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I have been gathering ideas for a novel. The basic idea is in place; the story combines two different eras but the same place. How do I get the little details about the place, the people, their life and language right? I have never visited the place (it is real). It seems to me I could even end up reading on the place's history all my life if accuracy is what I'm aiming at.

How do I go about it and avoid a bad bout of analysis paralysis?

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How long ago is the previous era? What country is the locale in? –  jwpat7 Mar 21 '13 at 6:53
    
    
jwpat7, the epicentre lies in 19th century Boston. It spills over to the 21st century. –  Kuchiki Byakuya Mar 22 '13 at 19:21
    
Related. –  Robusto Mar 23 '13 at 1:37
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5 Answers 5

Following the usual advice to “Write what you know”, you would set the project aside and write about things you know now.

But in the meanwhile, you could
• obtain and study books, maps, or films about the area,
• strike up a correspondence with people in the area,
• advertise locally to meet people from the area,
• make plans to visit the area.

If you meet or correspond with people from the area, as well as answering your questions they may be able to review your writing for accuracy and tone. Persons native to the area may be able to tell you what they remember about its history.

If after more work the obstacles seem no smaller, try to transplant the story to a locale you are familiar with.

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There are different schools of thought on how masterful and complete a writer's knowledge/research should be, and I think they often correlate to how seriously you want your work to be taken. Are you trying to simply write a more "commercial," non-lasting book that will provide a bit of fun and entertainment, or to write a book that is more lasting and ambitious? Is it more important to you to produce lots of work quickly, or to produce truly excellent work (not intended as a put-down to commercial writing, which fills its own niche)? It's a good idea to clarify your own priorities.

If you are satisfied with quicker work, you can always research only the things that will relate directly to your plot, and throw in cool details to add atmosphere. You could try to get natives of the place to read your work for any inaccuracies. Maybe you can even use Google maps to plan characters' routes through the location.

If you want the story itself to be shaped by the period and location (in my opinion, this is super cool) immerse yourself as much as possible before writing the story. How much research you need to do (via books, calling people for interviews, etc.) depends on how foreign and unknown the place is to you. Yet research still doesn't need to be absolutely exhaustive (it can't be, can it? :-)). You can still specialize in a certain neighborhood/social class/religious or cultural group, etc.

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There are many ways to research a location and a time: Books, the internet, even satellite photos and Google Street View. (Not really relevant for this project, but I've fixed some pretty basic errors with those.) However, when the place in question is interesting, you need to make sure that your research is actually relevant to the novel.

When you're doing the research, ask yourself: Is this material I'm reading answering a specific question or providing critical background? Or am I just reading this because it's interesting?

There's nothing wrong with reading for deep background, or letting yourself get lost in historical details. But when you have a project in mind, you have to be careful not to do that too much. If you find yourself reading about stuff that's a bit too far from the plot and background you need info on, then put the book down.

How do you know where that line is? Well, this is something you'll need to learn to judge for yourself.

What if the book you're planning to write has a very vague plot, or you don't even know the plot? Well, if that's the case, you have a bit of a chicken-and-the-egg situation. Force yourself to outline some of the story. Even if it's vague, that plan will help you limit your research. Keep in mind that you can always make changes to the plan later on.

The fact that you have two specific eras in mind, however, says to me that you have at least a partial handle on the book's specifics. Remember that it's easier to change something than invent it out of whole cloth. You can do an edit pass later to find details that you may have gotten wrong.

But always ask yourself: Is this research inspiring me to write something? If the answer is no, you're not researching, you're just reading for fun.

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Good answer. Research is only useful if it's helping you write your book. Writing is hard, and it's easy to get side tracked doing things that no help the book. –  Shantnu Tiwari Mar 24 '13 at 19:39
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Historical re-enactors share your problem. Here are some of the things we do:

  • Read history books, sure, but sometimes it's the museum catalogs that show everything from art to architecture to everyday kitchenware that really help. History books will tend to give you a good view of events, but they're not always so good for daily-life stuff. Then ask yourself what it would be like to live in a building like that, to cook with those utensils, to tend your plot of land with those tools, to use that furniture, to work at night by the light of those lamps, to wear those clothes (and consider climate if central heating isn't available), and so on.

  • Visit relevant museum exhibits (or the location itself) if you can. Seeing pictures in catalogs is good, but seeing the items directly can be even better.

  • Talk to other people who are interested in the same time/place you are. Depending on when/where you're talking about, there might be historical societies, university lectures, book clubs, or other paths to finding those people. People love to talk about their interests, and if it's obscure, well, do you know how exciting it is to find somebody else who's interested in the same niche you are?

  • The internet can supply both information and misinformation, but you should at least try to do your Wikipedia and Google research.

  • For specific questions, try History.SE!

  • And finally, if you're up for a little extra work, try living it. I don't mean completely or fanatically, but try cooking from their cookbooks, making and wearing their clothes as you go about your daily routine (just in your house if it's weird :-) ), reading their contemporary literature, doing some of the outdoor labor that they did, etc. It's one thing to read about it and another to do it. You don't have to get it completely right to learn from the experience.

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Read their newspapers. There are a surprising number of local newspapers that have been lovingly uploaded by now that can provide a real insight into life in former times.

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