Primary Research: Balancing the Sought with the Serendipitious

Primary research: any type of research that you collect yourself through interviews and observations. Primary research is often undertaken after the writer has gained some insight through secondary research, (also known as desk research) which is basically what other people have discovered and reported

alisonbridgeI have been studying the sixteenth century for around ten years and have written two complete novels set in that time. But except for reading primary sources, such as letters and journals, and a few trips to museums, everything I know I learned from books or the internet. I have not personally time traveled.

Now, for the first time since I fell in love with it, I have the opportunity to visit tiny pockets of the sixteenth century, for it is scattered, almost like debris, all over Europe.

My nature is to make a to-do list and check it off. I want to see the Bramante staircase in the Vatican and the ancient, hidden foundations beneath the Strasbourg Cathedral because I have scenes set in both locations.

But I know it’s important not to obsess over a list. I know it’s important to approach primary research with all senses on alert, thinking constantly: might my character have seen or heard or tasted this? And if so, what would his reaction have been?

I know that, if I pay attention, when I return home to integrate this research into the novel, I will find that the majority of the good stuff I discovered was not on my to-do list.

Your setting may be your own home. You may be creating a character based upon yourself. Nevertheless, approach it as a primary researcher. Seek what you know you need but also recognize what is laid before you unsought that will amp up your story’s authenticity. As writers, we seek the truth, but we also recognize it when it appears unbidden.

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