Research for a new story can be challenging even when you know exactly what you’re looking for. Before the world web, it took long hours in the library with card files and film strips to find the desired information, that is, if the local repository even had the history of, say for instance, ’flour milling in the United Kingdom’. I needed that for a new story and travel to an actual location would’ve been preferred, but I had neither the time nor money and no previous knowledge, or so I thought.
Then I remembered the old mills I’d seen in Ohio as a child; we passed one weekly on the way into town in Dad’s ‘54 Olds. There it stood; a ramshackle, leaky-roofed wooden structure, decaying away like many in modern America and leaning to the south after decades of neglect.
Once the grist mill stood at the center of a growing settlement, a busy hub that provided a living for the miller, his family and hundreds of others down-stream. Grain came by wagon and was rendered as flour for neighboring towns up to fifty miles away. Print cloth from the flour sacks was sewn into quilts, dresses and aprons by farm women with nary a smidgen left to be thrown away. The mill did double-duty as a political gathering spot, too and provided a valuable quorum for overall-clad farmers on everything from grain prices to the almanac’s weather predictions and news from the next few counties over.
The mysterious old building’s image from those early years stuck like glue in my mind; the point being, you frequently have valuable personal impressions stored up so don’t be afraid to use them, with some updates to the setting and era you’re writing about.
Do you write your first draft then start your research? (I do). Or are you a structured writer who builds the story’s framework before actually writing it? Either way, you’ve probably already made a list for research, but there will be more as the story flows. Highlight the manuscript where your research question(s) originated then enter the question with page and chapter number to a hand-written log or a Word/ Notes page. I keep a Word page open in the background – always accessible to add to or check off when complete.
At times you need a quick answer just to move forward in the story and it can lead you further astray than planned. To avoid going down the garden path, jot down a couple of ideas on how much you really need and what the reader will want to know-two very different things. For example, I needed a good basic knowledge of building a mill, various types of mill wheels, grinders and drive mechanisms. Wikipedia rendered eight reference sections in response to the search term ’waterwheel’; their invention dates, the industrial revolution, their designs, etc. Those led me to producers of equipment in Europe, and District/County regulations for building a mill. I needed enough history and specificity to hook readers’ interest, but also to provide me with a believable ‘monkey wrench’ to throw into the mill’s construction as part of the plot.
‘How much research is enough?’ The answer is not the same for every story, but overall I’d say build your research until you feel comfortable enough to talk about the subject. Then look for someone who has hands-on experience and is willing to answer your questions. Try searching for film and news reports on the subject as well. A news story about a retired miller was a terrific source of info for my purposes. Facts on mill structure, flours produced, the number and location of mills originally in the area, floods that filled the first floor of the mill and suspended production; even the presence of several cats to control vermin were details that couldn’t be looked up in a reference library. He’d been there and provided the human side of the milling business.
One last word of advice, don’t forget to save your web-source URL’s. Page-mark the sites on your computer and save scraps of pertinent info by using your computer’s snipping tool to pull out facts for a quick-view document you save or print. You might learn the hard way and spend precious time rooting around for that one fact you scribbled on a post-it… or was it on that old envelope thrown away yesterday? Not that it happened to me…