Last month, I was one of the 2,000 plus RWA members who converged on Washington DC and attended the National Conference. Aside from escaping from reality for a few days, I had a wonderful time visiting with 'cyber' friends and attending workshops.
One of the workshops I attended was Lauren Willig's “How to Live in Another Century or Just Sound Like You Did.” I recommend it for any historical writer (though I really don't know if she's doing it again....but worth it if she does so near you).
Lauren talked about the different stages of research, she said there were three, but alas, I only have two starred, so not sure what the third one was.....my fault, but it's okay, we'll muddle through.
The first stage is Deep Research—reading anything you can find from the time period: letters, biographies, diaries, and literature. Lauren commented that letters are especially good because you can catch the cadence of the time, as well as figuring that people aren't lying about everyday things. An example she gave was the blooming of a flowering bush that one might write about. Why would the letter writer lie about a bush flowering in May? Okay, you might need to mention a bush flowering in May, but hey, it could be an important scene in your book. All right, the point is, when reading a letters written in your time period, the every day facts are more than likely true, because there was no need to lie about them in a letter to Cousin Clara. Of course, it is much easier to find letters from the 18th Century than from the 8th Century, but they can be found. It just takes a little research.
In doing research for a wagon train story, I have read several diaries and letters of women who rode in the trains themselves. These are wonderful sources for daily life and I have blogged about them in the past, especially at my own site, Chatting with Anna Kathryn, as well as on Seduced by History.
Museums, especially folk museums, are an excellent research source, too. While living in Louisiana a few years back, I visited several of that state's antebellum homes, which were furnished with time period pieces. It's especially nice if you can visit on a day when they have live history activities going on, where people explain about the everyday life of the time period. I have also attended several battle re-enactments and encampments and have learned how to load a musket....not that I could do it in the heat of battle, but I did see how it was done.
The second stage discussed is Tailored Research. This is where you use footnotes in books, contact history professors, antique dealers and museum curators. Lauren suggested sending off one inquiry and if you don't hear back, leave them alone. But if you do use their information in your book and you credit them, quote and credit them right. Nothing is worse than crediting misinformation to a history professor!
Lauren suggests to Google societies for information, too. I know I corresponded with an association for sheep farmers concerning some questions. They were very helpful.
Okay, I think the third stage of research is Specific Research. I have it written in my notes, but I'm not positive if it is right or not. Specific Research may just be another name for Tailored Research.....
While we are historical writers and want to 'get it right,' our dialog is with our readers. Even if it is a word common enough in your era, if your reader is not familiar with it, you may want to think twice about using it. Or, at least explain it so they know what it is, should you really want to use it. After all, if at the time, it is well known to your characters, it is not out of place. It is just unfamiliar to the modern reader. Very few of us have footmen these days, and I don't think any of us really understand the smells that were common during the Medieval era (nor, do I think, we really want to). But both these examples were very familiar to your characters.
Lauren suggests that we watch TV shows and movies to get a feel for what our readers expect from the time period. Movies can also help you with the clothing, décor, and other normal daily activities of the time period. Though you do need to be careful. Hollywood is not always as true to the eras as we are.
And one final note....as writers, we ARE given artistic license to make small historical changes, such as the dates of when something happened, or when a song came out or where a person really was on March 28, 1156. Off the top of my head, I recall one book I read that changed the dates of the World's Fair in St. Louis and another book that had a song performed in the late 1800's a few years before it was composed. Neither of these changes took away the strength of the stories. And I'm sure there are a gazillion books who put a historical figure someplace other than where they actually were on any given day. So, as long as you don't put a cell phone in William the Conqueror's court, you should be okay with a few historical changes.
What is your secret research tool? Leave a comment and you could win your choice of one of two books by HHRW authors: “A Knight of Desire” by Margaret Mallory or “Tempted by His Kiss” by Tracy Anne Warren. as well as a copy of my own "Salvation Bride."
Anna Kathryn Lanier
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