by Janis Patterson
My name is Janis Susan and I am a research geek.
Last week on the Ladies of Mystery blog I wrote about the necessity and moral imperative of accurate research in our writing. Once it was finished, though, I realized it told only half the story. Well, I realized it before I was finished, but just how long can you make a blog piece? It's a blog, not a novel!
So, I decided to carry on here and talk about the irresistible seductiveness of research. Currently I am working on a novella where the more research I do, the more I need to do... and even more I want to do. The book is part of a Christmas anthology set in Regency England, and while it has a mystery in it, it's primarily a romance. (Hey, we have to take the contracts as they come, don't we?)
As you probably know, I'm a dedicated pantser. That does not mean I don't have a bare-bones sketch of the book in my head that I might - or might not - follow. It's a starting point. The trouble with this is that while it's okay to think 'the heroine creeps out of the house and goes to a coaching inn where she catches a mail coach north to begin a new life, but ends up hiding from the villain in a church.' Reasonable sketch of proposed action, isn't it?
Ha! First, I need to decide which city she is heading for and how much she can afford to pay for a ticket out of her scanty funds (like all good romance heroines she has little/no money). Then I have to decide which London coaching inn serves that particular route, is there a church nearby and which church is it? For that matter, did the stage coaches run at night? Believe me, most readers of Regency romance/mystery are dedicated enough to know this kind of thing and will eat any writer alive who doesn't get the details right!
Thanks to the blessings of the internet it's not all that difficult to get enough information to be accurate in just a short time. Thanks to the curse of the internet it's far too easy to search on and on, getting just one more bit of information to increase your verisimilitude until you aren't really researching at all, you're just enjoying reading.
Like last night. I had gone as far as I could without more research in one of the climactic scenes building to the big finish, so I kept looking. The Husband asked if I wasn't going to come to the TV, as one of our favorite programs was on. Without even raising my head I said I'd come, I just needed another minute or two. An hour or so later he came back to say it had been a good program, but now it was time for another of our favorites to start. This time I did raise my head, frowned mightily and told him I had told him I just needed a few more minutes. (He's used to me - we do this regularly.) Finally he came back to tell me he was going to bed and was I coming. You've got it. I told him (this time without frowns, as I was too tired to frown) that I'd be along in a few minutes, I just needed one more reference...
I finally got to bed around two, but I did find everything I needed, and it's all extremely real. The London coaching inn is The Swan With Two Necks, the church is St. Lawrence Jewry rebuilt after the Great Fire of 1666 by Christopher Wren, the destination town is Coventry. I know why the inn has such a strange name, what is remarkable about St. Lawrence Jewry (and how it got that odd appellation) and yes, the coaches did run at night.
All for a small, three page scene, hardly more than a transition from one plot point to another.
However... I firmly believe that all knowledge is useful. Sometime I might write a book where some of this extraneous information is crucial. I might not remember it by that time, but I will probably remember that it exists, and have a vague idea of where to find it. Then I will have the sublime pleasure of going back down the rabbit hole one more time, probably finding more fascinating facts that I missed this last time. It's inevitable.