I hated doing research. In high school and undergrad, I had to write research papers. When I pursued my masters degrees in education, I had to do action research. To even do my job as a teacher of the deaf effectively, I still have to do research. Had anyone told me that one day I would actually enjoy researching information, I would have laughed in their faces.
I’ve decided that, at this point, I want my novels to take place in my hometown of Gary, Indiana. This is not because I’ve lived in the city my whole life and can’t think of any other interesting places to set my stories. When I tell people where I’m from, they either think of Michael Jackson (not a bad thing) or the crime rate. So I dream of becoming a famous author whose works brings positive attention to my city.
I also enjoy reading historical fiction. So why not set my stories in historical Gary?
Well, it’s not as easy as it sounds. My knowledge of Gary was limited to the oldest person I knew still living in the city whose memory only extended as far as the 1940s. The novels I’d been reading at the time were set in the 1800s. Gary was founded in 1906. So what was here before that?
I took to the Calumet Archives, a collection of northwest Indiana history housed in Indiana University Northwest’s Library. It was there that I lost myself. I discovered things about my city’s history that I’d never heard of. I learned about a still-unsolved murder from 1915. I found out that the neighborhood I live in and many of the other neighborhoods were actually towns that predated the city of Gary by almost fifty years. I discovered a bloody feud in the late 19th century between a gun club and local hunters that lasted twenty years, the most publicized battle occurring not far from my home. I was so intrigued by that bit of history that I used it as a backdrop to the first novel I’d ever completed.
My point is that research can yield a bounty of story ideas. I attended a workshop a couple of years ago where author Colleen Coble taught how knowledge of a location can add intriguing layers to the plot. It can take a story places you’d never dreamed it could go. For me, researching my city or some historic topic is the best cure for writer’s block. The trick is knowing when to stop the research and write.
Above photo, 4/366(Y2), by Nomadic Lass courtesy of Flickr