I'm often asked whether I use research assistants (not infrequently, by people who'd like to apply for the job). 'Preciate the offer very much, guys [g], but no, I don't.
Now, like everything else in writing, how/when/how much one researches is totally individual. Some people canNOT start writing until they feel they have a good grip on the period they're writing about. (Some people feel they can't start writing until they know virtually everything about their period. These people never actually write anything, because it isn't possible to read/learn/know everything—but they become good amateur historians. I had one good friend (since deceased, alas) who wrote a novel about Byzantium, decided she must know more before re-writing it—and in the process, discovered that in fact, she really wanted to be a historian rather than a novelist, and ended up going back to school in her late 50's to get a Ph.D. in history.)
I am not one of these people.
Mind, when I wrote OUTLANDER, I wrote it for practice, in order to learn how to write a novel. I chose historical fiction because it seemed like the easiest and least-constraining kind of book to write, not because I loved history. (I do have an abiding curiosity, but it isn't limited to history. [g]) But—as I told myself when I saw a minor Scottish character in a kilt on TV and decided on a whim to set the book in 18th century Scotland—"The point here is not to learn everything about Scotland in the 18th century; the point here is to learn to write a novel."
I already knew that the only way of learning to write something is to…er…write something (odd how frequently this basic fact escapes people). So I started writing [shrug]. Immediately, knowing nothing about
(Which, as I'm sure you all agree, is a Powerful and Compelling image. [cough] Speaking of which—a couple years ago, I was fortunate enough to win an international literary award, and went to
Well, I was very tired after a week of this, or I might not have said it—but I just looked at him for a moment and then said, "Well….I suppose it's the idea that you could be up against a wall with him in a minute."
A few weeks later, home again, I got a stack of press clippings from the German publisher, including this particular interview (I do read German, but very slowly). The publisher had put a Post-it note on this one, which said, "I don't know what you told this man, but I think he is in love with you."
[cough, cough, cough])
Yeah, well, anyway. Research. So, I started writing immediately, figuring that if I wrote something that later turned out to be wrong (as I learned more)—I'd just fix it. No big deal, and nobody was going to see this, anyway.
I also began doing the research immediately as well. And learned quickly that for me, the research and the writing feed off each other in a sort of positive-feedback loop. I write along, and realize that I need to know some specific bit of information. I go to look this up, find it—and along the way, find some other entertaining bit of history or trivia whose existence I would never have suspected—which in turn provides the kernel for a new scene, plotline, character, etc.—which in turn requires more specific information, which in turn…
Mind, I don't write with an outline, nor do I plan the books out before writing them (what fun would that be?). Consequently, I have no idea (beyond a few events here and there) as to what will happen in a book, let alone how it will happen. That being so, the book is free to take any direction and shape that it will—the shape reveals itself to me as we go along (and I'll write a bit about the shapes of books later on, perhaps).
My favorite analogy regarding research is what I call "Hot dogs and beans." Consider that you're planning dinner for your family. You decide to have hot dogs and beans; tasty and cheap and everybody likes them. You have a busy life, and thus an assistant—you tell the assistant to go to the store and get hot dogs and beans for you. The assistant does, and you have a nice supper.
OK. If you go to the store yourself, you're intending to get hot dogs and beans. But on your way to the sausage-and-cheese section, you pass the fresh meat section—where you observe that there's a sale on organic chicken breasts. "Ooh," you think. "I could make chicken curry!" So you get the chicken breasts, go back through the aisles to get spices, vegetable juice, mango-peach applesauce, mango chutney, jasmine rice…and coming back toward the front of the store with this, you pass through the fresh produce section and see the water droplets gleaming among the fresh lettuces and long green onions—and it occurs to you that a shrimp salad would be Really Good with the curry—so you go back to Meats and get half a pound of fresh baby shrimp, then to the condiments aisle for dressing—and thence to the chilled wine cabinet near the checkout, for a lovely dry Riesling, which will just top this meal off….
Well, if you write historical novels and you depend heavily on research assistants, you get hot dogs and beans.