Four Things I Learned From My First Research Trip

1. Archivists and museum docents are worth their weight in gold, but they don’t know everything you want to know.

I visited Peterborough, Ontario, to research the Peter Robinson settlers that emigrated from Ireland to the territory of Upper Canada in 1825. I visited the Peterborough Museum and Archives in hopes of gaining some idea of the character of the people I am writing about as well as the details of their lives and deaths. Some of my hopes were dashed. Letters of recommendation for the emigration were generic, and the surgeon logs left few clues to the deaths, though the archives were fascinating to see in person. Beautiful but not completely legible handwriting and archaic language made reading difficult. The archivist at the museum helped decipher the documents. I wouldn’t have been able to do it without his help. Even once my brain started to find the pattern to handwriting, his experience with the vocabulary made translation easier because he knew what words to expect. His knowledge of the events affecting the settlers also allowed him to advise me on whether my ideas and assumptions for my novel were logical.

Separately, I was surprised the museum staff didn’t seem to know all the history and conditions in Ireland before the Peter Robinson settlers emigrated. I realized later that they indeed did know the history and conditions, but because I was studying a very small portion of one county, I had researched that particular area more deeply and with more specific questions than they had answers too.

The lesson is that even experts don’t know everything. As novelists and artists, our curiosity and creativity require us to become the experts of our subject matter.

2. Research creates more mystery as well as providing answers.

I found that one of the people I’d planned as a major character for a section of my novel died, probably less than a year after arriving. I was planning to include him in four years of story. But how? When? No records other than a ration note that “one man died.” Another piece of the story I get to make up, but not quite as I had envisioned.

Another mystery popped up at the Kawartha Ancestral Research Association. They have a marriage certificate for someone I think traveled to Indiana 20 years prior. There must be two people by the same name, but the listing of the same parents is bewildering. The records are official and should be true. Fortunately, as a fiction writer, I have the freedom to be creative and make up things. Genealogists and non-fiction writers don’t and shouldn’t have the same freedom. As a reader, you should be aware that novels and even memoirs can have a lot of fiction in them. Historical novels are not facts, but stories. Fiction writers have a lot of room to stray from the facts, especially when all the facts are not known.

3. Small details make the story realistic.

I can research Ennismore Township, Ontario, and Buffalo, New York, online. I can look at them in Google Maps and see them in 3D. But knowing the smell of the air, the sound of the breeze in the woods, feeling the wind off Lake Erie – those details will bring authenticity to my writing that will carry my story further because they will provide a depth I did not have before I visited.

In one of the books I read on how to write and structure novels, the author suggested considering the setting of the story as a character in the novel and making sure every scene describes the setting as well as any character. I will now be able to do that with these two settings in a way I could not quite capture before my trip.

4. Sometimes you don’t know what you don’t know until you realize you don’t know it.

When dealing with a time and place not our own, research and imagination collide on many levels. Sometimes we just don’t know what we don’t know. I imagined the virgin forest of Ontario would have been filled with towering oaks and majestic maples. However, when I was in Peterborough, a book from 1832 was recommended to me that described the forest as young and scrubby. Perhaps forest fire had cleared the forests before the arrival of the settlers? Or had lumberjacks arrived long before the settlers? At any rate, instead of large trees a wide distance apart, the land the settlers received was described as having an average of 120 trees with a diameter of at least six inches per acre! Those are big trees for men with no experience clearing land, but the quantity of them signifies that they likely weren’t towering or majestic, just a mess. I don’t think the settlers knew what they were getting into, and I don’t know what I’m getting into either.

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