically, Regency romance. I like to chuck these into a blender to produce what could very, very charitably be called “Jane Austen meets Avatar: The Last Airbender.” Or conceivably, “Tamora Pierce and Elizabeth Gaskell in a blender.”

I don’t know what it is. I like Regency romances because of Fitzwilliam-Darcyesque heroes and Elizabeth-Bennetesque heroines; but I also like magic and swords and things. It only makes sense to me that they ought to be combined.

However, I was born in 1993 and I do not have a native knowledge of the Regency era beyond my many, many readings/viewings of period romance novels and their film counterparts. I also do not know a whole lot about things like swords, horses, or the laws of physics.

Fortunately, the laws of physics tend to take a backseat in fantasy novels, as long as you kind of explain your magic system a little bit. You can allow your characters to shoot fire from their hands and feet, even if they are wearing empire-waist dresses and gold-buttoned jackets that would probably be ruined by heat exposure. There are things you can safely ignore in a fantasy setting, and the readers do not question it.

There are some things that you cannot, however, explain away. There is a very fine line between “Regency romance” and “general historic romance” and when you add a fantasy dimension, the line grows even finer. I have to include some very, very specific ideas to make it clear that this is not just a Historical Romance Fantasy Novel, it is a Regency Romance Fantasy Novel.

This leads me, of course, to do research. I have done some very interesting research in the line of my work.

I will admit that some of it has been about names. Nothing irks me more than to see a character named Jessica or Brittany or Ashley as the heroine of a Regency romance. Lovely names, all of them; but entirely anachronistic to the Regency. In fact, you would be much more likely to read about a man named Ashley. (Because it was a man’s name originally.) Regency names are Elizabeth, Jane, Mary, Anne, Sophia, Louisa, Caroline, Emma, Catherine, Eleanor, Margaret, etc… classically English names with some influence from Greek (left over from the Classical revival), French, and German. When I write a heroine, I want her name to be a little different. I have to find something with English, Greek, French, or German history that doesn’t sound completely anachronistic. Some examples of names for heroines I’ve used are: Ludovica, Rosamond (nn Rose), Beryl, Cecily, Sylvia (nn Sylvie), and Sophronia (nn Sophy). A little on the quirkier side— but not completely out of place.

But there are other things I have to research. For your entertainment, allow me to provide you a brief list of things I have Googled for the sake of writing:

  • Public restrooms during the Regency era
  • Boiling water for childbirth
  • Rules of chess
  • Sections of a pirate ship
  • Average height and weight for a child by age
  • Mattresses in the Regency era
  • Forms of address in the Regency era
  • Card parties
  • Bourdaloue
  • Fresh fruits and vegetables by month
  • Gunshot wound entry patterns
  • Funeral customs in the Regency era
  • How many miles can a horse travel in one day

I could go on, but you get my point. It’s a lot of weird, random things and it’s the things you don’t think about in Pride and Prejudice: where did Lizzie Bennet go if she had to pee during church, or at the public assembly hall? (The answer is, if you’re curious, nowhere. Instead, a female servant would have brought her a bourdaloue, which is basically a little gravy boat that she would stick under her skirts and pee into. She would then hand off the full container to the servant, who would go dump it. Bourdaloues are actually really pretty. They were often made of porcelain and hand-painted. I sort of want one. Not to pee in, just to stick on the mantel and look at, like a knick-knack.)

The point is that I do a lot of weird research. It’s sort of something that happens as part of being a writer. And I learned how to research in college, so I know what I’m doing. It’s not just Google and Wikipedia— I go to the blogs of the Austen historians, the people who are obsessed like me, who have actually done book research and written articles. I look for the PDFs of whatever they’re citing.

You can find a lot just by using Google, though. It’s a very specific time period that I tend to research, and there is a lot of information available. I have a few websites bookmarked about types of wood, breeds of horse, and gemstones, flowers, and birds.

The more research I end up doing for a story, the more I end up falling in love with that story and finishing it. The things I find most fascinating are little things— peeing into a porcelain gravy boat, for instance. Or the fact that people tied rope to the bottom of a bedframe in place of a boxspring. Or the fact that people were playing blackjack long before it was called blackjack. Or the steps of a quadrille.

This is how I research for a story, anyway. It’s not really a how-to guide; it’s just a bit of insight into the way I write.


If you’re looking forward to seeing this blog in the future, consider following. If you want to see Occasional Pictures of My Face and Food I Have Made, you can follow me on Instagram at hypotheticalelephants. If you want to see me being a Whiny, Immature Human, you can follow me on Twitter at sadINFJwriter.


 

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