Researching The Historical Novel – Part 1

ANNOUNCEMENT: Due to some really icky computer issues, NakedEditor Tiffany Lawson Inman’s post will be delayed until next Friday, Sept 23rd. Since she is AMAZING, we know you’ll want to check back then to see it. ~Jenny :-)

Researching The Historical Novel
Part 1 in a series
by Sharla Rae

For the writer who enjoys history, researching is often the best part of writing a historical novel. Even so, deciding where to start can be mind-boggling.

Why Research?

  1. Lovers of historical fiction know their history. The facts cannot be faked.
  2. Historical facts set the boundaries or limits within which the writer must work.
  3. History can be used as external conflict to strengthen the plot while adding deep and rich layers to the story.
  4. Throughout time, history has shaped people and vise versa. It “should” be the same with historical characters. Characters are defined by the times, government, social culture language, fashion, entertainments, etc.

So Where Does the Research Start?

To keep things simple, think of researching as the construction of a house from the ground up.The Foundation:
General background research

Like building a new house, researching starts with the foundation. The foundation is the initial or general historical background, the historical facts leading up to and even slightly beyond the time the novel takes place. No culture can be understood without knowledge of its roots and development.

Example: Character idiosyncrasies aside, if a writer wishes to characterize a young Irish immigrant, the Irish heritage and the immigrant experience must be understood. Hence, the writer studies the reasons behind the Irish leaving Ireland and their experiences once they arrived in America.

The same holds true when setting a novel in an unfamiliar city, state or country. Example: Suppose the novel is set in 18th century England. A study of England’s general history tells the writer what motivated Englishmen of that period and why they reacted differently in a given situation than say an American might.

An overly simplified example: An Englishman of the 18th century may not have liked a Frenchman. Why? The two countries had frequently been at war.

The Walls of the House:
The Limiting Historical Facts – Who, Where, What, & Why

Once the foundation of the general historical background is laid, it’s time to add walls to the foundation of the house. The walls consist of the factual boundaries that determine the specifics of a story — the exact who, where, what and whys.

Remember, a house usually has more than four basic exterior walls and that there will be interior walls, too. For the sake of simplicity I’ll discuss four basic exterior walls.

Lets assume the author’s story is about two men who are feuding over a piece of ranch land in the Old West, a common scenario.

General research informs the writer that there were many land conflicts in those days, white man verses Indian, cattlemen verses farmers or sheepherders, people verses the railroads, white man verses Mexican and Spaniards etc.

First Exterior Wall:

During the foundation research an interesting fact turns up. Old Spanish land grants were often not recognized by the US government. Eureka! This is a piece of history that lends itself beautifully to the type of conflict the writer wants to develop.

One character can be a gringo newly arrived on the scene, and one a Spaniard whose land has belonged to his family since the Spanish exploration land grant days. This is a “who” limitation.

Second Exterior Wall:

Since the Spanish dwelled predominately in the Southwest and California, historical facts limit the setting of this story to those areas. This is a “where” limitation.

Study general history of the Southwest and California and especially the Spanish settlers and their backgrounds. How did they come to receive their land grants. Where did most of these types of land disputes happen — Arizona, Texas, New Mexico, or California? Deciding on a state narrows the location and this is another “where” limitation.

Third Exterior Wall:

Let’s say the author has chosen California as a setting for this story because the history supporting the scenario is especially notable in California. Laws were passed to benefit Americans and many Spanish families lost their land.

Wait! Another Wall? Yes. The year those unfair laws were passed gives a time frame in which this sort of conflict would have taken place. Thus we have a “when” or time limitation.

Fourth Exterior Wall:

A study of those laws and exactly how and why they were passed is needed. This study supports and strengthens the story’s conflict. It’s also limiting because the writer must work within the dictates of the law.

In a way this a “what” and a “who” limitation depending on how you wish to look at it. The “what” is the law itself or the government. The “who” is represented by people the law affected and limits it put on them.

Remember that there can be many exterior and interior walls.

Perhaps facts show that many Spanish ranches were located around Los Angeles. The writer may wish to locate the ranches near that city. Thus, another limit is set — the specific city. Study old city maps, locate actual businesses and citizens during the time frame. Also, note other events that shaped the area.

The Roof:
Cultural Details Limited to a Specific Area and Period

Research local customs and culture of the time and place. Let’s say you learn there was also an Indian culture. While your story will not focus on this, some background is good for flavor.

Since part of the focus is on the Spanish family, research how they lived, what they did for fun, who were their leaders, Spanish names of things as well as Spanish people names, customs, entertainments etc.

Now look at the gringo culture, their ranches, culture, entertainments, customs. How did the gringos in the area differ from the Spanish? What was the general emotional climate among the Spanish ranchers, the gringos?

