Friday, August 8, 2014

Research is Necessary, But Watch It...

Stephen King said, “Remember that word back. That’s where the research belongs: as far in the background and the back story as you can get it.”

But research is necessary for any story for authenticity sake. Especially if you're writing about a time period you have no first hand experience with.

The current part of my novel that I'm plugging through takes place in 1940's Alberta. I know there are areas that I need to make more authentic for that time period and for the most part I've been able to mark those sections and just carry on writing knowing that I will have to go back, but when I got to a section that required me to have some knowledge of what the inside of a grain elevator looked like, I stalled.

I clicked The Google and started searching for anything that could help. While I got some ideas, it wasn't enough. I knew I had to find one and experience it first hand. But where could I go to get inside one?  And it had to be a really old one.

I started searching ghost towns in Alberta. Found a few. But not all of them have grain elevators and the ones that did, how could I know whether I could get inside them without actually going to look?

I started with Rowley, Alberta. A little town just north of Drumheller. It's easy to find. There's a big sign on the side of the road, on a little hill, reading Rowleywood. 

Needless to say, we found the town (of course I couldn't make a trip like this without backup), and found the grain elevators.

While it was quickly discovered we could not get into the grain elevators, I did learn quite a few things on our little scavenging adventure. 

Grain elevators are impossibly big.

Grain elevators are old. At least these style, made out of good old-fashioned wood.

Grain elevators are a fire hazard (see above) and with the shear number of thunderstorms in Alberta every summer, it's not surprising most of the abandoned ones have been torn down.

You can never be sure what you will find when you go out adventuring. But it's quite likely you'll find something completely out of place. 

And probably a little creepy.

There is so much history to be discovered in Alberta. It's right under our noses and while many are probably aware, there are likely more people who aren't. There are people with stories out there. Stories demanding to be told. 

Despite not getting exactly what I wanted out of the day trip, I did get a lot of photos and I did learn stuff. Knowledge is power, right.

But I didn't get any further in my novel because I still had not seen what the inside of a grain elevator looked like. 

And then...a writer colleague suggested Heritage Park. How silly of me to not even consider what I was looking for was actually right under my nose.

So yesterday, I took the advice and spent the afternoon at Heritage Park. 

I got to go inside a grain elevator.

And I learned even more about grain elevators than I really needed. 

If you've been to Heritage Park you will know that in pretty much every building, there is someone in there to tell you about the building and give you some great Alberta history. 

I learned there are 60 lbs to a bushel.

I learned exactly how a grain elevator works from the farmer dropping off the grain to being loaded onto a train and exported wherever it needs to go.

I learned that it would take a lot of men to do the work of a grain elevator. They would be exhausted.


I learned that the operation of a grain elevator is really not all that complex. It goes in, it goes up, it goes down and it goes up again and out. Pretty simple concept. Of course it has to be weighed and sorted before it goes into the elevator bins and that takes some math, and a scale.

But here's the thing about researching a story. Only a fraction of what you learn in your research will ever make it into the story and in thinking about Stephen King's quote above, that makes perfect sense. You don't want to overwhelm your reader with all your research, you don't need to show them how smart you are.

If you try too hard to please, you won't be trusted.

You only need to create a realistic environment in which your story takes place.

I learned oodles. I didn't need to know how the thing worked, I just needed to see what it looked like so I could continue writing.

My mission was successful. I set out to see the inside of a grain elevator, and I saw the inside of a grain elevator.

And a windmill.

I'll save that for another story.

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