The Pitfalls of Research

Thursday, October 12, 2023

A few weeks ago, I read a WOW! Women on Writing newsletter that mentioned Melanie Faith’s current course, Food Writing for Fun and Profit. With my current schedule, I knew I couldn’t squeeze it in, but it niggled. Whenever I read a post about food, I’d think of the class. When I read a food article in Better Homes and Gardens or Real Simple, it popped into my mind. I wished I could have taken the class.  Melanie has a great way of teaching the need for precision while making the topic fun.

One day as I was watching a YouTube video, a recommendation scrolled by. It was a cooking video, “6 Sandwiches from the 60s.” I watched it and another video in which Anna Buchholz mentioned using the 1940s Joy of Cooking in her video on war time cooking. Buchholz also talked about the changes that had been made in that edition of the cookbook. 

I knew my mom had a 1950s edition. She bought me the most recent edition when I got married. We laughed out how different it was from hers. As I thought about this, I realized I had no idea what my characters would be eating. Sure, there would be similarities to today, but there are things I can pick up at the grocery store today that required a trip to Chinatown when I was a teen. I needed to do more research.

Before I started writing on my project, I had researched the moon landing because my character’s family moves following jobs in the aero-space industry. I knew about the Cold War, and I did some research on clothing, furniture, and cars. I read a few articles on food in the 1960s. 

My students always ask how much research they need to do. They’re writing nonfiction, but I always tell them to research until the information starts repeating itself. I had done that but only in select areas.

Some people might be able to write a story set in 1969 without knowing anything about the food. But my character expresses herself through cooking. I need to know about the food even if I was slow to pick up on that. 

To find what I needed to know, I ordered two cookbooks. I found the 1968 edition of The Better Homes and Gardens New Cookbook and the 1964 edition of Joy of Cooking. But what to look up? I flipped through the index and spotted the beans section. I adore pinto beans. I didn’t grow up with black beans or red beans, but I cook with them now. In the index, I saw green beans, green beans, and more green beans. Then I saw lima beans, more lima beans, and (oh, yuck!) more stinking lima beans. And one recipe for white beans. Where were the pinto beans?  

I flipped through the index to see what other surprises might await. In the New Cookbook, I spotted a puzzling section. “Pink.” I know the color but what is a pink? The section included pink fruit desert (peaches, pineapple, and frozen raspberries with a dash of bitters), pink pear salad (canned pears colored pink and filled with a gingered cream cheese mixture to paste them back together), pink fruit mayonnaise (cranberry juice stirred into mayo), and peppermint fondant. I didn’t see any other color-based sections so now I want to figure out why pink? 

So, there you have it. You need to do enough research to find the details to bring your piece to life. But beware the rabbit hole. You don’t want to fall in and get so absorbed in your research -- strange, strange, research -- that you forget to write. 


Sue Bradford Edwards' is the author of 40 books for young readers.  
  • To find out more about her writing, visit her site and blog, One Writer's Journey.  
  • Click here to find her newsletter.
She is also the instructor for 3 WOW classes which begin again on September 4, 2023.  She teaches:


Ann Kathryn Kelly said...

I was always suspicious of pink desserts! I seem to recall seeing a few in my very young childhood. As big a sweet-tooth as I have, I never partook of the pink stuff! Though, with the resurgence of The Barbie Movie, all this pink cooking would get an enthusiastic two thumbs up!

Sue Bradford Edwards said...

I too have the sweet tooth! I remember both pink and something that was very little green. But, yes, the pink could have a real resurgence now.

I know exactly who to ask about this. I hope she's at church on Sunday!

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