Some Thoughts on Historical Research

Man, I flat love good historical fiction. When it’s done right, it’s like taking a magical vacation to a different time, another land. Whether it’s Victorian London, the Australian Outback, or the American West, quality historical fiction has the ability to bring a story to life in ways nonfiction never will. But no doubt about it, if you want to write good historical fiction, you’re going to have to research.

Michael is excited to give away a free copy of his book to a random commenter. Comment within one week; you MUST leave your e-mail in the comment somewhere or else we will not be able to contact you; winners must live in Canada/US to receive the book by mail. You can win a blog contest even if you’ve won before. (Update: Airpig won.)

 


      

Guest column by Michael Zimmer, author of THE LONG HITCH,
a Five Star Western (August 2011), as well as seven other Western
and historical fiction novels. Publishers Weekly called THE LONG HITCH,
“…a clever story that packs some nice twists. Best, however, is Zimmer’s
carefully drawn, historically accurate portrayal of the characters…”
Visit Michael’s author website here.

 


GOOD RESEARCH REQUIRES VIGILANCE

That’s not necessarily a bad thing if you’re already fascinated with a certain era, and it can be a lot of fun, but good research requires vigilance. No matter how knowledgeable you may be on a certain subject, in all likelihood your story is going to include a large cast of young and old, male and female, saint and sinner —  individuals who will stray regularly outside your field of expertise. Which means, whether your character is a blacksmith, a shopkeeper, a detective, or a college professor, it’s going to be up to you to gain at least a working knowledge of their respective fields so that they can be accurately portrayed. That rings doubly true if your readers are also familiar with the subject. It’s an unfortunate fact of fiction that nothing distracts from a story quite so glaringly as a plot filled with simple mistakes.

(Definitions of unusual literary terms & jargon you need to know.)

DETAILS BRING A STORY TO LIFE

At the same time, nothing nudges a story above the norm like those tiny little gems of details that add vividness to the scene. Most readers can probably already guess that a general store in 1910 Alabama might have a pickle barrel, or an old hound or two dozing in the shade under the front porch. But describe a just-beginning-to-rust stamped tin ceiling, or the clattery sound of a crank-handled cash register closing a sale, and you’ve added a spot of unexpected color to what might otherwise have been an old, familiar black and white portrait in a reader’s mind.

BEWARE INACCURACIES

Sometimes, even what seems obvious can be incorrect. Want to give a wagon train scout an 1873 Colt Peacemaker on his journey to the Montana gold fields? The odds are that if you date your story any earlier than 1875 or ’76, you’re going to be perpetuating a myth already heavily solidified by decades of Hollywood films that would have you believe the only firearms that existed at any time in the Old West were .45 Colts and Winchester rifles. In case you’re curious, the 1873 Colt was first produced for military contract, and wasn’t offered to the civilian market until nearly two years after its 1873 debut. Similar discrepancies exist for a wide variety of other patented applications in which the familiar date and the actually year of production can differ greatly.

Other fallacies that have crept into the collective conscious? A stagecoach pulled by horses is certainly possible, especially in the East, but west of the Mississippi, a hitch of sturdy Missouri mules would more likely be correct — although there are maddening exceptions to to just about every rule. How about having your hero or heroine exit an 1850s hotel, race down the steps, and enter a car? Actually, you’d probably be okay. The term car, a shortened version of carriage, has showed up at least as early as the 1840s. On the flip side of that, hailing a “cab” can be dated even earlier. A cab is a shortened form of the word cabriolet, a type of horse-drawn carriage popular in 19th century Europe. But be careful. The word “taxi,” from the French taximetre, doesn’t seem to have come into vogue until late in the 19th century.

(What are the BEST writers’ conferences to attend?)

OCCASIONALLY, YOU CAN NUDGE THE FACTS

These tidbits of information and insight into the past, if interwoven carefully into the plot so as to not distract from the flow of the narrative, can set a novel apart from its competitors – always a good thing when you’re looking for an agent. But finding this information can be painfully difficult. Nonfiction sources are always your safest bet. No matter how highly regarded a fiction writer is for his or her attention to detail, it’s never a good idea to count on him or her for total historical accuracy. The very nature of the game – fiction — dictates that we all have to nudge the facts occasionally. The one possible exception I can think of might be Margaret Mitchell, who is credited with having one of the most historically accurate novels ever written in Gone With the Wind. But GWTW took years to research and write, and not many of us have that kind of time to devote to a single story.

Even first-person reminiscences and journals should be viewed with suspicion. Recollections written too long after the fact are prone to memory lapses, and journals can reflect a person’s prejudices as much as the subject matter. On the other hand, some things can’t be found anywhere else. The price of a peck of corn in Cincinnati in 1890 will have more than one source … somewhere. What a person thinks about the cost of that corn probably won’t.

Analytical reviews on just about any subject (including the price of corn in Cincinnati) aren’t difficult to find, even if they can be a little mind-numbing to get through. University Presses are great sources for this kind of information, although it’s important that an author who wants to portray a historically correct perspective be aware that the biases that can slant a period journal can also exist in academic writing. There’s a reason they call it Revisionist History, and it doesn’t have anything to do with fresh information coming to light. Is there anything wrong with that? Maybe, maybe not, but it would be inaccurate, not to mention a discredit to both the past and your story, to base a historical character’s views solely upon modern-day revisionist theories.

