So, what’s brought this subject up, anyway? (Read Part 1 here.) I’ve been reading about the World War I era to get a feel for it for my Titanic-book sequel. I’m skimming my way through books and websites, picking up ideas and tidbits of (possibly) useful information, but I’m not looking for anything specific.
At this precise moment, I don’t even know what I need to know.
I haven’t worried about the dates of the battles, or the names of the generals—they are not really necessary to my story. My characters don’t know all the details of what was happening at the front, and they don’t really care. They are busy just trying to live their lives.
Background is all about color.
I’m reading these WWI books for an idea of the world my characters lived in. Without some general knowledge of life in 1917-1919, my book would be like a pencil sketch of a person, detailed in itself, but which has no background, no real setting to give it perspective.
When you’re writing—no matter what you’re writing—you want a full-blown painting—rich with color, and with a complete background.
You can’t get that with just a few facts. Anybody who ever sat through a boring history class in school knows this. Bare facts are dry, but stories are interesting. I might know that the United States broke off diplomatic relations with Germany on February 3, 1917, but it doesn’t tell me the reasons—the debates at home about German submarines, or trench warfare, the economic involvement with Britain and France, the debate over the draft. My characters might not be busily debating these things in meaningful chapter-long dialogues, but they’re reading them in their morning newspapers, worrying about them when they toss in bed at night.
I don’t need to mention them, I just need to KNOW them, just like I know that my vacuum cleaner sucks up dirt and dog fur, that my cellphone can send text messages, that there are 50 states in the United States of America, and millions of other little bits of information that set me in MY place in time. I know these things that inform my world, but they don’t necessarily have an immediate impact on my daily life.
Research is for when you are looking for something specific.
On the other hand, if I want to describe what my main character wore to meet the Governor, I’m going to need an idea of what fashions were like in 1917. That’s research.
If I need to know the name of the Governor, that’s research.
Did she ride in a car or in a horse-drawn carriage to meet him? Research.
Could he have received an important phone call while she was there? Research.
See? Knowing that telephones are fairly common in 1917 is background, but the minute I need to know for a specific reason, it becomes research. Knowing that there was a governor my character could meet is background (because, of course New Jersey had a governor), but learning his name was research.
Mind you, this distinction is entirely my own personal definition. A lot of the time gleaning background information and doing research are exactly the same—sitting with a book or a handy search-engine, looking for knowledge. But you can read a car’s instruction manual out of pure curiosity and you’re a responsible car owner, or you can read it because your engine is leaking fluids and you need to figure out why right now … the NEED is different.
(This is part 2 of a series. Read Part 1 HERE.)