Tips on Performing Research for a Historical Novel
A Worthy Ambition
If you are reading this article because you are interested in composing a work of historical fiction, then allow me to congratulate you. You have chosen a genre that can be both entertaining and educational all at once. Fiction that is anchored in historical events and cultures is perhaps, in some ways, more challenging to write than other genres of fiction, but meeting those challenges can be rewarding for the writer. One of the chief rewards is the knowledge one attains in the process of researching, and, if that knowledge is properly handled in the book, the information one's readers may glean while simply reading for pleasure. (Who ever said learning had to be dull?)
A good writer of historical fiction will seek to learn as much as possible about the time and setting he wishes to portray so as to present his story in a believable manner. While sometimes he may have to do the best he can with scant information on certain subjects, if he has done enough study of the period in general he will be able to fill in those gaps in a way that is true to the era.
A Researcher's Checklist
- Compose a preliminary list of items that you must know in order to structure the plot of your book.
- Find at least two books (though three or four are even better) that provide a broad overview of the place and era about which you desire to write. Also find books that pertain to technical aspects of your story. Take notes on any information that you believe will be useful to you. Always write down your sources with your notes, as you may need to go back and double-check something in greater detail later.
- Begin to accumulate more specific information via period-written accounts, articles and books on subjects pertaining to the era, and interviews (if possible) with experts on the period. This step will be on-going during the writing process, since you may find minor questions arising as you proceed with your work.
When beginning your research for your novel, start with general history books that cover the era and place in which your book will be set. It is always best to get a good overview of your setting and gain understanding of the events that would have shaped the lives and mindsets of the people living at that time. Also look for books that cover major technical aspects of your story. A writer whose main character is a railroad engineer in the 1870s should understand how a steam engine from the period functioned. An author would need to possess a basic knowledge of sheep husbandry to compose a story that revolves around life on an eighteenth-century sheep farm in France. A person writing a book about a family of coffee growers in South America should study how coffee is cultivated in that part of the world.
While it is advisable to take notes from both of these types of books, be very particular about what you write down. Make absolutely sure that the author of the history or technical book is referring to your time period before assuming a fact given would pertain to your story. An example: I read some very broad histories of the Victorian era while doing research for my book, some of which were better than others. The main issue I had with some of them was they did not present subject matter in a way that allowed one to discern whether a habit, social custom, opinion, etc. was carried by people throughout the entire period, or was merely fashionable for a portion of the era. Further study helped me weed out inapplicable information from my notes, yet I could have saved myself some time in the first place by not having bothered to write those things down.
Finding What You Need
The advent of the internet has opened a door to resources that the historical novelist of twenty-plus years ago could only dream of having at (quite literally) her fingertips. Not only are there many websites featuring collections of historical and cultural information, but many old, out-of-print books are also available online. Some of these old books can provide a view of contemporary thought and practice for the era in which you wish to set your book better than any other resource. Even practical books on things such as cookery and housekeeping can provide insight into the daily lives of people during a given time period. Digital copies of historical magazines and newspapers are also valuable resources. An old newspaper may be the only way you can find out exactly how a past event unfolded.
The best way to find any information online is, obviously, to start with a basic search on a search engine. You may have to wade through a lot of irrelevant hits to find the information you need, but an answer is typically out there. I have searched for some very obscure information before, barely expecting to find what I needed, and was pleasantly surprised to find that one of the dozen people on the planet with knowledge of the subject had put it online. Always try an online search if the resources you have already gathered fail to give you the answer you need concerning a historical question. That answer may be as easy as typing a question in a web-search box. (I will note two things here: the first being that if you do not find an answer during your initial search, modify the phrasing of your question, or come back later if you do not need the answer immediately. A new web page may appear three weeks later containing the information you need. The second thing is be picky concerning what you choose to use as an online resource. Every single thing on the internet is not to be considered reliable!)
There are, of course, more traditional sources of information, such as libraries and historical societies, from which you can gather information. Libraries are especially good for finding the general histories to which I referred in the previous section. They also may contain repositories of texts concerning local history. If you are a student at a college, take advantage of the specialized collections your school might have in its library. Some libraries, whether collegiate or public, may also be part of an inter-library loan network; cardholders at these institutions can borrow books from other libraries in the network for free or for a nominal fee. This service can expand your access to obscure, hard to find volumes greatly.
Historical societies and history departments at colleges and universities are sources into which you can tap if necessary as well. How accommodating to inquiries a given group or college department is to requests for information naturally will vary. Always be courteous in written requests, and be patient if a reply is not sent immediately. People in a historical society are often only volunteers working limited hours, and college professors are typically very busy people as it is, yet many will respond as time allows. Make sure to thank them when they do so.
Face to face interviews with an expert in a particular aspect or era of history are invaluable if you can arrange such a meeting. Be sensitive to that person's time, however, and come with your questions written out and organized so as to make the best use of the interview. You may also have to pay for some experts' time, so weigh carefully what questions are the most essential to ask, as some less-important information could be gathered from other sources.
Museums, especially "living history" museums, can give you a visual taste of everyday life during the era in which you are setting your novel. Sometimes seeing household items from the time period will help you understand better how they were used. Viewing a home, farm, or village set up as it would have been in times past can assist you in describing your characters' settings in a more vivid fashion. The actor historians at a living history museum can also give you insight on how the person he or she is portraying would have lived and worked.
