Starting a new book and I have a question

How do you handle your research? Do you do as much as you can before you start writing, or do you research as you go along?

I seem to belong to the first group. I research exhaustively until I know as much as I can about the whole background of my book. I even do this before I start developing the characters. That’s another question: how well do you know your characters before you start? Do you do detailed character sketches first and start to write with a solid knowledge of your characters, or do you get to know them as you go along?

Here I belong to the second group, although my characters, especially the main character, have been living in my head for so long I have a pretty good, if somewhat unconscious idea of what they’re like.

Anyway, I’ve done all the research I can for now for my new book and it’s time to start writing. It’s a historical novel for the Dear Canada series, set in Ottawa, Canada at the time of Confederation, 1866/1867. I’ve learned a lot about Canadian history along the way, now it’s time to learn about Rosie Dunn.

Here’s what I’ve got so far. All comments most welcome. Would you be tempted to keep on reading? Actually, that’s five questions. Hope to hear back from you.

Sunday, March 4th, 1866

Quèbec, Province of Canada

My life is about to be turned upside down. When we got home from church this noon, we found Mary Margaret here. Not too unusual that, as she gets every other Sunday off from the Bradley’s where she is in service to Mrs. Bradley, but what was unusual was that she was humped over the kitchen table in floods of tears. Mary Margaret never weeps. My big sister is usually obnoxiously cheerful.

At first no amount of fond encouragement from Mam could be after getting her to say a word, but finally I got exasperated and blurted out, “Fine then, weep if you must, but could we not sit down to our dinner before it gets burned to a crisp?”

Mam glared at me as if I were very cold-hearted indeed, but Da and the little ones looked relieved. Mary Margaret gave me a fierce look, but stopped her weeping.

“You’d be devastated too, Rosie Dunn, if you had just heard the news I have this morning,” she said.

She gave a huge hiccup and burst into tears again. Mam patted her on the back. I would have given her a good shake. Then she began again. Once she got started it seemed like she’d never stop and the words poured out fast and furious. I can’t begin to write down everything she said, but the gist of it is that Mr. Bradley is a civil servant with the Government and now that the Capital of the Province of Canada has been moved from Quèbec to Ottawa in preparation for Confederation next year, the Bradleys must move to Ottawa with all the other Government civil servants. Mary Margaret is adamant that she will not move with them. True, Ottawa is said to be a horrible town way out in the middle of nowhere, nothing more than mud and sawmills, but the main problem is because of the young man Mary Margaret is stepping out with. Donny and she are planning on being wed this summer and Mary Margaret will not put it off.

Now, this is the part that has stunned me past words. Mary Margaret’s solution to this problem is that I should take her place with the Bradleys and go with them! And the worst thing is that Mam and Da are considering it! I started to protest and Mam just said I should save my breath to cool my porridge. “You’ll do what you’re told, me lady,” she said in that tone of voice of hers that brooks no argument.

Even though I’m thirteen and I knew I would have to leave school and go into service next year–there are six younger than me to feed and clothe after all and I have to do my part–I never thought it would happen so soon. And to go so far away! I can’t even imagine it.

About Karleen Bradford

I am an award-winning author of children's and young adult books.
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9 Responses to Starting a new book and I have a question

  1. Lioness says:

    I’m not a writer so I can’t answer many of your questions. I *am* a reader and have read most of the Dear Canada books. Where some of them fail, in my opinion, is putting the history first, not the character or the plot.
    Confederation should move the plot, not be the plot, if you understand what I mean. That said, I like the premise a lot. Everything being new for everyone. New job/life for Rosie, new town, new government.
    I’d read more.

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    • Lioness, you are so right. It is difficult when writing a historical novel not to let the historical facts overwhelm the story. Plot and character certainly do have to come first. I find that getting the research out of the way, so to speak, at the beginning, let’s me develop both plot and character more easily from then on. Don’t have to keep stopping to look up some detail to make certain it’s right. And Canary is right about not letting the research show or get in the way. It’s so tempting to put in everything you’ve learned! With my Crusades books, I ended up writing five books to get it all in 🙂

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  2. For me, the strongest stories come when a character concept comes together with a possible plot or world idea. (“What would happen is so and so type person was in so and so situation?”) Then comes the background research to make sure that the story can stand on its own feet.

    As to your question, Would you be tempted to keep on reading? I’m afraid not. Right now, the excerpt stands stiffly to attention, self-consciously trying to explain itself. The narrative strategy (first person recollection of events via a diary/letter) is a difficult one, and here it falls into several of the traps of the style.

    1. Summarizing what’s happening rather than telling the story. [“My life is about to be turned upside down.” or “I can’t begin to write down everything she said, but the gist of it is…” ]
    2. Going into too much detail to show off the knowledge gained during the research phase of your writing process. [ “now that the Capital of the Province of Canada has been moved from Quèbec to Ottawa in preparation for Confederation next year…” ]
    3. POV shifts and unrepresentative voice. [The POV uses future, present and past tense. Narrator does not come across as a 13 year old. ]
    etc

    Good luck with your story!

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    • Hi, Canary,

      You make several good points. I particularly like your observation about strong stories developing when a character concept comes together with a possible plot. When I get down to the story seriously I will take them into consideration. Thanks for replying to my post, and I will keep updating things as I go along.

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  3. I think this is a great beginning, Karleen. It would certainly entice me to keep reading!

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      • Thank you, Paula. You sound very much like me. I think that you just have to go with what works with each book that you write. It will almost certainly be different with each one, but you will find the right way to tackle it as you get into it.

        I am intrigued by the title of your book. I once tracked a cougar to its den, when I was quite young and stupid. I was so proud of myself for tracking it, it was only when I was peering into the den that it occurred to me that this was not a sensible thing to do, so I got out of there very quickly.

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  4. Paula Wild says:

    Hi Karleen,

    Your question about research is one I struggle with all the time. I am curious by nature so often fall into the trap of too much research. A very experienced writer once told me to only research as much as necessary to write a rough draft and then fill in the holes. I tried to do that with the book I’m currently writing (working title, Cougars, Wild, Beautiful and Dangerous) but the research is so fascinating! And I wonder, how can an author know what to write unless they know nearly everything about their subject?

    As for characters, in an as yet unfinished YA novel, I’m discovering their personalities as I go along. For me, it’s like meeting someone new, the more you’re around them, the more you find out about them.

    I liked the exceprt from your book and would definitely like to read more.

    All the best,
    Paula

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  5. Pingback: Karleen Bradford – Sneak Preview | Inside-Guide-To-Ottawa

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