Books, Deepest Fears, Publishing, Uncategorized, World War 2, Writer's Life, Writing, Writing Tips

When Does the Research End?

I recently got into a social media conversation with a historical fiction writer who is just starting out. He mentioned that he enjoyed research—enjoyed it so much, in fact, that he was having a hard time knowing when to stop. He asked me how I know when my research is done.

My response was something along the lines of “HA! Never! It’s never done!”

However, the exchange did make me stop and consider. Yes, I work hard to make sure that the real events I write about are portrayed accurately and the fictional bits are plausible. This takes hours upon hours (upon hours…) of research. But, is there a measurable way to explain just how I know when I’ve reached the research’s end?

While I’m sure that writers who’ve been doing this longer than I could list their own methods for assuring that they’ve done due diligence research-wise, I narrowed down my thoughts on the topic to four big questions I ask myself. If your writing involves research, they might be helpful to think about!

What does your audience already know?

If everyone knows it, you’d better know it too! Photo by AbsolutVision on Unsplash

I write fiction set during the Second World War. Pretty much everyone I’ve met studied it to some degree at one time or another. This means that my readers have a certain level of basic knowledge. (Some go far beyond basic and can discuss generals and campaigns in much more detail than I can!)

That being said, the first thing I make sure I’ve got squared away are the basics.

What dates am I working with? What significant events were happening on those dates? What was going on right before them? What events would have happened already that my characters would know about?

Numbers are not my friends, and I have a hard time visualizing passage of time when I’m just looking at lists of dates (which can lead to some interesting issues when I’m keeping track of which character is where and when.) To compensate, I like to organize all of the dates into a specialized time-line for the book.

Researching general knowledge information is relatively easy, but that doesn’t make it any less essential. I don’t want a manuscript that my middle-school students could find errors in!

What can your audience (and you) easily find out?

Don’t miss the low hanging fruit! Photo by Brienne Hong on Unsplash

I was explaining the world before online dictionaries to some of my students this week, and was reminded again just how accessible information has become in the last couple of decades. While the internet has just as much trash as treasure floating about in it, the fact remains that there are vast amounts of good research information just a few clicks away.

With that being the case, when I’m writing a new piece I take special care not to miss the proverbial low-hanging fruit. In other words, even if I’m dealing with a historical detail that isn’t common knowledge, I’m going to search the internet and see if I can’t find it.

There’s really no excuse for anachronisms like having a character listening to a song that hasn’t been written yet or driving a car that wasn’t available, when a quick hunt through the internet can tell me exactly when said song or car was in circulation.

If I don’t take the time to check, my readers very well might, and I have yet to meet the historical fiction reader who likes inaccuracies.

How important is this for your story?

Know your key details. Photo by Nav Rashmi Kalsi on Unsplash

Of course, not every bit of history is common knowledge or easily accessible. If it were, historical fiction would be far less interesting! I enjoy mining first-hand accounts, maps, and battle records for more obscure details to weave into my stories. (Or to blog about later if I can’t find a place to fit them in!)

However, sometimes I’ve hit roadblocks.

With my most recent book, Where Shall I Flee?, I had an awful time finding details about German medical care for their soldiers. Most websites that I found only talked about German medicine in the context of concentration camps or other unsavory topics. Most of the available books only focused on Allied care, which had some significant differences.

Now, in some instances when I hit a roadblock like this and am asking myself “when does the research end?” I might just quietly remove the topic from the story and substitute it with something that I can more easily verify. This can be a sanity-saver when the impact of the topic on the overall story is relatively small.

However, since one of my main characters was an American nurse who ended up observing some German medical care first-hand, I couldn’t just let this detail slide by.

On the flip side, I had one character’s backstory involving running track when he was in high school. Then realized that the town in which I’d set his backstory doesn’t have its own high school anymore…but may have in the ’40s. Of course, that didn’t tell me if they’d have had a track team. I contacted the town’s historical society, but didn’t hear back until I’d already decided that whether a character had run track in the past or not didn’t really affect whether he could run away from enemy soldiers. That research rabbit hole wasn’t worth pursuing.

In other words, it’s important to be aware of what details are key to the story, and which details are superfluous. The key details are the ones that may take the most time to research, but they’re the ones that a story needs to include—and to include as accurately as possible—in order to be solid historical fiction.

Is it time to play the “Fiction Card?”

My husband’s a history guy, and appreciates the importance of accuracy. He’s also good at keeping me sane and reminding me periodically, “Remember, this is fiction.”

