Historical research is the one mental roadblock that many writers have in justifying why they have not written a historical novel. Research is a word that leaves a bad taste in many a mouth, probably because they have been taught from teachers and professors (not ones like me I assure you) that they need to build stacks of virtual or physical index cards to complete the process.
Maybe that’s true for your collegiate research paper, but not for writing the historical novel. The tips that I give can be used for writing historically in a wide variety of circumstances. Writers should also be aware that there has been a shift in the past 50 years regarding history, and what is considered “accurate.” This is all to your benefit as a writer.
5 Research Tips for Writing Historical Fiction
- Go primary. Letters, autobiographies, your subscription to newspapers.com, Ancestry.com, etc. If primary option exists. If you are writing about a marginalized population, then primary resources may not exist in the ways people think of them. My subject in By Her Own Design, was not writing a diary. All she wanted to do was design beautiful dresses for her clients. However, her contemporary, was Zora Neale Hurston. Yes, a very different Black woman, but another artistic Black woman who was born in the same region. Hurston’s autobiography was part of my doctoral dissertation, so I knew it well. And it helped me to think through Ann’s childhood years. Also, Ann’s dresses, as works of art are primary resources. Looking at them, as well as pictures of them, helped me to imagine her creation process.
- Get your hands on everything secondary, even if it is questionable. Research is a thread that can be traced back and back and back. Even if your secondary source is questionable, they have bibliographies that can be helpful. Examine them and then track those down so you can see for yourself what was said. I had to obtain the April 1961 issue of Ladies Home Journal to see how Jackie Kennedy spoke about Ann Lowe. As it turned out, the words said were not a direct quote from Jackie, but were written in the description by the author of the article.
- Travel to the place you are writing about if you can. If not, use the Internet to go there. Looking at the physical topography of a landscape can give you a feel for how you should write about a place. If you look it, you can use your imagination to ask questions about how the land looked to put readers there.
- Historical reenactments can be helpful, but be careful. I include movies and television shows in this. If you can go to a reenactment, that’s better. The Winterthur museum wants to recreate Jackie Kennedy’s voluminous wedding gown in 2023, the 70th anniversary of the wedding. It would be great to get a feel of what wearing 50 yards of silk taffeta would be like on the body. TV shows and movies are filtered through so many sensibilities: actors, directors, costume designers, but seeing their work can be helpful in thinking through what recreation of a past time looks like. Think of it as tertiary research. But you do have to be careful because there are more opportunities for error.
- Have fun! I don’t care what people say, research is FUN. What are people worried about when they do research? Grades? Professors? There is no professor to please, no grade to obtain. Accuracy? Whose accuracy are we talking about here? Historical records? Thomas Jefferson lived a very different life than his enslaved population did. He wrote Notes on the State of Virginia, proof of his meticulous record keeping. However, his conclusions in that record about how the enslaved people at Monticello sweated will not help you think about what it was like for those very people to work in the oppressive humidity of Virginia. Going to Monticello will do that. Reading Annette Gordon Reed and examining her bibliographies will help writers do that. That’s the kind of history that historical fiction writers need to place their readers in the historical times of their characters. Let history inform your characters and be the backdrop of their lives. Historical fiction is, above all, fiction. Dig to find out what you can about the past, but then, let your imagination and the all-important author’s note at the end of your book, fill in and explain the rest.
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