Saturday, February 22, 2003

Doing Research for Historical Fiction

By Rita Gerlach

Doing research for the historical novel can either be one of the most tedious jobs for a writer or one of the most enjoyable, besides writing the novel itself. We hear the phrase, "write what you know." Research helps you do just that.

The writer should look at the task of researching as an adventure, an unveiling of facts that perhaps have long been forgotten. Research will help you capture the setting of your novel. It will enable and equip you to make your novel flow and come alive. It will enhance your narrative. It will allow you to help the reader hear, taste, touch, smell, and see the setting as well as your characters.

There are steps you can take to effectively research your novel.

1. The Local Library: Research does not have to be mind-boggling. The first step is researching the location of your novel. Think of who, what, when, where, and why. Your local library is an excellent place to begin.

For example your novel takes place during the War of 1812. The first place I would start for simple and basic historical facts in the juvenile section. There you should find a book outlining the events of the war. Search for the style of dress, modes of transportation, what people ate, music, medicine, etc. Check encyclopedias and reference books.

By now you have gathered some basic information. But how do you find those hidden facts? Where are those untold stories? Reference books and biographies can provide a lot of information. But your best source is your librarian. Ask for help, and tell the librarian you are writing a novel and need additional information the encyclopedias and reference books cannot provide. Your librarian should be able to direct you to the best information available.

When I was writing a novel about 18th century Maryland, I visited "The Maryland Room" at my local library. It is open at certain times of the week and is attended by a librarian. The books for the most part are old, and therefore a treasure-trove of history. It is my belief the older the resource, the more accurate the information.

2. Local Historical Societies: Local historians usually run their historical society. Go in and ask questions. Ask to see any documents that might enhance your vision. Not only do historical societies have original documents and pictures, they might also have works of art and photographs.

3. Historical Sites: If possible, visit the historical sites in your subject area. Attend reenactments. Take a historical tour. Visit sites through the eyes of your characters.

4. New and Used Bookstores: Many out-of-print history books may be found at your used bookstore, and local bookstores may have an excellent history section.

5. The Internet is a wellspring of information. In writing the historical novel, you can find sites on everything from period clothing to detailed historical events. One thing that has helped me in writing my novels is to visit sites with period paintings. Often enough I find portraits of both famous and not so famous historical figures. Interestingly, I find that the book covers of historical novels, especially in the romance genre, do not reflect the way people looked in ages past.

Here are two excellent links for historical content.

PBS's American Experience:

The History Net:

Lastly, remember that by gathering significant information you add zest to your story in order to engage readers. However, be alert to the danger of adding too much information. Don't spend so much time on research that you never start writing, that the inspiration begins to fade. Gather just enough material to validate your story historically and hold the reader's interest. Remember you are writing a novel, not a thesis on the history of Whatever Town.

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