Eight Tips for Doing Historical Research
by Annette Lyon
I’ve always been a fan of history: discovering people and events from the past, learning about different perspectives and cultures, and so much more. Years before my first novel was published, I really wanted to write historical fiction, but I didn’t dare, so I stuck to contemporary stories.
The very idea of research terrified me. But then I attended a writing workshop where a talented historical novelist spoke. She glowed with excitement over her research, and that excitement was contagious. By the time I headed home, I’d convinced myself to try my hand at historical fiction, and I already knew what part of history I’d tackle first.
Since then, I’ve published many historical novels and novellas, and I’m working on a very different historical novel set in an era and place I’ve never written about. Over the years, I’ve learned a lot about how to do research without wanting to take a sledgehammer to my computer before giving up.
Here are eight tips to get you started.
- Get a solid overview. Then dig deeper. Whether you’re starting from scratch or learning more about a somewhat familiar time and place, be sure to read up on it. Start with a broad overview, reading books and searching online for sites that cover the basics. A great place to start is the Writer’s Guides to Everyday Life series published by Writer’s Digest. You can find everything from a guide to life in the British Isles from 500–1500 to a volume about life in America from Prohibition through World War II, and many others in between. These books have a ton of great information on many aspects of life, including fashion, hairstyles, methods of transportation, and even common expressions from each period. Read one back-to-back, and you’ll get a feel for the era. But you’re not done yet. Now dig deeper, learn more. Did the location and period you’re writing about have specific laws that would affect your characters and plot? What about customs unique to that place and time? How about assumptions, prejudices, or even a class system? Learn as much as you can about the specifics. Those differences are often the place from which the best conflicts and characters arise.
- Read what historians have already done. Becoming an expert on a subject can take a lifetime. Unless you plan to write only one novel before you die (and I don’t), and you don’t plan to finish that one novel for another thirty years, you can’t possibly do perfectly thorough research yourself. But there’s no need to. Chances are good that historians have already done the work. Read their findings. Many universities have their libraries, including their master’s theses and doctoral dissertations, online. I’ve found hundreds of golden nuggets of information—unavailable elsewhere—in master’s theses. Also go to historical societies for old records. Search online for old and used books that may hold the information you need. One of the best sources I ever found was a book containing transcripts of journal entries. A researcher had already done primary-source digging for me.
- Don’t rely on Wikipedia. Don’t entirely shun it either. In other words, know the accuracy of your sources. Wikipedia, personal blogs, and other online content may have great information—or stuff that’s totally wrong. Before you use any research in your work, check the authenticity of the source. But don’t throw out such sites altogether. Sometimes you can find a great tidbit, and in your search to verify it, you’ll come across a treasure trove. Just be sure to verify the facts. Wikipedia in particular can be a big help, pointing to solid information. So while the articles themselves may not be entirely accurate, the references and links at the bottom may be just what you’re looking for. Those footnotes may include primary documents, transcripts, links to historical societies, names of experts, titles of books on the topic, and more. Definitely use Wikipedia and similar sources, but only as a shortcut for finding the real sources. Don’t use them as your main sources. Ever.
- Find an expert and ask for help. I once had to write a short scene taking place in blacksmith’s forge. Hours and hours of research later, I thought I knew enough to pull it off, but a little voice told me to be sure. I contacted the webmaster from the Appalachian Blacksmiths Association. Not only did he read my scene and tell me where I’d gone wrong, but he gave suggestions for how to fix it and diagrams to help. Even after you’ve done all the research you can muster, it may not be enough, but that’s no reason to panic. Just find an expert to help. Many are thrilled to share knowledge of the subject they’re passionate about.
- Use Evernote. This is a great app for saving and organizing research you find online. Put the web clipper button on your browser’s toolbar, and all you have to do to save the information is click the icon. Sort your research with tags, highlight significant portions, and use other features so you can find it all later. Your account can sync to all your devices, so whether you’re using your phone, laptop, or tablet, you’re only a click away from finding that article you need right now.
- Experience it yourself. Nothing is better for research than firsthand experience. If possible, visit an actual house from the period. Find a museum with period-accurate clothing and tools. Walk through the very cemetery you’re writing about. Visit a library’s special collection to handle the actual book published a century ago. Taste the food your characters would have eaten. Then use your personal experiences to fill the story with sensory details you simply can’t learn from reading.
- Make the Google Ngram Viewer your friend. One of the trickiest parts of writing historical fiction is getting the language right. Even if a certain word existed two hundred years ago, did it mean what it does now? When did an idiom or phrase enter the lexicon? Use Google’s Ngram Viewer to find out. When you input a word or phrase, Google searches its vast library then spits out a graph showing when the word or phrase was in use.
- Remember: You need way more information than you’ll ever use. Immerse yourself in research as much as you can. Take notes. Keep files. Then when you write the story, you’ll have a full reservoir of knowledge from which to draw. You’ll probably use 10% or less of what you learned, but you can’t possibly know which parts you’ll need until after you’ve created that huge reservoir. Besides, you’ll find that 10% piecemeal, in a dozen different places.
Do This Now
- Search Amazon or Wikipedia for sources about your topic. Make note of authors and book titles. In the reference section at the bottom of a Wikipedia article, look for experts, articles, publications, and organizations. Find one publication you can use and order it. Remember to look for articles as well as books.
- Get a (free!) Evernote account. Practice using Evernote’s web clipper then highlight and tag articles you’ve clipped. If you have a tablet and/or smart phone, download the app and sync your account to all your devices.
- Play with the Google Ngram Viewer. Get familiar with it by plugging in common phrases like “it’s okay,” “green with envy,” “butter up,” or a thousand other examples. Next time you’re unsure whether a phrase is accurate to the period, you can find out in a matter of keystrokes.
Historical fiction doesn’t have to be intimidating, but it should be accurate. In today’s world, writers have no excuse for not finding the facts. These eight tips will have you well on your way to finding the information you need. So go dig into some history, and have fun doing it!
What about you? Virtually every writer needs to do research, even for contemporary and genre fiction. What are some of your favorite research tips?
Annette Lyon is a Whitney Award winner, the author of more than a dozen books and novellas, and a senior editor at Precision Editing Group. Find her online at annettelyon.com, blog.annettelyon.com and on Twitter.
Brilliant! I’m currently beginning the process of researching and outlining a historical novel. It’s set in my backyard, in a period of history that I *thought* I knew well, but I’ve been amazed at the tidbits I’ve found as I read. It can be difficult keeping the information organized, so thanks for the ideas!
For language questions, I’d also recommend Mark Davies’ online database through the BYU Linguistics department. You can search the frequency and context of words and phrases in thousands of documents, and you can specify your date parameters (and it’s available for several languages, for what that’s worth). It’s a great tool I’ve used in the past doing linguistic research, but I can see how it could be valuable for this kind of research, too.
I think the most valuable (and unexpected) reward of doing your due diligence in historical research is how I feel even more connected to my characters as I better understand the world they occupied.
And who doesn’t have fun with historical world-building??!
Annette, I freaking love you. You are a font of wisdom in so many cases. Also, I love Evernote and Google Ngram (which YOU referred me to). Research has quickly become a passion–although I have to watch myself so that I don’t let it become a time suck too. ;P
Adrianne, I didn’t know about the BYU Linguistics Corpus–thanks for the tip! It’s now bookmarked! Totally using that.
LT, Research really can become a fun time suck. 🙂 Glad the post was helpful!