Ruth E. Walker
History holds so much richness for writers. It’s a deep well many of us dip into, finding inspiration, surprises and mysteries. And it’s why we call it a rabbit hole–wander in and you might find it tough to resurface.
As I work on the second book of my speculative fiction, I research ancient (and not-so-ancient) history to strengthen plot developments and character actions and reactions. I look for the sparks that ignited revolutions, for the leaders and strategies behind uprisings, and for the willful blindness of those in power.
Good grief, we humans are ridiculous when it comes to willful blindness. From aristocrats to bureaucrats to potentates, the “safe” bubble that power, influence and wealth creates is the reason so many of them are in shock when the masses are at the gates.
Similarly, we humans are one hot mess when we are that angry mob. Just wander through social media of all stripes to find postings of extreme outrage, disgust and threats. And algorithms make sure that like feeds like, so travelling down that rabbit hole is risky business.
Frankly, it’s why I barely dip my toe into that form of fury. Give me instead human interest stories or pics of your grandkids any day.
The online anger is nothing new. The difference is the speed and volume that social media platforms provide. And while they can offer insights into discontent, there is no lack of page-by-page context available in physical text. That’s why I like to research through books and magazines. Just one phrase or footnote can launch a whole new idea.
When you write with history in your back pocket, your characters, plots and themes carry a truth. Truth grounding any fiction creates reality for the reader – and most importantly, confidence for the author. And that, dear writer, is pure creative gold.
Research is a topic we’ve covered in previous Top Drawer posts. So I’ve gathered a collection of some of our more popular posts on that topic because, after all, they’re still useful and timely. You’ll notice that most of them are written by Gwynn. She is known for bringing her analytical mind to the creative table, and for that I am grateful, as are her readers.
Let’s start with the treasures found in archives. In a well-received two-part series, Gwynn explores where and how to dig in:
Digging up Archives – Part I — an overview of where to find archives in Canada and beyond.
Always thorough, Gwynn followed that post with the answer to “Now what?” in Digging up Archives – Part 2 Top Drawer readers told us they had a much better understanding of where and how to use archives for research after reading Gwynn’s posts.
I chronicled my own experience with Canada’s National Library and Archives, researching my great-great-great-grandfather’s book about the Hudson’s Bay Company in the late 1700s. Holding History in My Hands shares what that moment was like.
And more recently, Gwynn posted a number of computer hacks that make writing — and researching — easier and faster.
In Computer Hacks for Writers and Researchers, she offers up a taste of ways writers can make the work less onerous.
Access is key
A final note – many of the featured sources are online. Given that we are still treading a careful line between in-person and virtual activities, what was convenient less than 18 months ago is now pretty much a lifeline.
We writers know that library and archive staff are incredibly helpful when doing our research. Express your appreciation when they go that extra mile and be kind when health and safety regulations limit their efforts.
Writing in the time of the pandemic…that has an interesting ring to it, don’t you think? I wonder what the textbooks, novels, poetry, lyrics and archives of 2020 will reveal to writers in the year 2220 and beyond?
LAST WORD: OUR FALL RETREAT
Re-emerging, our all-inclusive writing retreat in October is now fully booked except for one single cottage available at a premium rate. OR if you’re a cottager/resident nearby, we have a couple of spaces for day-rate participants.
Email us at email@example.com for details.
We are launching a Wait List for anyone who’d like to join us at Elmhirst’s Resort this fall. Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject line: Wait List Fall Retreat and if we have any cancellations, we’ll let you know in the order your email was received.