Researching The Historical Novel – Part 2

by Sharla Rae – (Here’s a link to Part 1 in this series!)

As we discussed in the last post, for the writer who enjoys history, researching is often the best part of writing a historical novel. The other day, we discussed building the framework. Today we’re going to “fill in the rest.” Below are a few of my “Lists of 7.”

Research Can Swallow Precious Writing Time. Don’t let it.

Here are some of the ways to save time when researching:

1. Start a 3-ring Help Note Book for each new Novel.

Title it with Novel’s title and then Help Note Book. The notebook serves as the author’s quick reference. It is the novel’s book of limitations, or the structure upon which it is built. Use dividers by topic. In the case of the above example, some topic headings might include character description, dialects, ranch glossary, Spanish terms, maps, terms of the law, town history, etc. Below, I discuss ways to save time on research. Specific items that need to be in the help notebook are noted with a star.

2. Don’t take a lot of hand-written or typed notes.

In the library, make use of a copy machine then highlight important facts on your copies. Remember copyright limits the number of pages you can copy, so copy just the facts you need. Be sure to write down the reference titles. Editors do sometimes question references.

In the same manner, information can be printed from the Internet. A word of caution here. Anybody can post almost anything on the Internet. Verify the information with at least two other sources.

If using your own book for a reference, use small post-a-notes like tabs on the pages, writing down one or two words to indicate what important information can be found there. This makes for a quick reference and if you don’t mind marking your books, use a highlighter too.

3. Use historical time lines. They keep you honest.

Historical timelines are often included in the back of history books. Sometimes you may want to combine timelines found in several references. If a time line isn’t available, note prime dates as you research and make your own.

4. Keep a list of terms and definitions that will be useful in your story.

Using the earlier example, if researching Spanish and American ranchers, list ranching terms from both cultures. List names of tools and what they were used for, slang, special clothing items etc.

5. Keep historical area maps handy, lists of important businesses and names of actual people who might have an influence in the novel.

Note: If using an imaginary town, it should resemble other towns of the time and place. It also helps to draw a blueprint of the imaginary town so that you don’t describe a business on A Street one time and then mention that same business on C Street later. The same applies to houses, barns, stores, etc.

6. Keep a list of indigenous plants and animals.

Take into consideration that animals and birds that are now extinct may have inhabited the area at the time of your story.

7. Although not a part of the actual research, put character outlines and descriptions in the Help Note Book.

Giving a character brown hair on one page and red on another is embarrassing.

Valuable Research Resources

  • Library

Public libraries are the logical place to start researching especially for general history. The Internet works too but often tiny details are deleted for space reasons. Sometimes it’s those minute details that a make huge and wonderful difference in the story. Check out children’s books. Their simplicity makes them great for “basic” facts without the superfluous information found in adult books.

  • Specialized, nit-picky information

Often, libraries do not carry the specialized information needed. Consequently, historical writers start their own resource libraries.

  • Museum bookstores are goldmines for specialized information.

Many of their books are authored by local historians and by people who run the museums. Often theses books are not available anywhere else. I have found that curators and museum bookstore owners are usually very willing to help writers.

Since I writestories set in America, most of my personal library pertains to American History.

The following 4 books are personal favorites with basic but important facts:

  • Domestic Technology, by Nell Duvall (A must have for knowledge pertaining to invention dates of certain foods and canned goods, utensils, furnaces, lighting, plumbing, etc.
  • I Hear America Talking, and Listening To America, both by Stuart Berg Flexner (Great for dated Americanisms in speech/euphemisms, commercial usages and inventions.
  • Directory of Historical Organizations in the United States And Canada, by The American Association for State and Local History Nashville, Tennessee. (Very expensive but most libraries have them.)It lists most of the historical museums in the US and is extremely useful in finding specialized books dealing with towns, cities, and states. It even lists museums specializing in things like the logging industry, Indian heritage, railroads etc. The biggest plus, is the phone numbers. Most museums have gift shops/bookstores. You can call and tell them what you’re looking for. I’ve found most of these stores allow you to give them your credit card number and order the books over the phone. New additions of this book of historical organizations are published periodically.
  • A dictionary with dated Etymologies such as Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary and Webster’s New Universal Unabridged Dictionary. Do you want a character to use a certain word but you’re not sure if it’s too modern? Look up the etymology of that word.

Other resources:

1. Catalog of Catalogs

The next time you receive a catalog of catalogs in the mail, that is a catalog listing specialty catalogs that can be ordered, glance through it very carefully. Many of the catalogs listed sell historic renovation items or facsimiles. The pictures in these catalogs are often dated, thus making a two or three dollar catalog a cheap and valuable resource.

One catalog I found in a catalog of catalogs was Lark In The Morning Musical Catalog It pictures historical instruments from all over the world, including medieval. In the back there is a listing by country. They now have a website: http://www.larkinam.net/

Another catalog I found is The Antique Hardware Store. It shows Victorian bathtubs, sinks, fixtures, hardware, lighting fixtures, weathervanes and more. Many catalogs have gone digital but sometimes you can still order catalogs from them for just a few dollars.

2. Antique and Collector’s Magazines

Subscribing to this type of magazine often supplies the writer with more information than they’d ever find in any one book.

One of my Favorites is Collector’s Eye. This color magazine always includes lots of history about the items being shown. It shows everything from teapots to toys. There are Internet sites called Collector’s Eye but I did not find the magazine. I did find a similar magazine on line called Collector News.

