I recently started a new project – well, not recent – four, five months ago as a matter of fact – another period piece like the first one. Went through all the first steps – brainstorming, treatment etc., and then after all that, put it aside temporarily to focus on some other projects.
Recently, I came back to it, and reread my old treatment. Though at the time there was a lot to be excited about, now I can see that there is a lot left to be desired. And then there’s this one nagging doubt in my mind. It’s a period piece – which automatically by past experience, opens a whole can of worms for me. Imagine all the research involved. I have been told plenty of times that no matter how difficult a project is, ultimately the most important thing is the story itself, but as I am breaking down this story, I keep finding things I don’t know about:
‘How did European society function? How many women were actual students besides my main protagonist?’, ‘How were they regarded by the male population? ‘, ‘How did they entertain themselves (they didn’t have tellys)?’, ‘Where did people live, eat, sleep, poop?’
It doesn’t help that I have never been to one of the main locations (Scotland!). I have ordered a truckload of used books and given Amazon a ton of business. I even have two colleagues helping me research – but it’s still not enough. Luckily I am a voracious reader and can get through volumes when I put my head to it – but the point is, sometimes research is fun – and other times it just sucks – literally sucks away the time from writing the actual project. My last project was a period piece as well and required just as much research. OK, some of you are probably asking now, ‘Well, you idiot – if it’s so much work, why go period then?’
It’s a good question and something I did evaluate before starting this project as well as others. In this case, the early 1900s just happens to be a great epoch for all the things that challenge my main character and her landscape: war, a country fighting for freedom from colonialism, the feminist movement, women struggling for their rights to study, to have male-centric careers. Not to mention she is my first female protagonist (all my protagonists thus far have been male).
Anyhow, here’s my final theory on research: sometimes it can take a week, sometimes it can take months or even years (seriously, that’s too long)- but most importantly, it has to support your writing, not prevent you from doing it. If you are writing a documentary, this is not a great discussion for you – but if you are writing a screenplay, while it’s desirable to try and keep things authentic, it shouldn’t deter you when it comes to your story and creating characters and scenarios that thrill and emotionally engage your readers.
And the fact is no matter what, you can’t please everybody (take movies like ‘Argo’, ‘The King’s Speech’) – there will always be something you might miss or not do the ‘authentic’ way. Being an expert over-thinker, I have struggled enough times in my last few period projects to avoid bending the rules of history (still do, as a matter of fact). While being respectful to my source material though, I have also written enough drafts to know that the most predominant element when I begin the journey of writing a historical, period piece is to just tell the story and breathe life into my characters…after which…
All the rest will follow.