Sometimes there are details that I just can’t find. I might have a weather report for a month of the war with no day-by-day details. I haven’t walked the land in Italy—I’ve never been out of the Western Hemisphere. I can read all of the books, but I’ve never been a nurse, a medic, or led a patrol.

In the end, when I’ve verified every possible historical detail I can think of, and eliminated any of the ones that I can’t quite verify and aren’t essential to the plot, there comes a time when I have to play “the fiction card.”

I try to save it for things that just pertain to my characters or to my story’s unique plot, and I do still try to make sure that my “fiction card” items are still plausible with everything else I know about the time period.

It’s a balancing act—trying to represent the true stories that people lived through these little fictionalized stories I make up.

I imagine that as long as I continue writing I’ll continue working through the process, trying to get it just right. I also imagine that I’ll continue diving back into the research books throughout it so that I can double check just one more thing…

What about you? Readers, what sorts things tell you if an author did (or didn’t do!) their research? Writers, do you have thoughts on when to let your research end?

It’s always particularly gratifying (and a bit nerve-wracking) when someone who really knows the era reads one of my books. I was so pleased to read a wonderful review of Where Shall I Flee? this past Monday by one of my favorite WWII bloggers, GP Cox. Here’s the link if you’d like to pop over and read what he had to say!

31 thoughts on “When Does the Research End?”

  1. Reblogged this on Sharon E. Cathcart and commented:
    For me, it depends on what I’m writing. I don’t know nearly as much about ancient Rome as I’d like, so the research for “Pompeii Fire” continues even as I’m writing. “In The Eye of The Beholder” and “In The Eye of The Storm” took four years each to write because I hadn’t yet learned to avoid “rabbit holes” of side research. I’m better now.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ooh, ancient Rome is such a fascinating topic!
      Ha! Those rabbit holes are tricky. I’ll confess, I still get tripped up in more of them than I should. Working on it…
      Thank you for sharing!


  2. For my writing, my research never REALLY stops, but at some point I must decide that I have enough of the right information to achieve the goal for the work on which I’m working. The problem is the temptation to try to force everything I’ve learned during the research into the work. It then becomes just an encyclopedic work. Not good for keeping the readers’ attention!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Thank you for a terrific intro, Anne. But I must admit just how much I did enjoy your story. Realism was felt throughout and I do not feel you played very many ‘fiction cards’. As a person who also enjoys research, I respect what you’ve accomplished.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Fascinating post. I remember you mentioning the weather thing before, its funny because there obviously are times when weather influenced battles and the “history” of the event. But so often its just trivial and likely the only fully correct answer is buried in boxed archives somewhere next to the Ark of the Covenant…
    Not to swell your head too much, but from what I’ve seen you do a better job than many more highly visible “professional” writers. I’ve recently been reading a lot of books by Jeff Shaara, and in his World War II books I often found myself thinking “I strongly doubt a German officer during the War would have seen things that way” and such. I’m not even thinking of moral issues, but actual military stuff. And his knowledge of aircraft is dreadful. How hard is it get a good proofread? Currently I’m enjoying his Revolutionary War books, but I often wonder how accurate certain details are. Years ago I read a couple books by WEB Griffen (a problematic writer on several levels) and I swear there were issues on every single page. To be fair, his work pre-dates the Internet. But if I could find mistakes so easily, surely he could find someone knowledgable enough to help.
    Alternate history writers (Harry Turtledove and Newt Gingrich come to mind) even seem to do better? Although that may be the nature of the beast, as soon as you head into alternate territory the standard is different.
    Your medical example is interesting. My own expectation of German military medical practices are that they had most of the same knowledge as Allied medicine, but more difficulties on supplies and certain specific medicines. Your story re-enforces that expectation so it rings true to me. I wonder if re-enactors would have more information on this?
    I don’t even remember now how I first found your site, maybe just exploring Word Press? But you have definitely rekindled my interest in historic fiction. It is the strength of your research that keeps the immersion complete.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much for your kind words- they’re much appreciated! (but I’ll try not to let them go to my head 😉)

      Re-enacting sites did have some good visuals for medic kits and things, though just what each medicine would be used for was harder to pin down. The best source I found was from the US Army Department of Medical History. Someone did a report that’s on file from 1945 comparing and contrasting German to American field medical treatments in Italy. They noted the common German use of pentathol sodium for general anesthesia (which made it into the book) and a few interesting differences. Besides the lack of penicillin, (it was a new wonder drug in 1943, and only the Allies had it) the writer noted that German asceptic procedures were a lot less stringent- including handwashing- and as a result infection rate was pretty high- almost expected. Another was that in battlefield medicine, while according to this source American doctors tended to operate on more severely injured patients first, the German staff tended to treat less severely injured patients first- with the goal of getting them back out fighting more quickly.

