Welcome to Chaos Theory of Writing! Historical author Jessica James is going to talk to us today about one of my favorite topics – research. I love it. There’s something thrilling about digging deep into a subject to uncover its origins.
So I’m excited to welcome Jessica to RU today. After you finish reading Jessica’s post, please be sure to scroll down to the bottom to find out how you can win a basket of goodies.
Let’s get to it. Good morning, Jessica!
One of the questions I’ve been asked most often about my historical fiction novel Shades of Gray is, “how much research did you have to do?”
The answer is easy: A lot.
But the follow-up answer to the follow-up question, “how did you do your research?” is not quite so cut and dry.
Many authors think of research as endless hours sitting in a stuffy library pouring over dusty pages of history books. In my case, nothing could be further from the truth. I did read some war records and timelines and tactics, but every author already knows the nitty-gritty work that needs to be done to get their facts straight. I thought it would be more interesting to share some of the not-so-common methods I used to learn about the Civil War era when writing Shades of Gray.
A novel idea
Believe it or not, some of my research involved sitting in a comfortable chair simply reading novels penned in the 1800s. I really felt guilty indulging in this exercise, but the wealth of information I gleaned from those pages about the manners, etiquette, lifestyle and dress of the Civil War period is immeasurable.
I also came away with something that is perhaps more ambiguous, but no less important – a feel for the language and the cadence of the sentences in the 19th century. I am a bit of a stickler for language, and spent a lot of time making the dialogue in Shades of Gray sound authentic. This, by the way, paid off because I was asked to review and help improve the dialogue in a pilot script for a Civil War movie as a result of the strong 19th century voice used in Shades.
An added bonus of reading old books is learning the techniques of writing “romance.” Novels in that era do not contain sex or promiscuous acts of any kind – requiring the author to really write from the heart. Reading them made me realize it’s possible to convey true romance by using emotion rather than relying on sex. When you think about it, can you imagine if Jane Austen would have thrown Elizabeth into bed with Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice? Most likely we would never have heard of the book today – it is the romantic elements and emotion we remember.
Battle scenes? But I’ve never been in one
Battle scenes were some of the most difficult ones to write since, of course, I don’t have any actual experience in that setting. One option was to pour over books containing official records and military strategies of Civil War officers, but for the most part, I did not. Instead, I read diaries and newspaper accounts, again, to get a feel for the language, and also to develop an understanding of the personal and emotional elements of the war.
Living in Gettysburg, Pa., gave me the added opportunity to attend large-scale battle re-enactments where I discovered what a camp full of horses and a few thousand men (in wool uniforms in July) smell like. I remember being surprised at how the campfires stung my eyes and how hot and stuffy those white canvas tents could be. What I discovered by sitting in the dark and taking in the sights, sounds and smells of a military encampment could never be learned in a book.
The battle re-enactments also gave me a feel for the chaos of battle – clouds of smoke, whinnying horses, bugle calls, booming cannons, shouted orders, etc. These things can be imagined, but are so much more vivid when experienced first-hand.
Walking in the footsteps of history
As I said, many aspects of the history we write about can be imagined, but I’m the type of person that has to visit, feel and experience an historic site – even if it’s just an empty field where a cavalry engagement once took place.
I call it “capturing the energy,” and, though it may sound strange, I always seem to get a burst of creativity after doing so. Whether it’s standing on the exact spot where Gen. J.E.B. Stuart was mortally wounded, or sitting outside the house where Colonel John Mosby escaped the Yankees by climbing out a window into a walnut tree (yes, the tree is still there), I “feel the vibes” and can hardly wait to get back home and write.
I also have to mention a few other research methods I’ve used that have inspired and educated me all at the same time. Reading old love letters and diaries are two of my favorites. Since writing was the main source of communication during the Civil War era, letters and diaries are so heartfelt and eloquent that they cannot help but serve as a source of inspiration.
I also enjoy visiting cemeteries, and reading the old inscriptions to loved ones. By the way, this is also a great place to find old and regional family names (as are obituaries).
Old house tours are fun and can provide loads of information about life in the 19th century, period furnishings and architecture. No two are the same, which is why, as my significant other can attest, I’ve been to just about every plantation house and garden tour on the East Coast.
Don’t feel guilty! It’s worth your time to get away
One of the dictionary definitions of research is “study,” but another is “explore.” If you set aside one day or afternoon a week to go on a fieldtrip, you will find yourself “creatively refreshed.” I know not everyone reading this post writes historical fiction, but there is plenty of “exploring” to do no matter what your genre. Whether you go to a cemetery, a bookstore, a museum, or an empty field, the time you spend will not be wasted – so don’t feel guilty about being away from your computer. It’s research!
The next stop on Jessica James’ Blog Tour is www.loveromancepassion.com on Monday, Dec. 7.
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Thank you, Jessica!
RU Readers, do you have any research tips you can share with us? Be sure to scroll down for details on Jessica’s basket giveaway.
Please join us on Monday with query writer extraordinaire, CJ Redwine, tackles another reader query letter.
Jessica James is the award-winning author of the historical fiction novel Shades of Gray, an epic Civil War love story that has twice overtaken Gone with the Wind on the Amazon Best-Seller list in the romance/historical/U.S. category. A former newspaper editor, she spent 18 years in a newsroom before turning her attention to fiction writing. She holds a master’s degree in communications and a bachelor’s degree in public relations/journalism.
This multi-award winning novel has been widely praised by historians for its balanced portrayal of the War Between the States, and by romance readers for its emotional description of the love that develops between the two main characters.
The novel chronicles the clash of a Confederate cavalry officer with a Union spy as they defend their beliefs, their country and their honor. The rolling hills of northern Virginia provide the backdrop for this page-turning tale of courage and devotion.
Holiday Blog Tour and Civil War Basket Giveaway!
From Nov. 30 through Dec. 14, I will be stopping by different blogs with guest posts, interviews and reviews of my historical fiction novel Shades of Gray.
Readers are invited to follow along each of the stops and leave comments (with an email address) on those blogs that allow them. For every comment, you will get your name put into a hat and be eligible to win the basket of goodies.
But there’s more…!
For those readers who are on Twitter, by re-tweeting the message of the day with an @jessicajames and #BuyABook, you will receive 3 chances to win the basket. (Check back for the message of the day)
T-shirt: Loved I Not Honor More (M)
Candleholder with Primitive motif
Pack of 5 Shades of Gray/Justus Greeting Cards
CD: Homespun Songs of the C.S.A. by Bobby Horton
Romantic Rose Stationary
Pack of 5 Votive Candles: Pumpkin Bread (smells, oh so good!)
Southern Magnolia Handmade Virginia Soap
‘Virginia Grown’ Shopping Bag
- CTW: Historical Romance ~ Blending Fact With Emotion
- Romance University Supports Brenda Novak’s Fight Against Diabetes
- Weekly Lecture Schedule for April 23-27, 2012 – Jessica Scott, Sherry Thomas, Jack Russell & Tracey Devlyn!
- Weekly Lecture Schedule for May 31 – June 4: Victoria Gray, Karin Harlow & CJ Lyons
- Historical Romance Part 3: Hot? Not?