I could wish that it wasn’t necessary to ask this question; that all historical novelists naturally came with an inbuilt desire to learn all about their setting before they tried to publish a book about it. However, experience of reading historical romance proves that there are some writers who think that—for example—if they want to write about Highlanders all they have to do is watch Braveheart a couple of times.
I choked on my tea one day on reading the blurb for a book the hero of which was a handsome Scottish Highlander by the name of Seamus O’Hennessy. Possibly there was a reason for the fact that he had such a very Irish name, but the blurb did not hint at it, so I felt free to point and laugh. Seriously, that’s bad! Getting the nationality of the hero’s name wrong means that almost any reader will know, just from the blurb, that the author knows nothing about what they’re writing about, and the book is not worth reading.
There is one reason to research right there. It may be that you have a scorching tale to tell; your characters are fascinating and your plot is breathtaking. But if you get your historical facts wrong there are readers who will throw your book across the room nevertheless. Then they will ridicule it to their friends. There are readers who will pick it up in the bookshop and mock it aloud. You can guarantee that every review you get will pick up at least one mistake and shake its metaphorical head with disappointment over it.
Or to put it in a more positive way, if you do research and get things right you will garner critical acclaim. The Powers that Be will gush over your details and praise you for your erudition, and you can justifiably feel proud.
A second – and IMO better reason – is that research is (a) interesting and (b) a fantastic source of ideas.
If you’re not finding a historical period interesting – if you’re not going ‘ooh, that’s cool!’ or ‘oh, fantastic, they made false teeth out of wood!’ or ‘hee! ‘jonquil’, what a great word, I wonder what colour it is?’ – you may be better off not writing in that setting at all. It’s hard enough writing a book when you enjoy the world it’s set in. It must be purgatory writing in one you don’t.
If you’re enjoying yourself with your research, looking up more stuff than you actually need to just soak in the culture of the age, you may find inspiration hits you from the most unexpected places. Need to get Edward to Bath in time for his worthless beau to dump him in favour of a rich widow, but can’t think of a believable excuse he can tell his guardian? While you’re idly reading up on 18th Century Opera it may come to you in a flash that Edward is a big fanboy of the castrato Farinelli, and that him asking to go to Bath to see his musical idol would seem perfectly innocent. And now you also know that Edward is musical. And you can wring some extra angst out of him being dumped in front of his hero.
If I was asked that perennial question; ‘where do you get your ideas’? ‘Historical research’ would come close to the top. Researching Native American tribes for ‘Captain’s Surrender’, for example, made me aware of the massive complexity of the situation in 18th Century America. I wasn’t able to get any of it into ‘Captain’s Surrender’, but boy do I now know that there’s a fascinating setting there that I would love to explore for a future book.
When should you research?
Because research gives me inspiration I prefer to do a lot of it before I even start a book. If I don’t know what the inside of a Roman house looks like, or whether they eat breakfast in the morning or how many hills Rome is built on, I don’t feel equipped to start. I like to soak up enough for a broad brush picture before I set pen to paper. Often at this stage I will discover things which are too cool to be left out, and figuring out a way to get them into the book will influence the development of the plot.
I do know people who start writing and research as they go along, stopping to check that everything is correct as they proceed. This probably cuts down on the amount of irrelevant stuff you have to read and makes the writing process faster.
But I don’t recommend writing the book first and researching afterwards! While this approach would certainly cut down the amount of research you need to do, it will inevitably lead to big re-writes when you realize that nope, plot points x, y and z couldn’t have happened like that, characters a and b are unbelievable, and settings i-xii all have to be thrown out.
Where should you research?
Places you can go to find out more about your era of choice:
1. The Internet.
A Google search will usually turn up something of use. Sometimes it may even be exactly what you were looking for.
Advantage – it’s quick and easy.
Disadvantage – except when it isn’t.
There is a lot of information out there on the internet, but not all of it is accurate, sometimes it’s downright wrong. Sometimes it’s misguiding – without being wrong itself, it leads you to a wrong conclusion. If you need something specific, like the date when something was first invented or built, check it in at least three places before you start to believe in it.
