Friday, January 07, 2011

Novel Research

We recently traveled to Charleston, South Carolina to scout out historic locations for my current novel. As authors should learn immediately after launching their writing careers, research is a critical element of a story. While they can bend some facts under the banner of artistic liberty, accurate details lend to the credibility of a piece.

For instance, if, in my novel, I place a ranch-style home in the middle of Charleston's historic district, not only will those familiar with the city's breathtaking and unique architecture send me hate mail, they'll likely ban me from visiting again.

Okay, that's an exaggeration, but I can say it because I know how proud Charlestonians are of their little paradise, and with good reason. So I want to get the details right, whether showing rowhouses crammed against sidewalks of narrow streets, or lush courtyards protected from the public by famous wrought iron fences. So I do my research.

How? For my work in progress, I had the advantage of relying on years of visits to the Holy City, and research performed there for other projects. I once spent hours at the Register Mesne Conveyance office searching for a deed in an effort to locate an old slave cemetery. During my search, I not only saw names of prominent families, I saw those names listed over and over again as land changed from one family member's hand to another, and then back again. Through that experience, those residents became even more familiar to me. I've also taken tours of the city, read articles and field guides about Charleston, and had long discussions with others familiar with the city's history.

For any other location, that may be enough knowledge to weave the setting into a story in a believable manner. Not Charleston. History and culture crammed so much into that little peninsula, no matter how much I learn, I have at least that much more information to find. So I dig deeper. Here's how.


Visitors to Charleston have at their disposal, a variety of carriage and walking tours. But that's just the beginning. Each of those offer a selection of routes, so if you took a carriage ride in the morning and hopped onto another later that afternoon, chances are you'll see a different side of the city--and learn more history. Some companies offer architecture tours. Others focus on photography or Charleston's ghostly past. It sounds more like fun than research, but the beauty--and for some, the ghosts--are an important aspect of places like Charleston. Also, guides may provide a different set of historical facts.

You can also see the city from the water. Tour the harbor once blockaded by the British, Blackbeard, and then Union forces. Travel to Fort Sumter, or take a watery ghost tour to learn even more about the city that once aspired to become the Queen of the South.


I know Charleston once aspired to be the Queen of the South because we spent several hours at the Charleston Museum, and a display there said as much. Halfway through the exhibits, we were on information overload. It's difficult to absorb the history associated with all the artifacts, reproductions of letters, old photos, captions containing facts, and more. I took notes and photos (no flash, please!) and said what every other visitor probably said as they walked through the exit doors—I need to go back.

So visit museums in the city you're researching, but note: museums aren't always called "museums". There are fifteen stops in Charleston's Museum Mile. Houses, and historical buildings, and that's not counting the twelve churches located in the historic district. The combined history contained in those destinations already exceeds the amount I can learn in my lifetime.

Reference Materials

Periodicals published by historical societies. DVDs produced on a location. Books found in the regional section of bookstores. Books and material available through the reference department of the public library. Books and materials buried deep in the archives of the state university.

And in the back of many of those books, you'll find a bibliography leading to more.

Authors can access all this as well as information found on reputable online sources. Did you know the University of North Carolina has a great collection called Documenting the South? Bookmark it. It's a go-to site. The Charleston Museum recently posted photos of the great earthquake of 1886 in their digital library.

If that makes your head spin, they you have a good idea how much research an author must muddle through to produce authentic material. It's hardly a novel approach to writing, but it is necessary for a believable novel.

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