There are going to be times when a piece of historical information is impossible to find in spite of your best efforts to locate it; it has vanished into the annals of antiquity. It is at this point you will have to take what you have already learned about the period and make an educated guess. It is not, personally, my preferred course of action, but sometimes a writer could waste hours searching for the answer to a single question instead of spending that time writing. When you encounter an elusive fact, ask yourself two things before continuing your pursuit:
- How relevant is this information to my story?
- Can I write my book without knowing the answer to this question?
If the answer to these questions is that the information has little or no direct bearing on your story (most people will not notice if you omit the maker and pattern name of the china in a dinner party scene), then set the query aside. If you happen to come across the information before you have finished writing your book, most of the time you can add it to the appropriate part with minimum effort, if you so desire.
Moderately important information may give you pause when considering the above questions. This is the area in which most "educated guesses" must take place. Some things are too critical to the storyline to drop completely without making major alterations, yet you will be stuck, in essence, if you wait to dig up an answer. My advice on this point would be to study intently what you do know, and draw the most logical conclusion that can be made based on the information available through all reliable sources. The chances that the few people on earth that even know the correct information would actually end up reading your novel are somewhat slim. Take the chance, and, if you are able, write the part in a way that does not draw attention to your guess. Alterations can still be made later if you find what you need after moving on.
Information that is central to your plot ought not to be assumed if at all possible. This is why principal plot points need to be researched well before one begins writing so as to ascertain whether one can actually find enough historical references to construct the story properly.
What's in a Word?
One very critical aspect that a writer must research when composing a work of historical fiction is language. It would sound very odd for your valiant, globe-trotting sea captain to burst out with "That is so cool!" at the sight of a large waterfall on a newly-discovered island—especially if his discovery takes place in 1740. The use of "cool" as a slang term did not come about until the twentieth century. While you want your story to be understandable to readers (the captain proclaiming "Behold yon waterfall! What magnality is this?" * would be difficult for the average modern reader to understand), it is better to try to keep the characters' speech and vocabulary as realistic as possible. I realize that the way people spoke to one another in times past often sounds much more formal to our ears than we are accustomed to hearing, but it would be equally awkward to have characters speaking as if they just came out of the local high school. Aim for a balance between speech that is correct for the period and what your readers can comprehend without having to refer to a dictionary with every other turn of the page. I will say, however, that a judicious addition here and there of an obsolete or archaic term can add a touch of authenticity to your story. When using a word that is particularly obscure (i.e., not in a typical present-day dictionary), just make sure to find a subtle way to help the reader understand what the word means.
The origin of the speakers is a point an author must take into consideration as well. A person from Australia uses expressions that can be very different from what someone from the U.S. uses. Terms also can vary within a country depending on where one lives. While the bulk of the English language is intelligible to English-speakers worldwide, it is the pesky little list of regional and country-specific words of which you must be conscious. If you write a book that is set in a place that you know uses terms that differ from what you grew up using, always double-check to make sure you have chosen words that fit your characters' origins. This may sound like a great deal of extra work, but in reality there are not that many words you will have to check.
A good collegiate dictionary is a writer's ally in making sure a particular word is appropriate for either the era or the region being represented in a book. Make sure that whatever dictionary you select—whether in print or online—has notes on the etymology of each entry. You may end up referring to more than one dictionary in some cases, as some are more vague in their history of a word than others are (e.g., a dictionary may tell you that a particular word originated in the seventeenth century, but you need a more specific decade since your book is set in 1633. A different dictionary may tell you "1680", which would indicate the word is too far past your time frame to be used. A further note on that, however: most dates refer to when a word is supposed to have first appeared in print. Thus, if the dictionary says "1640", one can safely assume that someone could have used the term in speech in 1633.).
One final note in this section will be in regard to names: make sure the names (and surnames) you use for your characters are within the realm of the possible. Be aware that while our forbears could occasionally be rather creative when it came to naming their children, there is a point when you can pick a name that simply does not work in your historical context (such as a Cajun girl being named Ingeborg). If you are not sure, do some digging on the etymology of a name on a reputable baby name website to determine the name's origins. If it does not fit, then find a new name. You can examine old census records and such to see what kind of names appear in the place you are setting your book should you still feel at a loss as to what you should name your characters. Visit genealogy websites that have a surname dictionary to help you determine appropriate surnames for you characters. These can also help you determine the proper spelling of a surname if it varied from region to region in a country.
* Which can be translated into our modern vocabulary as "Look at the waterfall over there! What wonderful thing is this?"
The Adventure Begins
Good writing requires that an author be thoughtful, patient, and deliberate, both in gathering materials as well as composing a work. It is my hope that you now have a general map to follow on your journey to writing your first historical novel. If you have any questions concerning doing research, feel free to leave them in the "comments" section and I will do my best to answer them.
Do you feel ready embark on the journey of writing a historical novel now?
Some Useful Links
- The Phrontistery: Obscure Words and Vocabulary Resources
An online dictionary of archaic and obscure English words. A great resource for anyone needing a period term for a historical novel.
- Online Etymology Dictionary
Another helpful resource when trying to determine whether a word is period-appropriate.
- Dictionary of Victorian London - Victorian History - 19th Century London - Social History
An excellent source of information for anyone writing a novel set in Victorian-era Great Britain. Many period photographs, maps, articles, and book sections.