Research: Undiscovered treasure


The photo above is of the launch for A Desperate Road to Freedom, a book that took an incredible amount of research. Find out more about it at

When visiting schools and libraries, I ask the students to raise their hands if they think that research is boring. More often than not, nearly every hand in the room goes up.

“I used to agree with you,” I say, and watch heads nod.

“Then I walked into an old school house in Upper Canada Village one day and the ‘What if?’ bug bit me. What if a girl on a school visit walked into this very room and found herself transported back in time to a period when it was full of students? Elizabeth snuck into my head and my book, The Other Elizabeth was born,” I tell them, “but then the questions and the self-doubts began.”

In what time period would the story take place?

Answer: During the War of 1812. A decisive battle was fought right around Upper Canada Village at Crysler’s Farm in 1813. This would be exciting.

But I didn’t grow up in Canada. I don’t know anything about Canadian history. How could I possibly write this?

Give it up, I told myself. You can’t do this. Find something else to write about.

But Elizabeth wasn’t having any of that.            

“This is my story,” she demanded. “You have to tell it.”


Answer: Research.


There was no escaping it. I gritted my teeth and took the plunge.

Where to start? I nosed around and found that behind the scenes at the Village there were archives where I could read newspapers from 1812/13, find out the names of all the Loyalists who had settled there after the American Revolution, find out where each family had homesteaded, find out details such as when the first mill was built, when the first apple orchard was planted, when the first schools were started…

Hold on a minute! This is getting interesting!

Before I knew it, I was hooked. Off to the local library to find out more about pioneers. Off to the National Library and Archives in Ottawa to find out more about the background of the settlement and the timeline of the Battle of Crysler’s Farm and anything else I could dig up.

Guess what? It got more and more interesting.

“It’s like a detective story.  You follow the clues and come up with the way your story needs to be told,” I tell the students.

“It’s like putting a puzzle together. You find the pieces and join them until you complete the picture.”

And by doing all that, you find out things that add layers to your characters and your plot. You write the story that you would never have been able to write otherwise. You learn! I have learned more about history from writing stories than I ever learned at school—and it’s been far more fun. In one way or another I have researched every book I have written—even the non-historical ones—and every book has taught me something new.

Writing is an exciting  journey and research is an equally exciting part of it. I try as much as possible to visit the places I am writing about. I can learn so much more when I am in the town, city or country where my story takes place. That’s another plus. I researched The Nine Days Queen, the story of Jane Grey, who was Queen of England for nine days before her head was chopped off, when we lived in London.

My husband, dog and I drove the route that the Loyalists took from Albany, New York, to what is now Cornwall, in Canada. We followed the Underground Railroad along which Julia May’s family fled in their escape from slavery in Virginia to Owen Sound, Ontario.

We picnicked by the side of the Danube and I imagined my unfortunate crusaders struggling along it on their long journey to Jerusalem. (And lucky it was that I did. In my first draft I had spent a whole morning drowning people, cattle and animals as they crossed the Danube at this particular spot, but when I got there I found the river to be only about a foot deep. I had to change the location to the proper one and drown them farther down.)

I finally was able to go to Israel to see for myself the land where so many of them struggled and died and where they wreaked such havoc. I stood on the hill overlooking Jerusalem where Richard Lionheart had stood, but with his back turned, head down, refusing to gaze upon the city that he could not conquer.

To research Angeline, the last of my Crusades books, I was fortunate enough to get a Canada Council Grant that allowed me to go to Egypt.

Research boring? No way! It’s the path to undiscovered treasure.

No matter whether you’re researching in a far-away country or in your own back yard, research will spark the ideas that make your story sing.

One word of caution, though. Research is fascinating but it’s also easier. Sometimes it’s very hard to know when to call a halt and actually get down to the writing. That’s exactly where I am right now with my new historical novel, set at the time of Confederation in Canada, in 1867. I’m back from a week of research at the National Library and Archives in Ottawa again, and putting my notes in order. And procrastinating.

Oh, yes. And checking out how the trailers for my new ebooks are coming along, (more about that soon), and how my new website is shaping up, and updating my blog…

Get to work, Karleen.

About Karleen Bradford

I am an award-winning author of children's and young adult books.
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