12 Ways to Research a Historical Novel
Whether you are fictionalizing historical events or making up your own story, attention to detail can determine whether your novel is credible to history buffs or if theyíll give it a pass.
- Read about the general history of the locale where your story is set, so you have some context for your story.
- If at all possible, visit the locale. Carefully observe details: types of foliage, local seasonal changes, weather conditions, architecture, perspectives. You may see interesting and important details that you wouldnít know to make up. Also, make note of whatís not there; sometimes this is as important as what is there.
- Visit local museums. They can be a wealth of information about the daily life of an era.
- Explore old cemeteries, especially those where the models for your characters are buried. Take note of common names used in that area and era.
- Research old newspapers. If you donít live in the area, you can usually hire a researcher through the local public library or use inter-library loan. In addition to basic information about your story, you can get a sense of the language used at the time, other contemporaneous events, even products that were available.
- Seek out and talk to knowledgeable people. The local librarian can help you find historical societies or amateur historians. Networking can be an essential part of your research strategy since not everything is written down somewhere, especially legends, myths, anecdotes, even the location of other written sources, such as letters and diaries.
- Consider searching for any legal documents related to your story. Old deeds, contracts, and wills are likely to be filled with more unusual information than current boilerplate legal forms. Legal research can be tricky, but historically minded lawyers may be willing to help you out.
- Take a look at the fiction written at the time your story is set. Often this proves to be a good source of details about the time period and even the locale.
- Donít ignore the footnotes. If you find a book related to your subject, donít limit your reading to the body of the book. Endnotes, epilogues, indexes, and other appendices can contain a great deal of useful information.
- Consider specialized data bases and sources. War records, genealogical information, and the census can reveal worthwhile information. This type of resource is often available through university libraries or research centers.
- Buy some good reference books: a dictionary of slang or phrase origins to make sure you donít use anachronistic language; a writerís encyclopedia or other general reference of historical lists, dates of inventions, timelines; an unabridged dictionary; a thesaurus. Building your own reference library is a smart idea for any writer.
- Use the Internet to its full advantage. Although reference books are often a quicker way to find information, the Internet can be more thorough, if you have the time to search. If you need to know something truly esoteric, place a post on the message board of a relevant website. But if you limit your research to the Internet alone, you are truly limiting yourself. Old newspaper archives, photographs, details of a particular locale may not be readily available online.
Because youíll use probably only a fraction of the information you uncover in your research, you have to decide which details are worth the time to research and which are not. Regardless, the more you know, the more comfortable youíll feel writing about a different time. Your novel will be more engaging and credible with artfully placed and historically accurate information.
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