Writing a Book, Start to Finish : Part One : Research

The number one rule you must adhere to when thinking about taking on the challenge of writing your own book is this: Don’t think about the end product until you get there.

I say that in all seriousness. The process of writing a book is daunting, and if you think about all the steps involved, all the time that goes into it, and all the words that need to be typed - it’s overwhelming, to put it mildly. At least that’s how it felt for me.

My advice is to move forward one word at a time. Don’t stress about how good your book is until you’re well into the revisions stage. There’s a reason the first draft has been coined the “Shitty First Draft”. It’s so very true. I can’t even look at my first draft without cringing.

Before you even start thinking about writing your book, you need to do a little bit of groundwork. Depending on the genre of your book, you’ll require different research and information, but you’ll need to do research regardless. Trust me. Whether it’s to find out the population of a city, or the landscape, or what type of hat your great-great-grandfather wore (turns out it was a porkpie hat - who knew that was even a thing?!), you’ll need some background information before you write. The more information you have about your subject, time period, or geographical location, the stronger your plot will be.

For the sake of this blog series, I’ll be focusing on biographical creative non-fiction, since that is essentially the genre of my book, The Girl from No. 6. It is a historical fiction novel based on the true events of my grandmother’s life.

The first thing I did when I decided to take on the challenge of writing a novel was buy a notebook - because all great things always start with a brand new, beautiful notebook. That night, I wrote an entry in said notebook explaining how the idea for the book transpired, and what I hoped the outcome would be. For me, it wasn’t about becoming a best-selling author, it was about preserving Oma’s legacy, and falling more in love with her in the process.

Since my book was based off of a true story it required facts. This came in the form of a first-hand account from Oma herself. I wrote down pages of questions in my notebook, arranging them in chronological order as much as possible, starting with: When and where were you born?

I met with Oma on a weekly basis at her apartment in Abbotsford. We’d sit at her kitchen table, my notebook sprawled open in front of me, and I’d sit and listen as decades of memories rolled off her tongue in her familiar and endearing Low German accent. I recorded our interviews on my phone using the Voice Memo app. Later I would listen to each interview and type out everything Oma said in note form on my laptop. That made it easier to keep everything in order chronologically.

Hearing Oma’s stories was necessary to help me visualize my plot line, but it wasn’t enough. I needed more details about the social, economic and geographical situations for each stage of her life.

My next step was to approach professional sources for the information I needed - starting with my dad. An avid Mennonite history buff himself, he was able to fill me in on lots of the background details I needed to know. He showed me old maps of the village in Crimea where Oma was born, and pulled up documents online that listed all the Mennonite passengers that had left Germany. We printed out family trees and other information about our family, including details of their births, deaths, including which cities they occurred in.

From there I continued my search online. Thankfully, Mennonites have taken great care and effort to document our history. I found photos and even the original passenger list for the ship Oma sailed across the Atlantic on. I also read a few books to fill in the rest of the gaps, and in the end I had a much richer, fuller understanding of each time period and setting.

Once I received all of Oma’s answers for the questions I deemed necessary for my book, I then met individually with all of her children, which included my dad and his three sisters. They were able to give me their sides of the stories Oma had told me, and often their versions came with a very different perspective, which was quite interesting.

I typed out all of the notes from those interviews as well, including any notes I made from the books I’d read, and made sure every point was slotted in its correct year of occurrence on my computer. With the initial research portion of my book complete, I printed out all ninety pages of Oma’s memories and was ready for the next step.

To be continued...

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