Tag Archives: Researching Historical Fiction

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 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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Writing Historical Fiction Part 2


2.  Be as specific as you can when researching.

When you’ve chosen your time period, or when your time period has chosen you (as it occasionally happens), then it’s time to narrow your topic to a workable size. This is particularly true if you’re dealing with a vast subject, like the American Civil War, for example. To research the entire war would be too huge of a project, that is unless you’re Shelby Foote and willing to dedicate 20 years of your life to the task. There is simply too much material to shift through. If you can narrow your focus to something like a single event, a single year, or a single battle then the research will be far more workable and not as burdensome. When I was researching my American Civil War story I kept my focus on one regiment during the last year of the war. That is still a sizable topic because a lot happened during the last year of the war, but the fact that I was concentrating on a single regiment helped me from falling too far off the track. It was easier to search specifically for the information I needed to tell my story since I knew exactly what I was looking for.

Sometimes, however, it’s hard to narrow your topic if you’re not really sure what years or which events your story is going to cover. That happened to me when I was researching Victory Garden, a story set around World War I and the woman suffrage movement. As with the Loving Husband Trilogy, which is centered around the Salem Witch Trials, I knew very little about the World War I era. I have this odd habit of coming up with story ideas set during times I know little about, but for me that’s part of the fun of writing historical fiction—learning about the history.

For the suffrage story all I had to begin with was a vague idea that I wanted to explore the difficult fight for women’s right to vote. To begin, I did some general research to get some sense of the era. As I learned about the time, I was able to get a clearer sense of how the events would fit into the fictional story I was weaving about a woman involved in the suffrage movement. After I did enough general research I was then able to focus my attention on the specific aspects of woman suffrage that intrigued me. With a lot of reading and even more notetaking, I discovered that I wanted my story to take place between the years 1918, when WWI ended, and 1920, when women finally received the vote. Through more research, I learned that Prohibition was an important factor in American society around the same time, too, and that gave me another angle to work with. Soon (as in a few weeks into my research) I was able to see my fictional character Rose Scofield moving around these true-life events between the years 1918 and 1920, participating in the suffrage movement, watching friends come home from the war, going to Prohibition meetings (though she may not have been happy about what she heard). I wish Boardwalk Empire and Downton Abbey had been around then. These TV shows could have helped me get into the spirit of the times as I was writing.

Even when you are interested in the era you are researching, the task of digging through piles of information can seem overwhelming, not to mention tedious. But if you are genuinely intrigued in the era and do some preliminary research, you can narrow your topic to a workable size. Once you have your topic whittled to a workable size, then you are making your research time purposeful and even enjoyable. Yes, I said enjoyable. Or am I the only one who loves to read about history and take notes. Anyone? Anyone?______________________________________________________________

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

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