Thursday, April 26, 2012

This-n-That Thursday: How I Conquered My Fear of Research

The Home Store in Prairie Farm, Wisconsin - 1902

I have a confession. After years of focusing on writing contemporary romances and being totally convinced that I would never author a historical romance, I’m not only writing one—I’m loving it!

How did this happen?

You see, even though I’ve been drawn to reading historical fiction for years, the type of research that goes into writing a historical has always felt rather daunting. And I’d heard enough stories of readers crucifying authors for getting something wrong. So I kept to writing in the time period I knew best—the here and now.

But then I had an idea . . . and I began to wonder . . .

My grandparents had lived in my hometown; my parents had grown up there, and then they later returned to raise a family. There didn’t seem anything special about the town of 550 people when I was growing up. I remembered older generations mentioning the Home Store that had burned down before my parents were born. They spoke of it with fond memories and how it was known as the most beautiful general store in America during it’s time. The three-story house with 26 rooms built by the store’s owner in 1898 still stands along the river, a mere two blocks from the main street.

McCall's Magazine - 1901
I discovered that the small farming community had indeed experienced some glory days in the late 1800s and early 1900s. People came from all over to take part in a large Memorial Day celebration created by the town. The owner of the Home Store was known as a man of great faith and a visionary who set an example of customer service that was studied by businessmen across the country.

An idea formed for a historical romance set in 1902, and I began to get excited! Before long, I had a list of characters and a storyline. 

Thus began more research into the early 1900s. Only I began to feel overwhelmed. Where would the research ever stop???

When it felt like too much, Annette’s wise words reminded me that I wasn’t writing a history text book. I didn’t need to include everything that occurred in 1902.

 When I’ve run into difficulties finding necessary facts, historical writers, members of historical societies, and librarians have been more than willing to help.

I also picked the brains of three friends who write historical romances: Ocieanna, Julie Lessman, and Laura Frantz. All three gave advice that came down to this: Use history—don’t let history use you.

What I realized is that story comes first. Whether people live in 2012 or 1902, they still have the same basic fears, struggles, desires, hopes, and dreams. I need to tell the story and then use historical facts to help place my readers in that time period.

Kitchen Stove

Through research, I’ve discovered a love for history—and a respect for my home town that I didn’t have before.

While Ocieanna was co-writing Love Finds You in Victory Heights with Tricia Goyer, she’d arrive at our critique group meetings, excited to share her latest research findings. I now understand her excitement at finding historical facts—golden nuggets—that can be incorporated into the story.

For instance, I’ve discovered that in 1902:
  • The song “In the Good Old Summertime” was written.
  • The Wizard of Oz had been out for one year.
  • Valentine conversation candy hearts were first sold.
  • Women still couldn’t vote. 

Pretty cool, huh?

I’m so glad I conquered my fear of research because I’m having a blast.

What fears do you need to conquer in your writing life?

~ Dawn


  1. I love, love to research. I'll be teaching a class on it at the NWCW Renewal next month. I'm so glad you found courage to jump in there! My fear would be all the technical writing "rules". Plot arc, character arc, conflict...It's kind of like swinging a golf club - one miscalculation and your ball goes way off in the woods! I worry about my story hitting the mark.
    Great post!

    1. I'm glad you enjoyed the article, Jan. That's awesome that you're teaching a class on research. Do you have any tips that you could share here? ;-)

      I understand your fear concerning the technical rules. I think we "all" fear that our stories will miss the mark. Love your analogy about the golf ball! :-D

    2. My best research tips would be to take advantage of reference librarians, talk to museum curators, and my favorite - talk to the old folks. Their memories may not be 100% accurate but they can inspire stories and tell you about things to spark more research. Gather information wherever you are. You never know when you might use it.


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