As much as possible, facts should be checked, then double-checked. I wince every time I find a mistake in one of my earlier novels, then I wince again when I think of the mistakes I’ve yet to discover — not to mention all those waiting to be made. But it happens, and I guess about all any of us can do is to keep on trying our best, and hope that our efforts are recognized, and appreciated,  by our readers

Keep writing, keep submitting, and good luck to all of us!

Michael is excited to give away a free copy of his book to a random commenter. Comment within one week; you MUST leave your e-mail in the comment somewhere or else we will not be able to contact you; winners must live in Canada/US to receive the book by mail. You can win a blog contest even if you’ve won before. (Update: Airpig won.)

 

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14 thoughts on “Some Thoughts on Historical Research

  1. eduscapes

    I really enjoyed your note about using to historical artifacts and objects to add detail. I think these elements are often overlooked in historical fiction and are a great way to bring a time period to life. Of course, these references can also give away an author’s lack of understanding of the time period. When you were talking about mules and wagon, I was thinking about whether a wagon might be pulled by mules, oxen, or horses in particular regions of the West and for particular purposes. What breeds of dogs were common and uncommon in the Old West? Placing the right domesticated animals in the correct time period and location is just as important as placing beavers, deer, and other wild animals in right region. Thanks for the great blog – Annette
    alamb at eduscapes.com

  2. MLZ

    Since there is no way I could make a decision like this fairly, I put the names of everyone who supplied contact information in a hat (well, on a flat surface behind my computer where I couldn’t see them, then gave all of them a quick spin or two with my fingers) and picked a name at random. Congratulations, airpig! I’ll be sending you an email soon for an address where I can mail you a copy of THE LONG HITCH.

    I wish I could have given each of you a copy. Thanks again for the feedback.

    Best regards,
    Michael

    1. Harriet McDonald

      I’ve set my book in the Texas Hill Country prior to the Civil War because we visit the area at least once a year. The area is so rich in exciting lore and fact. I lucked into locating a wonderful book story in Fredericksburg that is brimming with books on the area, both historical and current. Hence, my own library is brimming. From some of these I discovered sources to explore, but I also found that just going online and poking around led me to many good sources. I follow links, which lead to more links. I’ve managed to hook up with people who are so valuable to my writing, as well. Because of the period I write in, the Comanche Indians were prominent on the landscape, but finding data that I feel comfortable in using was difficult until I linked up with the Comanche museum in Lawton, OK. I made contact with a woman who is an authority on their history and also located a group who gives classes to tribal members on the old Comanche language. I’ve not used that resource but definitely will before I complete my novel. Just an example of how I go about my research.

  3. Harriet McDonald

    Nothing worries me more when I write historical fiction than having my facts straight. I spend a lot of time immersing myself in my research because too often I becomes lost in a story within it that I can’t let go of. I love the research part of my writing. It’s so important to check more than one source and the frustration of discovering conflicting opinions/facts is why. Better the frustration of seeking out that third source than finding that third or fourth source later announcing to your readers that you wrote a boo-boo. Those old journals you speak of can provide endless color and life for the novel you’re writing once you’ve sought out the confirmation of anything you, or your readers, might question.

  4. Beth Mac

    Thanks for the post, Michael. I tried a historical fiction last year for Nanowrimo, and it was really challenging, probably more so since I didn’t have time to check facts during that kind of writing experience. Good info. : )

  5. Nickkorolev

    Great article. I write historical fiction mostly in the sub-genre of maritime historical fiction. Good thing is, I was brought up in a boating family. I love researching a story and then breathing life into people who only show up as cold characters in non-fiction accounts and biographies. It also helps if you are a nit picker when it comes to historical time period research. Still, like you said, minor stuff slips past. The other problem is also what some people today refer to as being politically correct. My attitude there is the like the T-shirt saying – “I’d rather be historically accurate than politically correct.” If the historical character you are working with is biased or a bigot don’t mask the ugly parts.

  6. all4reagan

    As a writing teacher, historical fiction projects often induce groaning. Until, however, the kids begin to view it as investigators, learning all they can about the scene and setting. Suddenly, the characters begin to form themselves! Thanks for the tips!

  7. grmarlow

    My favorite line from your post above is, “It’s an unfortunate fact of fiction that nothing distracts from a story quite so glaringly as a plot filled with simple mistakes.” I know that has happened to me before when I’m reading. Authors of historical fiction have a responsibility to try – to try hard – to get things right. Research can be frustrating, but I have to admit I love it almost as much as the writing. It’s like a treasure hunt, and you never know what gem, small or large, you will get for your work!

    augustinapeach (at) yahoo (dot) com

  8. airpig

    Thanks for the good tips. And, even non-historical works are subject to research gremlins: science fact and myth, social customs of the present day (especially from across the sea), dialects, etc. I’m working on some MG novels with a skateboarder — getting the terminology right, and the physics of the tricks, requires lots of research and YouTube watching and skatepark visits and discussions with actual participants in the sport…. I am at: air@aerialwarthog.com

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