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Research Resources for Writers of Historical Fiction

Welcome to my website & blog! If you’ve come over from the Pikes Peak Blog, we’ll get to the topic of research in just a minute. Either way, I appreciate you taking the time to read my blog. If you like what you find here, make sure to share on your own social media platforms.

 

Over at Pikes Peak I wrote that you should do your research before you write your book. I want to pars this out, if I may. Research is really important, now. In the past, genre’s like historical fiction, science fiction and political thrillers had to get the details right, or else lose the readers. However, times have changed. Thanks to authors like George R R Martin, even fantasy have to get the basics of their world correct or else it just won’t make sense.

However, you can go too far.

I have heard stories in the dark recesses of the internet, about amateur writers who spend every waking moment doing research. If they right science fiction, they order that large, high school Periodic Table poster made out of vellum, so they can look up atomic weights at their leisure.

If they write, Historical Romance, they find and save hundreds of pictures of horses and horse tack so their description is spot on in that one scene.

Don’t be either of these people.

What I mean by doing your research, is have a general familiarity with the time period, the social conventions, and the political landscape of your story. I want you to do this so you don’t find out that your book is implausible because of a basic historical fact. (While it’s real cool to write a story about British SAS troops fighting in World War I, it will probably never get published. The SAS weren’t formed until World War II.)

Once you’ve done that research, then write your book. Do whatever you want to do in that story. When you are done, then go back and research the minutia.

Research the appropriate colors manufactured in clothes. Research the kinds of handles and cross guards used in swords. Research the way food was prepared, or how women put on corsets. Research, research, research.

But if you try and do all the research upfront, there is a very good chance you will never finish your book. I know from experience that a flawed book draft in my hand can be fixed faster than a book that was never written. Don’t be that guy who never writes their book.

Author Susan Spann has a great system for research. She writes the Hiro Hattori Novels, set in 16th century Japan. When she’s writing her draft and needs the name of a place, or object, she doesn’t stop writing and go research for an afternoon. She leaves it blank and places a note in her digital copy reminding her to look this stuff up later. When she’s done with the draft, Susan goes back and researches the specifics and puts them in her book. Her system is efficient and effective.

Whew. Glad I got that off my chest. Remember kids, before you start writing, get the basics down. Then when you’re done writing your draft, go back, at some point in the editing process, and find all of the minutia we readers of Historical Fiction love to nitpick about!

OK.

Now let’s talk more about research. Real research.

On the Pikes Peak blog I wrote that Wikipedia is a good way to get some general information about a time period if you’re a little sketchy. I still believe that. But what other sources can you use once you’ve exhausted Wikipedia?

 

1.) Your local professor and college. If you live in a major metropolitan center there is usually a college of some sort in your area. It doesn’t have to be a major research institution like Stanford or Yale. It can be a community college. Whatever it is, visit the colleges website. Find the history department webpage and browse. They should have a list of their faculty and their expertise. If they don’t, then call the department and ask. Part of the department secretary’s job is to help answer questions like this. Once you’ve got a hold of the right person, email or call them. Be honest and tell them you’re writing a book and want to ask them a few questions.

I know this can be awkward, but remember these people have dedicated their lived to the study of History. They would probably love to make an appointment to talk about something they love. (Don’t we all?)

The Bonus to all this is you will also get an authentic bibliography from a real professional. These guys live in books and will be happy to recommend a few to you!

If you can’t find what you need in the history department, check out the ethnic studies department, gender studies, English, or even the psychology department. Some universities also have thriving drama departments where people practice choreographed sword fights, make costumes for plays, and set design. These people could be great resources for your book.

 

2.) Historical Reenactors. I put this here because I used to be a reenactor for ten years during my misspent youth. Many of these people have the same dedication and work ethic of the professors above, but are much easier to approach.

They’ve also got an experience with history that the professional historian may not have. The reenactor has also worn the clothes, fired the weapons, made the tools . . . you get the idea. Their perspective will be unique. They are also very colorful people. You can find reenactors everywhere. From Chicano kids who wear 1940s pachuco fashions and swing dance, to guys who make and wear Roman legionnaire costumes.

I will have to caution you though. These are not professional historians. Sometimes they have their own agendas, like all of us, and will push a perspective on history you may disagree with. It doesn’t happen often, but you should be aware. (I once had a fellow reenactor tell me that Ireland was an independent nation during the reign of Elizabeth I of England. Yeah, read a book dude.)

3.) Documentaries. If reading through dry Wikipedia entries aren’t your thang, then try to find a documentary. There are some lovely ones out there right now. Clearly, we are living in an information renaissance. Amazon Prime has some, as does HULU. However, for my money you can’t be Netflix and PBS. Both make great independent documentaries. They also show documentaries produced by National Geographic and the BBC. The added benefit is that you get the visuals. You see the way the fabric moves, or the cloud of gunpowder. You also get to listen to professional historians, archeologists, anthropologists and many other experts get right to the point.

 

4.) Youtube. I LOVE Youtube. I have spent entire days just watching Youtube. Youtube you to be about cat videos and funny vines. Now it’s about everything. I watched a guy install a medicine cabinet in his bathroom on Youtube. He gave me the courage to try in mine. I learned a dozen food recipes on Youtube and found them all delicious. I even watched a video on how to change your car’s lightbulb on youtube and then changed my own.

Whatever questions you have about history can probably be answered by a Youtube search. I have found pages that go into weapon metallurgy, discuss sword based martial arts, 18th century American cooking, and more.

The benefit of Youtube is that the creators of these videos usually make more, in depth, videos. It’s like a documentary that has new segments every time you return.

Now there can also be misinformation on Youtube. People with agendas. But it is a resource for your research.

I truly hope this has been helpful. If you have any questions, leave a comment below. Or, sign up for my email list. Like and share, too!

Next month, we talk about actually writing your book!

Have a GREAT February!

 

Jason Henry Evans

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