This cultural background is another limiting factor that helps the writer shape the personality of characters.

Making the House a Home or Interior Walls:
Décor, Plumbing and Furnishings and Personal Needs, and Everyday life

I’m calling this section the interior walls of the house because everyday life items of a particular era are limiting. An Old West rancher would not own a big screen television. Nor would his wife wear a mini skirt.

Once a house is built, the people who move in make it into a home by surrounding themselves with everyday things that suit their lifestyle, needs, and personal tastes.

What characters surround themselves with tells the reader what kind of people they are and what’s important to them. Of course you must always be conscious of the time period when describing your characters’ living environment.

The following is a list of just a few things that should be considered.

  1. Size and number of rooms, interior furnishing, kitchen hardware, sleeping accommodations and etc. should reflect the period, social class, location of their homes, personal tastes etc.
  2. Foods must be appropriate to the time and culture. For example, what drinks and foods did the Spanish serve? The Americans?
  3. Fashion must fit the period, place, professions etc.
  4. Modes of transportation available to them
  5. Entertainments
  6. Names of professions in and around the city and ranch
  7. What newspaper did they read? Was it biased? Would it matter to your story?
  8. What did the homes actually look like? Spanish? Americans? Materials used?
  9. Ranch equipment and animals on the ranches
  10. Etiquette of the Spanish and American at the time
  11. Standard education of the two groups
  12. Languages spoken, dialects that might be used for atmosphere
  13. Religious differences between the two cultures, specific practices, etc.
  14. Anything that pertains to some aspect of everyday life.

Research Can Swallow Precious Writing Time. Don’t let it. Part 2 of this series shares tips and tricks to streamline the time-consuming process of research. That post will be up next Wednesday!

What are your favorite types of historical novels? When you start a project, what are some research tricks that you use?

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9 Responses to Researching The Historical Novel – Part 1

  1. derekd says:

    Excellent article. I have to admit to being pretty geeky about research for the historicals I write. I only seem to wind up using a fraction of what I find in the ms, but learning all this stuff is half the fun. While getting current events right, and referencing them is not so important to me, getting all the other details of the time period down is. Your list of 14 to be considered is very important imo.

    Thanks again, and I look forward to part two.

  2. Sharla Rae says:

    Thanks for commenting derekd. And you’re right that we seldom use “all” the research, but the background info prevents us from having our characters say or do something that pulls the reader out of our stories. Heaven forbid!🙂 Shar

  3. Jody says:

    I like your approach to setting the stage for research but I think authors need to learn that you are doing the research not for all the little details to show up in your book but for your characters to act and react the way those of the period would. Sadly some authors fill their books with rich details (interior walls) but there doesn’t ever seem to be a purpose for it. As a reader I skim those parts because it doesn’t move the story along and often don’t return to that author for future books. These kind of info dumps are why readers claim they don’t want a history lesson with their romance and who could blame them. You do reseach so your characters don’t speak or react in a way that is outside the parameter of the period. But also as an historian it is important that there are often conflicting “facts” and that first and foremost you are writing historical fiction, and discrepencies can be explained in an authors note. And lastly hope and pray you get an editor who took more than a basic college history class and who doesn’t try to change your work for a more dummied-down version of history. Sadly there is history and there is “romance history”.

  4. Sharla Rae says:

    Jody,
    Thanks for the comments. You are right on the many points you listed esp. info dumps. As to editors, most are chosen for the historical genre because they know their business but if they don’t and the author has done her research, then referring those editors to resources is easy to do. This blog was written with the idea of “where” to begin their research. New historical authors often find that element very scary. Knowing “what” or “how much” research is needed is another blog.🙂 Shar

  5. Marcia says:

    For my 20th Century American historical novels, I start researching the internet for all it has to offer and then move to libraries near me, then do ‘on the scene’ research when necessary. Since all the details do not end up in the novel, I focus most on the relationships and cultural aspects of the time..slang language, entainment, state of the economy, health issues relevant to that period, wars, crime issues in a particualr city, usual or unusual jobs, issues an immigrant may have to deal with, labor laws, etc. Thanks for creating a checklist. It’s a great place to begin with research. Novices (like me) may find it hard to come up with those items ‘off the cuff’.

  6. Donna Hatch says:

    I have two favorites, both of which are English—Medieval and Regency. I read lots of both but so far I only write in the Regency Era. I’ve read tons of great sources but a current fav is called Georgette Heyer’s Regency World. It’s fascinating and has filled in a few gaps for me.

  7. Pingback: Researching The Historical Novel – Part 2 | Writers In The Storm Blog

  8. wendyquest says:

    What a wonderful article – thanks for sharing!

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