If you’re looking for more general information, then scrutinize the facts carefully – don’t be tempted to use the cool thing you’ve just discovered until you’ve checked that it was actually known in your time, in your area of the world, and by more than the one person who invented it. Just because a thing was technically available doesn’t necessarily mean that it was actually used. (For example, 18th Century doctors could have used laudanum to anaesthetise their patients during operations, but they didn’t use it because they thought it was better that the patient be awake.)
Sometimes it’s also frustratingly impossible to find something specific on the internet – you’ll get hundreds of sites telling you hundreds of versions of the same thing, and never actually the thing you want. This is often the case when looking up information about facts specific to gay or lesbian subcultures, because sex as a whole is an area of embarrassment to the essay writing segment of the internet. If you try looking up ‘the gay subculture in medieval England’ the chances are that you’ll get porn – and it won’t even be medieval porn.
2. Google Image Search
Advantage – they say a picture is worth a thousand words, and I find that’s often true, particularly for describing scenery or costume. Image search also often turns up more interesting articles than just searching on text.
Disadvantage – all the same disadvantages as plain Google search; make sure your image is of what you think it is!
Advantage – generally what goes into history books has been checked for factual accuracy by at least a couple of people. (Don’t believe anything that doesn’t cite its sources.)
Books are also short on the ‘white noise’ factor which you find on the internet. The information they contain tends to be more condensed, more in depth, and more relevant to your needs as a historical writer than an internet article. Obviously there are exceptions, but this is what I find in general.
If you have other history mad friends it’s always a good idea to compare the books you’ve got on hand and see if you can lend or borrow anything.
Disadvantage – books are not cheap. They may not be available from your local library, or if they are, you may have to wait months for them to arrive. And of course they still may not contain the answer to that question you’re trying to get answered. There may not even be a book in print that deals with the specific thing you are interested in.
4. Contemporary Sources
Pictures, books, plays, poetry, paintings, artefacts, even film from the era in question.
Advantage – nothing can more accurately give you an insight into the mindset of the people than reading a book, play or poetry written at the time. Want to know the kind of thing an educated Roman might have thought during Augustus’ time – read Horace or Virgil. Want to know whether your 18th Century hero can get away with an assignation at an inn – read Fielding’s Tom Jones. You cannot get more authentic than that.
I would say that it’s essential to at least look up the pictures, paintings, chairs, furniture, dress styles, tableware and general paraphernalia of living for whatever era you’re writing in. Visit the stately homes and the museums, look at the flea traps and the tassels on the swords. Nothing is too small or obscure to ignore because any of it might be useful for just adding that touch that convinces your reader they’re in a different time.
Disadvantage – this may take some effort and time. Possibly expense too. But if you love the period enough to want to write in it, it will also be good fun.
5. Find an expert
Many of the larger public libraries in the US have people who will do searches on request–some of them are very helpful.
If you have a museum or university near you (or even somewhere you can look up on the internet) it may be worth emailing and seeing if there is a postgrad student or friendly professor who would be willing to answer questions for a mention in the dedication and a free book.
Other places to look
Writer’s groups – someone may have already looked this up for their book.
Local History Groups
Churches/church wardens/college secretaries (for details on Oxfordcolleges for example)
Local Libraries (ie local to the place you need)
Tourist information offices
Your friends-list – someone may have already looked it up, know where to look, or have local knowledge.
Yahoo groups – somewhere out there is probably a group of enthusiasts already discussing the problem. Need to know whether the Great Western Railway carried a post van? – ask a group of trainspotters.
Re-enactors – these are people who live and breathe the period they re-enact. They will often know more about the nitty-gritty of day to day life in that period than anyone in a museum, and they can give you hands on experience of what a musket/corset/hangarok/longbow etc felt like to use or wear. Chances are there is a group somewhere out there re-enacting your period of interest. You can start by looking up your local SCA on the internet, or if you’re in the UK by going to a re-enactor’s market: http://www.reenactorsmarket.co.uk/
Again, the only real disadvantage to all of this is that it takes time and effort.
6. Ask the Macaronis,
We’re not guaranteeing we’ll know, but we can always just have a good grumble together. But check on this list first, because there are an awful lot of useful sites available here: http://erastes.com/historical-research-links/
To conclude: Research is your friend, and sometimes it’s also a wonderful form of cheap entertainment, and inspiration. Good luck!
Thanks to Erastes for the wonderful resource list, and to all the Macaronis for the suggestions on how and where to research, which I’ve incorporated above.