History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

08 November 2007

How A Lifetime of Research Makes It Difficult to Cross the Street

with Jenna Petersen/Jess Michaels

One of my strongest early memories is of asking my Dad that classic child question, “Why is the sky blue?” Instead of giving me the answer or distracting me with toys and candy, he said, “Let’s look it up.”

Thus, I embarked on a lifetime of research. I was one of those weird kids who actually liked writing papers for school and watching documentaries on PBS. My Mom and Dad had a full set of encyclopedias and we were in the library all the time. And then the internet became readily available and it was like a whole new world opened up.

So when I began to pursue a career as a writer, my love of ‘looking it up’ made historical romance a pleasure to write. I mean, here I am, always looking for new facts, always discovering little tidbits that can make a book really sing.

Unfortunately, I have discovered, over the years, that my engrained desire to ‘look it up’ also means that I cannot live a normal life. For example, while I’m writing this, I have “Elf” playing in the background. My husband no longer enjoys watching movies at home with me because I can’t watch something without ‘looking it up’ on IMDB (the Internet Movie Database). I especially love the trivia function. I tend to pause and read them out loud, though. Why not share the research?

I also sometimes get bogged down in details when it comes to travel. I often wonder how my mother and father, who planned lovely, exciting and often ‘research-related’ (through museum visits) vacations without the internet and other resources readily available to us now. When I am readying to go to any town, I not only download maps, but do restaurant searches, zoo and um… museum research and lots of other fun things.

My favorite television programs? Things like Mythbusters (which is really research right there in itself). I mean, they take myths and prove or disprove them through scientific research and testing. It’s like a research-junkies best day ever.

So obviously if you visit here regularly, you are a history junkie, too! Where do you find yourself ‘looking it up’ in your daily life? And do you find that other people think you’re strange for doing so?


Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Oh, boy, I've one of those "look it up" people, too! I'm grading a friend's midterms (it's a film course) and when a student gives an obscure character name as an answer, if I'm not sure they've referred to the right character, there I go to imdb -- which I also admit to using when I just can't figure out who the heck that very familiar face is that I am watching on TCM and really think I should know that person! [I also imdb people to check their ages! --but it's not foolproof] I found it to contain errors, when I checked the birthdate of a performer who had hired me to help him write his memoirs].

For ROYAL AFFAIRS I subscribed to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography and any time I was curious about a tidbit I read in a biography and wanted to check it, the Oxford DNB tended to be a whole lot more reliable than some of the published biographies and compendia I'd read. Amazing what makes it into some of these books (wildly crazy errors, such as the one I found where the author gave Mary Robinson a child by the Prince of Wales!).

I tend to make the mistake of thinking that most readers are like me. When an editor complains that I'm using too many "fifty-dollar words" as my grandmother used to call them (or SAT-words as my sister and I do), I figure the readers should look it up if they can't figure it out from the context (which I try to make crystal clear). I snarkily refuse to dumb down my prose for the incurious. In my very first novel, MISS MATCH (written under the name Leslie Carroll), published in March, 2002, I had a Beowulf reference, which my agent feared might be wayyyy too erudite for mass market contemporary romance audiences, and patiently tried to explain to me that I should be very careful about references that were too arcane for most readers to get. From then on, she referred to all of my arcanities as "Beowulf references" and reminded me to keep them to the barest minimum if I wanted to engage readers. I feel like I've got the last laugh, since Beowulf has now slashed and clawed its way into the most commercial of arenas -- a big action-packed blockbuster movie!

For me, the pleasure of reading AND that of writing have always been tied to the pleasure of learning and discovering.

5:09 AM  
Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

Jenna, I love Mythbusters. I just watched it last night for work. In fact, I love to look stuff up. I spend so much time on Wikipedia (although you have to be careful because you have no idea who is writing these entries)it's amazing I get anything done.

As a child I used to read medical encyclopedias and we also had the complete set of Will & Ariel Durant books which I loved to read, plus other history encyclopedias that my father had on our shelves upstate.

Now with my other blog, Scandalous Women, I get to dip my toe into research on a daily basis learning everything I can about these amazing women and their lives. I have a stack of research books up to my neck right now!

At my night job, where I have no idea what TV show I'm going to be assigned, I like to use either imdb or tv.com to look up who is in the cast, or guest starring. I also like to go to the show's web-sites. Mythbusters and Ghosthunters have great web-sites.

I'm also one of those people who do a ton of research before I travel. Before I went to Venice, I read so many books both travel guides, and non-fiction books. I'm about to take a trip to London for Thanksgiving, and even though I know the city like the back of my hand, I'm looking up museum exhibitions (the V&A has a cool fashion one), buying tickets to the Tut exhibit on line, and trying to figure out which shows I'm going to go to.

My biggest pet peeve is when I find something in a book that a copy editor, or the editor should have found, like how to spell Chagall (although really the author should know this). I have no problem with words I don't know. I took a dramatic criticism class with Michael Billington of the Guardian when I was studying drama in London, and you needed the dictionary to read his reviews!

5:53 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Jenna/Jess, my parents were great about saying "lets look it up" too (they were researchers themselves, though contemporary social science rather than history). We'd often come home from a movie with an historical setting or finish watching something on tv and pull out the encyclopedia to read more. The interet makes it so much easier (among other things, I love being able to check the exact wording of a Shakespeare quote without pulling out my Complete Works and searching for the act, line, and scene). But like your parents, mine also managed to plan wonderful, fun, research-filled vacations long before online access :-).

10:31 AM  
Blogger JennaPetersen said...

Ah, I knew I would find kindred spirits here. I think "we should look it up" is one of the most amazing things a parent can say.

1:02 PM  
Blogger Mary Blayney said...

Looking things up is one of my big hobbies -- when we are sitting around at dinner and we are wondering, I am the one who says -- I'll go look it up.

I grew up fascinated with history and now I think that is because it hid so many untold stories. Those stories were in the details that I used to hunt for.

Even in Bible Study I tend to wonder whatever happened to characters mentioned only once like Lydia in Acts, the "seller of purple cloth" who befriended Paul.

I enjoy the catalog Bas Bleu and am always requesting books they suggest. Nothing is to esoteric or off topic for me if I can get it from the library.

2:04 PM  
Blogger JennaPetersen said...

Thanks for having me this week, Hoydens! It's been really fun.

3:56 PM  
Blogger Diane Gaston said...

Hi, Jenna!
My favorite place to start looking is Answers.com, but it is always fun to go on from there. I often don't think of looking up things in my vast collection of research books, though.

I didn't have the kind of family who would say, "Let's look this up," but I managed to catch that bug anyway.

7:44 PM  
Blogger doglady said...

Guilty as charged, Jenna. I LOVE to look things up. And Amanda, I love an author who broadens my horizons and makes me look things up. I am a footnotes person. I have started collecting research books for my writing and when I read something interesting in a footnote I am off to the internet to learn more. My parents were definitely the "look it up" tag-team. When we moved to England my folks made sure we read up on every spot we visited before we went. I work a full-time job, but I would love to be a full-time writer instead. One of the reasons? More time to do research!!!

9:27 PM  
Blogger JennaPetersen said...

Adding Answers.com to my list of places to look. I also like HowStuffWorks.com (I think that's right).

Doglady, I'm now intimidated. LOL You win the research prize!


8:03 AM  
Blogger Keira Soleore said...

Oh, yes. We're a look-it-up family. We're not shy to tell our toddler, we don't know, and let's look it up. Now, every time, the wee one wants to know more, she says, I want to see it on the computer. Seeing's believing for her.

5:57 PM  

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