Simplifying Historical Fiction Research
Best-selling historical author, Amanda Cabot, has been gracious enough to stop by and tell us how she has simplified her research. If you’re a writer, this is valuable information. If you’re a reader, it gives you insight into how seriously authors take the idea of getting the facts straight so you can believe the details of what you read.
Have you ever become bogged down in research? I have. One book leads to another, or if you’re on the Internet, one site leads to another. Before you know it, you’ve spent days – maybe weeks – reading, but your book still isn’t started. How can you avoid getting caught in that sinkhole? One answer is the KISS principle (keep it simple, sweetheart). For me, that means working with five different research tools.
The children’s section of the library. When I wrote for the secular market, one of my publishers asked me to write a trilogy set during World War One. At the time, what I knew about that time period could be described in two words: not much. The adult section of the library had huge tomes, detailing each day of the war. I could have spent weeks reading them, but instead I went to the children’s section. The books I found there were considerably shorter. Even more importantly, they gave me the basic information that I needed to plan the trilogy, namely the causes of the war and the major battles. Later, when I knew exactly when each book would take place, I consulted the ten-pound tomes to see what was happening on specific key dates. I didn’t have to read the whole book. Instead, I was doing what I call ‘targeted research,’ looking only for key information. What a time-saver!
Historic diaries and letters. What I like about diaries is that they tell you how real people lived, and as such, they’re a valuable source of details. For example, when I was researching my 2012 release set at Wyoming’s Fort Laramie, I read excerpts from an officer’s wife’s letters. In them I learned that the dried potatoes the post store sold were considered virtually inedible. An interesting fact, and one you can be sure made its way to the manuscript.
Costume books. Readers want to know what people wore. Oh, they don’t need to have a gown described down to the last furbelow, but knowing that women wore bustles in the 1880s and that there were five to seven petticoats under those bustles helps you add authentic details to your story. To get those details, I find costume books, particularly those with extensive illustrations, valuable. There is also a growing number of web sites with pictures of clothing from various eras.
Recipe books. Like diaries, these help you understand what people ate during your chosen time period. Just as importantly, they provide clues to what people did not eat. If you don’t find a recipe for ragout, it’s probably because the term wasn’t used then. To be true to the period, simply call it stew. And that leads me to what I consider one of the most important research tools.
Dictionary with date of first usage. I hate anachronisms. For me there’s nothing so jarring as to be reading a book set in the Middle Ages and see, “The sword slid off his shield as if it were covered with Teflon.” Admittedly, that was an extreme example, but my trusty dictionary saved me from the error of using ‘camouflage’ in a book set in the 1850s by pointing out that the word came into usage during World War One.
Why worry about anachronisms? They brand you as a sloppy writer. Consider this: checking a word’s first usage is simply another form of research. That’s why, although I may use the other tools only once when I’m writing, my dictionary is always open.
So, there you have it: Amanda’s hints for simplifying historical research. I hope they help.
Thanks so much, Amanda! As a writer, I can say that was very helpful information.
Amanda’s new novel, Tomorrow’s Garden, releases April 1. It’s the third book in her Texas Dreams series.
They did help. Thank you Amanda and Sandy!
I think I wrote a couple of weeks ago about finding the marriage lists for a particular county. What an awesome source for names from that era.
Mary A. Young Robinson
These are helpful hints especially for us “newbies”. Thanks, all!
Great information! I also love describing the clothing but even more so the food during that time. It shows the reader just how much times have changed. Thanks for the great post!
Good to have you visit, Salena.
Thanks for giving us your take on the research process. I closely parallel your method with the addition, if at all possible, of consulting the newspapers relevant to the time and place. The dictionary giving first use is invaluable and a resource I’ve consulted from the very first historical story I wrote way back in 1984. After a while, you get so good at period words you just know without looking whether a word is appropriate or not. Again, thanks!
Thanks for visiting, Donna. If you can find newspapers from the area and time, they have terrific info–even advertisements.
This was really helpful. I liked the idea about recipe books and children’s books. I hate research, so maybe these tips will help me.
Glad to have, Naomi.
Sometimes, I don’t even know what to research until I find my characters in a certain situation that requires more knowledge.
Excellent thoughts, Sandra. I love doing the research, right up to visiting the countries where my stories take place so I can “stand” in my character’s footsteps. But I can easily get bogged down just as you describe.
My first 2 manuscripts take place in 432 AD. And there isn’t a lot of information from that time period, at least in Ireland and Scotland, so I’ve really had to dig.
Wow, Renee, 432? Where do you even start with that? Amanda Cabot and I both write with a mid-1800’s/Texas setting, which is a bit easier.
I did love Amanda’s suggestion of starting in the children’s section of the library–so much easier for this brain to comprehend.
Great suggestions, Amanda! I wouldn’t have thought to use the children’s section of the library, although come to think of it I’ve used some children’s novels for information about the pre-Civil War period.
Love your new photo!
Some very good tips.
I do so wish the things I write could be at least partially researched in the children’s section. Alas, there’s no such thing as a children’s book about the particulars of planting cotton in 1857 Louisiana, or about Russia’s northwest front in WW1.
Heck, there’s very little adult book information about Russia’s NW front in WW1! I’m going to have to make most of it up based on what happened on the other fronts.
But intense research still has its uses that a children’s section can never hope to compete with. I’m working on a plot idea from one line I read in an online summary of Creole culture. Something that would never show up in a children’s book about New Orleans. Kids could care less about how many opera theatres were in late 19th century New Orleans.
Diaries and letters are often the best sources for the little things that make the story come to life. I’m a big fan of them. Unfortunately for the year I’m writing in in my area, there’s only one surviving of those known, and I can’t get access to it! So I’m going to have to make do with Solomon Northup’s narrative.
Great advicde Sandra. I spend a lot time making sure I get things right for my time period. It pays off for sure. So many libraries have microfilms of newspapers telling about major events in history and are a great source. I used them to describe the inauguration of Oklahoma as a state in 1907 thanks to the Carnegie Library in OKC.