Category Archives: Writing

Writing Historical Fiction Part 5

By Meredith Allard

Make friends with a librarian and, while you’re at it, try a university library.

I’ve already professed my love for the instant gratification of finding a necessary piece of information online in a matter of moments. However, nothing replaces library research. The depth of information from library research cannot always be replicated on the Internet with its short articles and occasionally unclear sources. The weekend historian may be intimidated by the sheer amount of resources in the library, but never fear.

I’ve been a university student for a good portion of my adult life. In fact, I’m currently a university student now, and I can tell you in all honesty that I’ve encountered many conscientious librarians who have gone beyond their job descriptions and assisted me by helping me track down an elusive book or an article about a little-known subject. If you’re not sure where to begin your quest for knowledge about your historical period, ask a librarian. And I’m not only talking about university librarians here since most of the public librarians I’ve talked to are more than willing to help however they can. And I’m not just saying that because Sarah Wentworth of the Loving Husband Trilogy is a librarian. I’ve always had a high opinion of librarians (as most book lovers do), and I’ve thought more than once that if I wasn’t a writer and a teacher I’d be a librarian.

The Los Angeles County Public Libraries, the Clark County Libraries, and probably library systems all over, have a wonderful program where, if a local branch doesn’t have a book you want but another branch does, the other branch will ship the book to your neck of the woods so you don’t have to go running all over town. Check with your local library to see if it has a similar program. In the Internet age there’s no more standing over card catalogues and pulling out musty cards that leave you grabbing for your asthma inhaler (or maybe that’s just me). Libraries have online catalogues these days so you can check at home to see if your local library, or any nearby library, has that book you need.

If your local library doesn’t have what you need, then indeed you should try visiting a university library. University libraries are created for research after all. In the old-timey days they had stacks of newspapers, journals, microfiche, and other hard-to-find materials. Some still have primary sources in their collections. These days university libraries have online search engines that allow you access to information you might not otherwise be able to find, and yes, you can access them from your home computer if you’re a member of that library. Many university libraries are open to the public for a yearly fee—from $30 to $100—and it’s a worthwhile investment for historical novelists.

I know I’m stating the obvious when I mention using the library, but the teacher in me feels like I need to remind people that there are these buildings with wall-to-wall books you can borrow for free (that’s the books you can borrow for free, not the buildings). With so many historical novelists using the Internet as their only source of research, I’m afraid they’re passing over other helpful ways of discovering useful, important information. And historical novelists need to use any source they can to discover the facts from the past that will make their stories come to life.

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Meredith Allard is the Executive Editor of The Copperfield Review. Visit her online at www.meredithallard.com.

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Writing Historical Fiction Part 4

Use the Internet

The Internet can be a great tool for research. You can check out the online catalogs of public and university libraries, find information from museums, and you can look up the online collections of the Library of Congress and the Smithsonian Institute as well as other research-friendly places in the comfort of your home in your jammies with your cat on your knee (or maybe that’s just me).

The Internet is great for finding interesting snippets of information. When I was completing the research for When It Rained at Hembry Castle, set in Victorian England in 1870, I stumbled onto a site that explains the Victorian language of flowers. Even the way a Victorian woman held her fan could send a message to a nearby gentleman. Because of this new-found knowledge I was able to flesh out aspects of the story in a way I wasn’t anticipating.

The Internet is truly wonderful, though, when you’re in the middle of writing a scene and realize you’re missing some important fact in your notes. Surf the web and in a matter of minutes you can find what you need. For example, when I was writing Her Dear & Loving Husband I had the unique task of writing scenes set on a college campus that at that point I had never visited. For you Loving Husband Trilogy fans, you know I’m referring to Salem State College (now University, thank you very much). I did finally visit the campus while writing Her Loving Husband’s Curse, but while writing Book One in the series I needed to know where one college building was in relation to another and how far someone might have to walk to get from one place to the other. In a matter of minutes I printed up a map of the campus, and I was able to write my scene in a realistic way. I was thrilled when I visited Salem and found everything where I expected it to be. While that part of the story isn’t particularly historical (it’s a present-day college in the present-day town of Salem), I believe my point still stands since I also used the Internet when I researched the Salem Witch Trials for the same novel.

When using the Internet, however, writers of historical fiction need to be aware that there will be gaps in the research. Internet articles are often on the short side and they may lack the thorough details you’d find in books and journals. And since anyone can put anything on the World Wide Web (hence the fact you’re subjected to reading this now), you need to be sure the information you’re using comes from a reliable source. Wiki is a cute name, but the mistakes in some of the information contained on some wiki sites aren’t so cute. I like to check and double check my information across several different sites. Hey, they can’t all have the same wrong information, can they? I’ve certainly found a lot of accurate information on the web, and there’s no reason to assume all sites are fraudulent, especially not when the information is from a university or a well-respected researcher. Just be aware of where the information is coming from.

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Meredith Allard is the executive editor of The Copperfield Review. Visit her online at www.meredithallard.com.

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Writing Historical Fiction Part 3

Read all about it. 

Track down as many primary sources as you can—sources written or created during the time period you’re studying: journals, diaries, autobiographies, news film footage, interviews, photographs, speeches, books (both fiction and nonfiction), research data, even art. I still remember the afternoon I spent at my local university library looking up old newspaper clippings from the early 20th century when I was researching Victory Garden. It was fascinating to see what had been written between the years 1917-1922, the days when the women’s suffrage movement, World War I, and then Prohibition were happening. I was also fascinated to see how propaganda was used then, which wasn’t so different from the way it was used during World War II. Here’s a funny thing you learn when you’re researching history: the more things change, the more they stay the same. I even enjoyed reading advertisements from the period because it gave me a sense of the culture then. On the surface everything appears so naïve and innocent in the early 20th century, the Coca-Cola ads, the blemish cream ads, the shaving cream ads, especially when compared to today’s commercials, but looks can be deceiving. Reading primary sources gives you a finger on the pulse of the times. What were people thinking and feeling then? As writers of historical fiction, it’s our job to find out so we can share it with our readers. These days, you don’t even have to go to the library because you can find a lot of primary sources online. Whether you find the information online or in the library, this type of knowledge about the culture of the era will add a lot of depth to your historical story.

You can also read secondary sources such as books by historians, biographers, and social critics about your time. Read other historical novels set during the time too.  Read it all. Even if most of the information doesn’t end up in your novel (and most of it won’t), it’s knowledge that will act as a backbone for the information you do share in your story. What you know will inform your writing, and the more of an expert you become through your research, the more expertly you will carry your readers into your chosen historical era. As writers of historical fiction, it’s our job to paint the scene of days gone by for our readers to visualize and understand. The more of an understanding we have about the era, the more interesting we can make it for our readers.

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