By Guest Blogger, SL Matthews
“The first time young Ryder drowned, it became the beginning of something new—an idea he perceived as infinite immunity to the perils of daily life.”
With these words, my debut historical fiction novel, Nickel’s Luck, begins. And with that first line came the first wave of research. No, I realized, drowning is not all arms and legs flailing in the water, desperately seeking help as we frequently see in movies. It is usually quite the opposite, almost a numbness, the inability to raise one’s arms above their head. And with this, I learn. When I learn, my readers do, too. Even in fiction, I owe my readers the truth, and I will never cut corners in that respect.
The word ‘research’ means…
The word ‘research’ means far more than simple, tedious fact-checking. Whether you write historical or modern, if you arm yourself with subject-matter knowledge, you can breathe life into your characters so they won’t drown in the world around them. (See what I did there?)
The excuse I most often hear is: “It takes time away from writing.” Well, yes. Yes, it does – but ask yourself: isn’t the value of that knowledge about the world you are creating worth the time spent?
You know where and what time period your story takes place; read everything you can get your hands on about the Era Writing modern-day? Great! Makes your job easier . . . doesn’t it? Although, do you know the geography of the region, city, or countryside where your story takes place? The history? Vegetation? Architecture? No?
Research can be done in pockets of time. Plan ahead if you can. I try my best to follow this advice, but it isn’t my forte. I always end up stopping my writing to research a detail. Trust me when I say this can lead you down a slippery slope if you are easily distracted. I try to highlight the text about a subject that needs further research, and leave a note to look it up later. I believe you should always keep writing until you hit a natural stopping point, then return to your noted text for detail research.
“Where do I research?”
Let’s face it, we live now in a world where virtually all the knowledge of mankind is at our fingertips. Tools like Google, Pinterest, and Wikipedia let us acquire, in minutes, what took days, weeks, even a lifetime for our literary idols to gather and sort out. (Let me tell you! If a stranger went through our search history, we would have a lot of explaining to do!) When I was deep in writing Nickel’s Luck, my husband’s favorite thing to do was come home from work, count all the open tabs on my screen, and read the website titles. I had everything from the flavors of ice cream available in 1875 Texas to photos of a feared sea monster called the Beisht Kionne, and why 19th Century sailors were deathly terrified of bananas.
The internet is just one avenue for great research. For historical fiction – antique books and newspapers are a great source. If I am not scouring the internet for old books, I am hitting flea markets or antique shops, searching for original books dating pre-1900s. Most of those old tomes are works of art within themselves, and between those dusty, moth-eaten covers, they harness an understanding of lifestyles, philosophies, and speech that would otherwise be lost to history.
Whenever I travel, I take an alarming amount of photographs. Landscapes, flora and fauna, cabins, architecture, abandoned homes (taken from the road – no trespassing of course), gardens, animals and weather all contribute to an author’s ability to visualize their story. I place these photos in marked digital albums, and have referred back to them immeasurably.
Even if you cannot travel (a difficult feat nowadays), you can still contact museums. If you have a particular question you just cannot solve in your research, don’t be afraid to reach out to a museum relating to your time-period or story. I contacted five of them out west during the writing of Nickel’s Luck with the same question, and they all replied with detailed, in depth answers which were both helpful and fascinating. They were happy to hear from me and appreciated the question. Museums are there to teach, don’t ever be afraid to use them. Many now also have virtual tours to show you how places and things once were. Trying to describe a place you have never been is hard enough, but I promise you, this tip will make things a whole lot easier on you.
As a historical living history reenactor, I take things a few steps farther by setting up live scenes from my books. Donned in Victorian attire with friends, we reenact from my description, and the effect is startling because the characters are now real living, breathing people – and I have the photographs to prove it. What better way to learn about your character, inside and out, than to become them for an afternoon? Plus, it’s just downright FUN.
I lose myself in learning. With my first novel, I spent countless hours obsessing over the most miniscule details, searching for answers. My favorite subject now is 19th Century fishermen and sailor’s superstitions. Their outlandish beliefs and fears, if you dig deep enough, stem from very real dangers they did not understand. Mostly. A few of them, well, were just strange.
Eggshells, for instance. Aboard ship, eggshells had to be ground into powder before being tossed overboard. This way, tiny fairy-like witches would not be able to ride the broken shells back to the ship to curse the crew. Then, there was the “Devil-Fruit” – which plays a symbolic role in my book. Bananas. To carry a cargo-load of that yellow fruit meant certain death for the sailors. Many refused to sail—no punishment could be as bad as sailing with bananas on board! I dug for days on end searching for the reason behind this, and discovered the skin of sailors would often turn purplish-blue in color, and they would literally drop dead . . . but only when bananas were on board. There had to be a logical reason! What was it? I dug so deep into the world I feared I would reach the end of the internet, but at last I found it. Spiders. Those eight-legged monsters would hide in bunches of bananas, and crawl out unseen on deck to bite the sailors. In that Era, logic relied heavily on good or bad luck, and no one dared question the reason behind it. The right research makes for an incredible story, no matter what Era you write. Go out there, explore your world. Research, learn, write. Your adventures await, and those stories bottled up inside of you? Trust me, they will thank you for your devotion.
-S. L. Matthews, author.
If you care to follow behind-the-scenes photos and stories of S. L. Matthews and her work, you may follow her here:
S. L. Matthews is an 18th & 19th century living history reenactor, hobbyist photographer, and avid writer of the Victorian Era and the Old West.
She grew up in the past, weaving on a loom and producing period rifle and accoutrement straps for reenactors, museums, movies, and television worldwide.
Now she weaves three-dimensional characters through unusual plots and focuses on stories largely untold through history.
When she’s not dressed in Victorian Era and Old West attire, you can find her outside photographing Tennessee landscapes and living history, tackling her garden with her Welsh Corgi and Anatolian Shepherd, scouting shops for old books and historical treasures, and of course, always researching and writing novels.
S. L. Matthews is the author of the award-winning “Nickel’s Luck” for Best Novel, and “Ravens in the Graveyard.” She lives in Sparta, Tennessee with her family.