The Amazing Thing About Research

single rose lying on pages torn from a book

(Photo: Annie Spratt | Unsplash)

It's amazing how much research goes into the writing of a historical novel and there were times, I can now happily confess, when it seemed endless. Facts needed to be checked, historical documents needed to be foraged, and context needed to be nailed down. Failing to do so would be at my peril, yes, but it would also be to the detriment of the story and that was really what was most important.

It's hard some days to remember what the world was like before the internet and smart phones and social media. It's even harder to imagine what it was like in the late 19th century, years before the advent of electricity, tractors, television, plastic, pens, refrigerators, flush toilets, stretchy fabrics, satellites and antibiotics. Scripture played a central role in everyday life, newspapers proliferated, and personal communications with far away friends more often than not took the form of handwritten letters. Women would not gain the vote for decades still to come. Men often died young in violent accidents involving machinery, guns, axes, or bodies of water. Nineteenth century medical doctors were basically naturopaths who occasionally had to set bones or saw straight through them.

And I had to know all of it -- or at least most of it -- if I wanted the story I was telling to ring true.

Somewhere during the writing of The Haweaters, I realized that most of what I was learning wasn't going to make it onto the written page. I was, after all, writing a novel based on a double murder that transpired more than a century ago and not a history of Canada in the late 19th century. It was more important to get the personalities right, to make the story flow, and to bring to life a very personal tragedy.

The only details that made it into the final draft were the ones that were integral to the plot. Everything else was jettisoned. I had to know them, of course, since not knowing them could cause me to misplace my story in time, giving women rights they didn't have or depicting men using tools that wouldn't exist for another thirty years. God forbid that I describe a man undertaking a chore that was considered woman's work. Gender-based tasks were clearly delineated back then except, of course, during planting or harvesting when women would often be forced to pull plows or stook sheaves. Rarely did men return the favour.

So next time I get it into my head to tell a story far removed from contemporary reality, refresh me about just how much research I will need to undertake, most of which will never make it off my desk. Chances are, I won't be deterred, but I will still appreciate the reminder.

Based on the real-life 1877 killings of William and Charles Bryan by their neighbours, The Haweaters brings to life some of Manitoulin’s earliest European settlers as they struggle against nature, poverty, and each other in a collective quest to leave their dubious pasts behind them and attain prosperity in this rugged wilderness community. Learn more.