Aother such magazine is Victoriana. It features articles about beautiful historic homes, Victorian holiday celebrations, how to serve a real Victorian tea, Old Victorian fashions for adults and children etc. Note-this magazine went out of business but it is now on the internet. Unfortunately, these types of periodicals often change names or stop publishing.

3. Antique shops

Antique shops often carry free newspaper-like newsletters with pictures and articles of extreme interest. Also, if you need to see first hand how something was constructed and how it worked, many antique shop owners are glad to demonstrate. Take a camera and notebook.

Antique shops are also great sources for antiquarian books at a reasonable price. (Antiquarian bookstores are usually cost prohibitive, but antique shops are not.) The firsthand knowledge in these books is priceless.

4. Living History Farms/Ranches, and Medieval Fairs, Civil War Reenactments

These places are great for viewing firsthand how things were done in the old days. They also have wonderful bookstores with specialty books that can’t be purchased anywhere else.

5. Rock shops

Find books on historical mining sites at rock shops. Sometimes they even have old maps available. Who knew?!

6. The Internet

There are lots of historical research sites. There are also some interesting list serves where a writer can post questions and receive answers. This is especially useful when time is an important factor. One such list that I’ve found extremely helpful is Carmel’s Research Group. Click the link and send an email for instruction in joining this list.

Another impressive yahoo group that deals with weapons and warfare, police tactics etc. is Weapons Info (you can look this up at http://groups.yahoo.com/).

A more recent discovery is a website called HighBeam Research. It’s a subscription service that offers archived periodical articles, newspapers, and more.

Caution: I said this before but it bears repeating. Anybody can post anything on the Internet. Always verify the information. If three sources say the same thing, it’s usually safe to use it.

7. Magazines

State magazines like Arizona Highways and Texas Highways give excellent descriptions of different parts of the state, flora and fauna, and often offer historical information too.

National Geographic Magazine offers descriptions of rain forests, mountains and peoples and places all around the world. It also describes national disasters, animals etc.

There are magazines about foreign countries available for subscription like British Heritage which can be found in large bookstores.

There are also specialty periodicals whose stories offer great historical plot ideas and historical facts. Many offer an interesting history book selection. Examples: Wild West, Old West, True West, American History Illustrated, and Historic Traveler. There are also magazines dedicated to the Civil War.

I hope this series assists you in starting your next research project. HAPPY RESEARCHING!

What sources do you tap when you’re getting ready to dive into a book that requires a lot of research? Also, which comes first for you, the research or the story??

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14 Responses to Researching The Historical Novel – Part 2

  1. Marcia says:

    I also use a particular city’s website that sometimes has historical info. The story comes first for me, then i decide how much research is needed. Wonderful post, thanks!

  2. I copied both parts of this post into a word document to dissect later at leisure. I’m getting ready to do my first historical novel, and the wealth of information given will help immeasurably.
    Thank you so much

  3. For me the story comes first.

    I’m writing a series of novels set during the golden age of Hollywood – an era I’ve always been interested in. I had the general story in my head but in order to be able to weave my fictional story around factual events, I needed to know what they were, when they happened and who they happened to, covering a 32-year time span. So for the first full year of working on this, I read and read and read and took a ton of notes and built up a detailed timeline which I refer to constantly and which I’ve ended up putting on my website – http://bit.ly/qavCuO.

    As time went on, the specifics of my story evolved out of the accounts I was reading. Fortunately for me, just about everyone working during that era has written a book about it or had a book written about them, so there was no shortage of material. But after reading 100 books I’ve come to realize that all these people have an agenda to tell the story that best reflects them or their part in what was going on.

    I always try to double/triple check my facts if I’m going to use it in my books. And I wish to god that I’d found “Domestic Technology” before I started! I’m going to order it right now!

  4. Although I do not write historical fiction, I still know my characters and setting have to be rooted in the factual surroundings of their times. Magazines, the internet, books and more books. For the mysteries I have also sent a survey to the Brooklyn Medical Examiner’s Office and they filled it in for me!! I use cop sites and pick detectives brains. For setting, I go back into my own history, since most of my books are set in NYC.

    There are three books set on the NY Broadway stage and I use Playbill, Variety and biographies for those. One of my characters is a professional photographer and I am blessed to have a friend who was married to a reknown photo-jounalists and art photographer who twelve years after his death, his work is still being bought, shown and used in schools like Pratt.

    I admire your hard work and dedicaiton. I would say that the story always comes first because I know the first rough draft can be “filled” in with all the dates and facts I need. Loved this post and your amazing eye for detail :)

    • Jenny Hansen says:

      That’s awesome that the ME’s office filled that in for you! Sharla’s research amazes me. I’m all about the story myself, then I research enough to fill in, but I don’t think everyone is that way. :-)

  5. Wow…lots of really great info here. Thanks so much!

    • Sharla here. I’m currently dealing with some family issues and my great partners here at WITs have been kind enough to respond to the great comments but I do want to thank everyone for their kind words.

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  7. liz says:

    Great work, lots of great tips for historical writers. Thanks

  8. Jody says:

    I love your caution, but be careful that they three sources don’t all use the same source for the information. If they used the same primary source try to get a hold of that. A group can all look at the same primary source and come up with different opinions in large part b/c of their own biases. I love to cruise college history department websites looking for experts on a give period ect in history because usually they will post books or articles they have read.

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