      So many details to find, and of course sometimes the sources disagree, which is a whole other headache…

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Sources in disagreement is a funny thing. With the things I write exploring the inconsistencies is part of the fun of it, but I imagine for story research it could be maddening.
        And wow, a difference in triage practices that is sort of the opposite of surprising; like the Germans were darkly pragmatic about it. Who’d have guessed?!
        The penicillin thing made me look it up! I had thought Sulfa was the only anti-bacterial in use during the War. You educated me.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. My favorite is when they can’t even agree on the date of an event. I’d think that wouldn’t be too hard to track…of course I just noticed that I wrote down the wrong month on an important formal e-mail I sent out, so who am I to judge?!
        I thought the triage differences were really interesting too- that stress on the collective group vs. the individual survival. It’s an interesting reflection of belief systems, isn’t it?
        Sulfa was still big, especially early on. Getting penicillin really up and going took a couple of years, and it wasn’t always readily available, even in the post-war years. Glad to pass along some new details!

        Liked by 1 person

      3. It seems like dates are pretty good when your dealing with any sort of headquarters and official communications, but the further down line you get the more flakey they get. So much of what I read is Pacific, and between the confusion of the date line (and you know the IJN never used time zones, while the USN sometimes did) and just guys fighting in the jungle, or worse in a POW camp… Dates get really wonky. It’s so often amazing to see things where you know one party just has to wrong. Even worse, both could be wrong…

        Liked by 1 person

  5. The title of your post is an interesting question and one that is very, very difficult to answer for us because we try to write the most complete and accurate unit history possible. On one hand, there’s some information that’s simply lost because of the way records were kept or, in the case of the 3rd Bomb Group, some records were on a flight that disappeared. On the other hand, we have to draw the line somewhere and accept that we have done the best we can to find out as much as we can about a mission, aircraft, etc. If it goes on forever, there would be no book!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m sure the pressure is far greater to get all of the facts straight in non-fiction writing! I can’t imagine how hard it is to get to the point where you say, “enough.” Aside from the importance of keeping the stories from history alive, good historical fiction can’t really happen without the excellent non-fiction available out there, so even though I haven’t used your sources directly yet, thanks for all of the work you put in!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Great ideas and I agree with every one of them. For me, I just keep researching until something inside tell me I know enough. It’s as much instinct as anything else, like all the pieces finally snapped together into an image, or a movie, rather than words.

    How did you ultimately solve the ‘medical care among German POW camps’ issue? That was a big part of your story and you handled it–I thought–well.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I like that image- of the pieces snapping together!
      I just kept digging, and eventually I found two very helpful sources. One was a WWII reenactor/history buff who had images online of a recreated German medical pack. That helped with just visualizing the way the medicine would look, which was a lot of the problem. The second was a report from the US Department of Medical History of a study of German field hospitals in Italy in 1944 (or 5? I do have the source somewhere.) The Americans doing the report made note of many specific German practices that differed from American, which was helpful.
      I was able to research many of the drugs that would be in use, but the big problem was finding just how they’d be administered- some of those details I just glossed over, as that wouldn’t be something my nurse would focus on anyway- she’d be more likely to notice the differences.
      I did make a few assumptions- for instance, I knew that Allied medical facilities often made use of available structures- hence the farm house.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. This is a great post! I think research can become never ending and we can tie ourselves in knots with it. I think your post gives a great explanation for how to work with research and things to consider so you can stop researching at certain points.

    The part about the man running track in his backstory and how you had to consider the school, if they had track teams etc was something I’d never have thought of! I can see why I’m not a historical fiction writer (but I do love reading it!) 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks so much, Ari! I’m so pleased that you enjoyed it.
      It’s so hard to STOP and let the story rest. And I’ll admit, there’s always that fear when I choose to use a real location that I’ve missed something silly. That same character almost referenced mules being used in a mine where they’d stopped using mules in the 30’s. I caught that mistake at the last minute thanks to a helpful park ranger who did a little digging for me…

      Liked by 1 person

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