Sometimes, a writer needs to “reach for the stars” and go outside her comfort zone in order to find the funds to research a book.
Most, if not all, novels demand some type of research. Whether it comes from mining your brain for memories of events or things that you have seen and wish to use in your story, feelings you have had that your characters need to feel, jobs that your characters have that you know nothing about or need more details about, settings that you want but either have never experienced or need more accurate details about, etc…
Historical Fiction is no exception. Heck, it may very well be the queen of research novels. (I know, non-fiction and fantasy and all other genres need a lot of research too, but they are another blog post.)
My middle grade novel, MERCURY’S DAUGHTER, tells the story of a Flemish girl with a love of science and the stars who struggles to find her place in her world, all while trying to free her astronomer father who has been arrested for heresy. During this historical period of persecuting scientists and when women were not allowed to openly study science, the main character explores her fascination with the heavens in secret. The story takes place in 16th century Bruges and Brussels in what is now modern-day Belgium, though at the time it was part of the Spanish Netherlands, and is the type of book that takes a lot of research to complete.
I know what it’s like to be knee deep in Dutch cookbooks of the 16th century just to see what my characters would eat, then actually attempt to make something and eat it just to experience it even more (Yes, I made a 16th century apple pie shaped like a fish, and it tasted surprisingly like the old McDonalds apple pies of my youth.). I know what it’s like to read volumes about astronomical instruments and print color copies of art by Pieter Bruegel for inspiration about daily life in Flemish towns. To contact scholars who can read and speak Middle Dutch to ask them how to say, “Good morning” and learn about the titles people of 16th century Flanders used for one another. To really, really, really know the joys of Google Books, WorldCat, and universities that have actually scanned primary source documents so that I can print out a book about the constellations and planets written in the 16th century that my main character would have loved and read over and over and have it “in my hand” just the way she did– or the closest I can get to the way she did.
I am not a writer who waits for my research to be done before I begin to type. I write as I go, always discovering more research that needs to be done. Yet, after all of this, I find that in order to truly get the voice, the details, the daily life questions, and the rest of the novel finished to my satisfaction, I must take a journey to Belgium. And that journey costs money that with the economy in a recession, my family does not have.
I know it is possible to write about a place you have never been to or have been very briefly to. My visit to Bruges in November seven years ago was for one day, with a baby in tow and a story in its first inklings in my mind, with small amounts down on paper. Brussels was three days—a little better—but not enough to see what I now know I needed to see for my novel. I thought it could very well be enough, though. Many writers do just fine having never set foot in their settings. But I am a “hands-on” type of writer, one who revels in the sensory details of a place and an event, and though I have researched tirelessly about my setting and the events that take place in my story, I know it would help my novel if I could actually walk in my characters’ shoes properly. When I finally realized that I needed one more trip to Belgium by myself to focus on my research for a few days, the recession had hit my family hard, and I felt it was too late.
Last year, I attended an inspiring lecture about research from Oregon’s own YA author Emily Whitman (Radiant Darkness and Wildwing ) Together in small groups, Emily had us brainstorm about ways we could really do more “hands-on” type of research if money was no object. I had heard about a 16th century historical reenactment in Brussels called the Ommegang that happened every year at the beginning of July and had dreamed of experiencing it. Not only was it the largest historical reenactment in all of Europe, but it depicted Charles V and his court visiting Brussels in 1549, an event pivotal to my novel. I knew attending this event as well as talking to some experts in person about daily life would really enhance my story, but money really was an object in the way. Emily had mentioned trying to “crowd source” the funds (asking friends, family, and others interested in your story to help fund with small donations), but I didn’t feel confident about that, so I hesitated to try it.
Grants can be a fabulous resource, if you can get one. I had applied for a WIP grant from SCBWI previously and received a “Letter of Merit.” Earlier this year I applied for a regional grant, only to be asked to definitely reapply the next quarter, which would be in October and three months after the Ommengang.
Maybe there was something to that “crowdsourcing” idea. When I revisited the idea late this winter, I found the site Kickstarter.com, which is an online pledge system for funding creative projects. It is a virtual platform where you can describe your project (my book and its research needs) using video, images, and text and ask for “pledges”. You also must provide your “backers” with a gift that stems from or is inspired by your work. A time limit must be allotted for a project to be funded as well. If it is not funded, all monies go back to the original backer without any loss.
I decided to give it a try, and after creating a page, I allotted 35 days to fund the project.
I am an introvert when it comes to sharing about my writing projects when I am in the middle of them, so attempting Kickstarter is a HUGE leap for me. So far, after writing to friends, family, and writing acquaintances about the project, I sent letters to mostly female and some male astronauts, members of the Belgian/Flemish, and Dutch groups around the world, and members of reenactment groups. What has surprised me is how exciting it is to see letters from so many of them in my email box almost daily with good wishes and how my story touched them already in one way or another. Yes, even over five hundred years later, female astronomers have it much harder over men!
So far, with 11 days left to fund my project, what I have learned the most is how much everyday people without big budgets or non-profits to work with really do care about keeping the arts alive. In these recession days, they are really doing something about it. And that is a good thing.
Today, my four-year-old said this while painting at his easel this afternoon.
“Look mommy! I’m story paining! You know, like the girl with the animals. (Beatrix Potter)”
My hope is that an avenue like Kickstarter.com, a grant or fellowship, or whatever means necessary will help you to complete your research to give you the ability to “story paint” the heck out of your novel!
To check out my Kickstarter site, go to http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1911476635/mercurys-daughter-a-middle-grade-historical-novel
-Nicole Marie Schreiber