Why do writers create historical or fantasy settings that require research, when they hate researching? I have no clue, but I do it myself. It’s one thing to swan over to Rome and Florence to research the Medici at the time of the Italian Renaissance, but when I get home and realize I’ve forgotten some details, I often resent time spent sourcing those bits and pieces.
If you’re like me, help in the form of an on-call research assistant could be easier than you think. Today I’ve invited Brisbane research assistant Heather Gammage (who I’ve worked with – hence the mock-strangling photo) to describe what she does for authors. Heather has a BA in history with a minor in Classical languages (Latin). Her specific “field” is in the medieval, but she admits to a fair to middling knowledge of other eras and is an expert in tracking down hard-to-find references and facts.
So without further ado, here’s Heather:
Thank you, Louise, for inviting me to write about why I love being a research assistant.
I have written stories since I was a small girl. My original inspiration was Enid Blyton and the Trixie Belden books. My very first book was, essentially, a Trixie Belden rip-off I wrote at seven years old–the names of the teenaged detectives were different, and it was set in Australia, but it was clear where my ideas came from.
At the same age, I used to set myself assignments from the encyclopaedia on various things that piqued my interest. One week, I’d be reading about dogs, the next, I’d be copying lines out about the government of Indonesia. They were not brilliant, by any means (and, again, were mostly plagiarized), but looking back, it’s clear that the “research is my life” moniker I jokingly adopted on an online gaming forum in the early 2000s was based in more fact than I realized. Even more recently, I came to the conclusion that, while I love story-making and writing, what I really love about writing is the busywork leading up to it–the research; the world-building and the diving into dusty libraries for things I do not know. Perhaps that is why Trixie, the girl detective, resonated with me as a child.
I still write (and I have workshopped my fantasy novel with the fabulous Louise), but the practicalities of my current life circumstances and my university studies don’t allow me to seek publication–yet. Meanwhile, as a part of those studies, I applied for the 2012/2013 Summer Research Scholarship with The University of Queensland as a research assistant to Dr Kim Wilkins. I was thrilled when I was accepted! Over that summer, I worked with Kim on the research for her book Ember Island (published under her moniker Kimberly Freeman in 2013) as well as referencing and fact checking for her Year of Ancient Ghosts. Ember Island was set in modern and 1890s Brisbane, a fictional prison island based on St Helena Island, and also the Channel Islands (Jersey/Guernsey). As Kim worked on draft one, she asked me to research the things she needed for her historical setting–which varied from trade routes into Guernsey to how a rich boy would dress in 1890s England and Brisbane to how many inmates were on St Helena’s and what the guards were paid.
It dawned on me that I was doing two of the things I loved most, and being paid for it, and oh-my-god-wouldn’t-it-be-fantastic-to-do-this-forever. I could apply all of my very “bitsy” work and life experience: parenting, horses, painting, writing (in fiction, for games, and for academics), referencing in a range of different styles, research, history, small business ownership, gardening, retail, western martial arts, birth experience, arts admin, teaching, Latin, gaming and beta testing, web writing — I am a jack of all trades from work and experience over the years, but there is nothing that screams “hire me!” for one particular job.
But, surely, don’t all authors love researching? Who would hire me? Kim had always done her own research, and done it very well; the research assistant work was due to her publishing time constraints.
Then, in early 2013, I took Dr Kim’s writing class as an elective for my degree, which was, quite suitably, a “doing research for writing” course. As a part of this course, Kim asked other authors to speak at the lectures about how they approached their research. One author mentioned that she despised the research process.
Despised it? Really?
A whole tonne of pennies dropped on my head.
Since then, I have done work for other clients, as well as Kim, and as my undergrad studies end mid-year I will increase my hours to allow for full-time bookings. I absolutely love working with clients on their research as they write and edit their books, and my current rate is $33 an hour which clients pay in advance, usually buying a block of my time to use as they require it. Quite apart from the vicarious thrill of seeing an author’s writing before it is published, my authors ask me questions, often, about subjects I know very little to nothing about (my specialty is the medieval period and Western Europe, but I have researched as widely as 1890s Queensland, 1990s Victoria and London after WW2). So, I am always learning, always searching. My job is to make the process easier on the author, and they can focus on story, while I focus on accuracy (as far as practicable, and to an author’s requirements). It’s win-win.
Thanks so much for sharing today, Heather. I can hear a whole batch of authors out there on the Interwebs thinking How do I get her to work for me! If that’s you, Heather can be contacted at: heather DOT gammage AT uqconnect DOT edu DOT au , and if you’d like to see what Dr Kim has to say about her beloved research assistant, you can read Kim’s blog On Having a Research Assistant.
If you’d like more info, or want to ask a question, please drop that into a comment below and either Heather or I will respond. Thanks for reading!