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Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Historical Research

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, d├ęcor, 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
Monthly Prizes to Win!



Karen Michelle Nutt said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Karen Michelle Nutt said...

Along with looking information up on the Internet and library reference books, I've found Doyer Coloring Books to be helpful with fashion from Medieval fashion to Victorian. The books give description of what the person is wearing and if it was meant for middle class traveler in the eleventh century or if the clothing was meant for a 14th century English King. They even have coloring books about houses and styles, elaborating on what may be seen in a Victorian home from the library to what the water closet might look like. Sure it's meant for kids, but it's a quick reference book for the historical author.

Nice topic. :)

Gwynlyn said...

I recently blogged on using Children's books for historical research. While not an indepth look at the time period, they give an overview and pictures that are very helpful in telling the difference between various bits of clothing often unfamiliar to the modern reader--busks and stomachers come immediately to mind--and defining living spaces.

Great post.

Great post.

Libby Scrivener said...

For my sole attempt at historical I was fortunate enough to find someone that had already done a lot of research and written a couple of books on smuggling in a small Cornish town (UK). He was once the curator of a small museum there plus a descendant of smuggling families. That took me to uncovering a whole mystery of murder on the high seas.

I know that a visit to that town will be included in my next trip to England. I have a feeling that sitting on the cliffs will get me right in the mood to resurrect my novel!

Jennifer Ross said...

Fabulous blog post, I think I understand that breaking it down into two (or three) forms of research may make it easier for me to know when to write some little tidbit down! I'm forever having to go back to the library to take out the same books again because "I know I saw something about this somewhere".

I was fortunate enough to find a man in my community who is an expert on all things with the British Navy. Along with diaries of the period, I'd call those my secret research weapons.

Crystal-Rain Love said...

Great post. I don't write historical, but I do write about vampires who've lived for centuries. For an upcoming book, my heroine is a vampire changed in the early 1800's in Italy. Unlike my other vamp books, I'm going to have to delve into her early life and I nearly break out into hives every time I think of it. I keep doing internet searches for "1800's Italy" but there's only so much I can find. ) - :

Tammy Schubert said...

Thanks for the information. It's nice to know how other people are going about handling research.

I have found children's books to be very helpful. Not only can you find information about clothes, but you can learn about legends and other things that are difficult to find.

Blogging at http://petitfoursandhottamales.blogspot.com

Kathye Quick said...

I find that when I am in a jam for research, Google works for me. I can usually get enough info on the fly to finish the scene. Then, if needed, I can do more in deth stuff later.

Google keeps my scenes going at time.

Kathy Otten said...

I love doing the research, but I have a hard time organizing it. I end up re-researching because I forgot to write it down or I come across it later and doubt whether it's correct.
Otherwise I'm not much for the internet for research. I like books and often look through the bibliography for books I can order through the inter-loan library. I guess I just trust facts in books more than the internet, ironic since I write e-books.

Valerie Oakleaf said...

I have also found that a personal trip to the area you are writing about is imperative. I take pictures of the area and make a collage that hangs above my work area so that I can get the little details correct.
Also, museums in the area or museums of the era are essential to your research. The curators are most frequently the most helpful research tool you can possess!
Fantastic post! I wish there was a way for me to save it...hehe. Would make a GREAT research tool!

Anna Kathryn Lanier said...

Thanks everyone for your insight. Yes, children's books are wonderful. I used one in depth for a honor's paper I did in college a couple of years ago on "Shay's Rebellion." They are good to quickly find the informtion, then you move on to more advanced books for further research. The coloring books are a great idea, too. And most museums have some on their area in stock.

I too use the internet a lot for looking up information. It's the quick easy way to do it.

Crystal-Rain, don't forget to ask on your writer's loops for help. Someone out there may be able to give you information, as well as links to places to ask for additional help.

Paty Jager said...

Those are all things I do. I also like to read the newspapers of the area and time I've set my story. Little tidbits from what was happening in the area at the time can be added to the dialogue to help make it ring true.

I always research more than I need, but then I feel more comfortable writing the scenes.

I especially like to visit with people who have had an active interest int eh areas history. They some times of nuggets of info you won't find in any book.

Good post! Thanks!

Phyllis Campbell said...

Great blog! I love doing research. I have found the internet to be very helpful. It's a sure lot easier to do that than run to the library. lol Reading other books is the best, I think. Also watching movies. I sit down with a pencil and notebook and write down phrases they use a lot - that we don't use in our language now. I'm currently writing a pirate romance, so guess what movie I've been watching? (grins) Yup, good old Captain Jack. heehee Also "Patriot" is another great movie for this time period. Anyway, it's very exciting for me to put myself in a different time for a while. That's why I enjoy writing historicals so much.


Margaret Mallory said...

I keep telling my husband I really MUST fly to England for the weekend to double check on a few facts... I havent' told him, however, that the 2 palaces I was having trouble envisioning were destroyed a few centuries ago.

I do a lot of on-line research, read other novels in the time period, buy a few reference books, & check out more books from the library.

BTW, a book that was immensely helpful regarding these long-gone buildings is Archaecology of the Medieval English Monarchy, by John Steane.

Margaret Mallory
Tales of Love & Adventure
Knight of Desire-4 Stars, RT Book Reviews
Knight of Pleasure-Nov 24, 2009
Knight of Passion-June 2010

Blythe Gifford said...

One tip that has stuck with me on doing research came from a past life regression guide. That person said the first two questions she asks when guiding a person to a past life are: What is on your feet? and Where is the light coming from? I think those are two great starting points to be sure you know your character. It means to me the practical (what is on your feet says a lot about how you live) and the light source says everything about society - does the light come from the sun or from technology?

Susan Macatee said...

Great information! For years I was a Civil War reenactor, so I kind of immersed myself in my chosen period, Civil War and post-CW, before I ever set pen to paper.

Donna Maloy said...

I love timelines. There are several good ones online and even more in book form, that give me some idea of what else was going on in the world during the time of my story. This sometimes leads to subplots, but always to richer period detail.

Emma Lai said...

I use all types of resources for research. I have a personal library of history, mythology, and science books. I use children's books to get basic information on subjects. The internet is great for pictures. I also have the coloring books of dress from different periods of time. I'm also an avid reader of historical fiction and romances and while I don't rely on any one author's facts, you can get a feel for what is accepted as typical dialogue, accents, and behaviors of the time if you sample enough of the genre.

Teri K said...

Thanks for the nice article. I'm writing a book set in the 1880's. I find tiny museums can be helpful, because they have photos and odd and ends of real people. I also love world time lines and old newspaper headlines, and I read the books that were popular then. My characters don't live in a vacuum, so knowing what they're seeing and reading every day helps them become real.

Anna Kathryn Lanier said...

Congratulations to Susan Macatee, she won the drawing for the prize- a copy of my story Salvation Bride and her choice of Tracy Anne Warren's book or Maragret Mallory's.

Thanks for everyone who stopped by and left your research tips...it was nice to read them.

Anonymous said...

I use Google Alerts consistently. It's my favourite research tool.
wandanamgreb (at) gmail (dot) com