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I'm having difficulty with the research aspect of my historical novel. This question was originally going to be "how much research should one do to write a historical novel?" to which, answering my own question is, "as much as you need to". Thinking about this some more, it's not the 'what' or the 'how much' I'd like to explore, but rather the 'how'.

So far my approach has been very scattergun. I know the time period I am interested in, and know roughly the themes and places I wish the novel to include, so I've been reading books that match these parameters, but other than that it's pretty random.

Everytime I go to write a sentence, I find myself asking - "wait a minute, is that right?". Everytime someone looks at a building, or walks down a street, or eats some food, or interacts with the structure of society in any way, I'd struck with a fear that I've just typed complete nonsense and have to go away and research it. So far I've read 30 reference books and typed just one chapter.

Coming from a an engineering background, I'm used to applying methodologies, ie structured approaches to work. I have seen plenty of methodologies with regard to how to plan, plot and write, however none yet on how to research for a novel.

Can anyone assist?

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5 Answers 5

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My advice would be to just ignore this and write on. In your spare time, do gradual research. Now hear me out.

Read:

  • Other historical fiction set in, or around your time period. No matter what themes or subjects it addresses, what social classes it follows, you will inevitably learn a lot about every aspect of life, as well as story structure and plot specifically set in that time.
  • First or second hand accounts from the times. These are likely very boring, so it could be done a bit at a time, but will give you an idea of how people talked, acted, and thought in general. Plus you will find sparkling gems of all sorts hidden in the drudgery.
  • Historical analysis books.

Write

  • Write your whole first draft doing as little research as possible. Just tank through the thing, and in your spare time, work through the reading above.
  • Pause your writing for only easy-to-find, relatively trivial details. Trust wikipedia.
  • Every time you come across a detail in your reading that alters something you've already written, make a note of it, keep in mind the repercussions of any necessary changes, but do not go back and rewrite.
  • By the time you've written your first draft, you will likely have done enough research to fix all your mistakes the second time through, and you'll have a list of things to fix.
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1  
well... Wikipedia is the beginning of wisdom. Not a final arbiter. It's an easy place to start; just don't stop there. –  Lauren Ipsum Mar 22 '11 at 16:18
    
I like this advice, and you can probably tell from the tone of my question that knew I should be moving in this direction. You propose a drastic move, basically not stopping, which I think may help. Certainly the 'sod the quality of the 1st draft' approach is the one recommended by most writing guides. The suggestion to read heavily other historical fiction in the same time period is one I'm not totally sold on though. I believe this is a tangental point worth exploring so I've opened another question for it: writers.stackexchange.com/questions/2156/… –  Panda Mar 22 '11 at 21:47
    
Just think of all the research these authors have already done in order to get poignant details (that you can just walk by and pick up so easily!) –  oldrobotsneverrust Mar 22 '11 at 21:58

Perfection is your foe. If there is anyone out there, who thinks the stuff in historical novels is 100% percent accurate, then I pity him.

Research is often a scattergun approach. Keep writing and if a detail is wrong, so what? No-one will crucify you for that. You should tell a good story and sometimes you have to tweak reality/history to do so. Don't force every detail to be right. It will lead you nowhere.

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I agree with the sentiment, but specifically my question is what approach should you use on the research you actually do? Do you simply read a related source book and that's it? Or do you build up a collection of notes, and if so, what structure do you use? How much do you engage with primary sources? How much do you use first hand visits to locations that you are considering, and what kind of things do you look for, what notes do you make when you are there? (This is an important time to have an approach, as you will likely be limited for time). It is the "how" I am interested in here. –  Panda Mar 22 '11 at 21:57
    
@Panda: I tried to tell you, that there is no answer. If you want to visit these locations, do it. Look at them, describe them. If you do not want (e.g. you hate travelling), don't do it. You already have an approach that works, even if you think it is totally arbitrary. Do you have a picture/vision of the scenario/world you want to write in? I bet you have. If you really need a methodology (I normally run, when I see one), then take your approach and make one out of it. Yes, it's good enough. Trust yourself. –  John Smithers Mar 23 '11 at 9:36

I think the answer is rather: "as little as you can get away with". If you were to sit down to write an actual history textbook then the peers who would assess the value of your work would look for "rigor", that is evidence that you have considered all previous work on the topic and are trying to draw some conclusions that are not way out of the realms of possibility.

Having said that all historians understand that beyond a certain point in empirical evidence it's all speculation. Ever been entertained by a History Channel documentation about the life of Henry VIII? Well, any and all assertions about Henry's state of mind are speculation drawn from the opinions of other commentators, any diary entries Henry might have written or, in the absence of these primary sources records of the king's next action. Essentially, we may, occasionally, come close to knowing something of Henry VIII's mind but we are never going to be certain.

A good summary of the facts, such as those to be found on Wikipedia, are valuable. As an author you should be particularly keen on "moot points" where different historians have contrasting views on an event. Other good things are annotations of things that may or may not have happened and are generally regarded as "woolly".

Both of these are licenses to pretty much make it up. As long as you join the dots from empirical fact A to empirical fact B in a plausible manner even respected academics will agree they have no clue about your relative rightness or wrongness.

As an author of fiction your job is to be entertaining and accurate in that order.

EDIT: I'm currently researching the period of sub-Roman Britain, there aren't many primary records of that time and a lot of the sources there are conflict and are vague or confusing.

I am negotiating this minefield with the help of Wikipedia (re-checking sources and sources of sources where necessary but WP is good for a first run). With this info I am constructing a fictional timeline, a chronicle of events that occur in the order in which they occur.

The timeline concentrates on the actions of all actors and needs to collate the research on each indivdual into a coherent whole so that I can see what events are happening on top of one another or concurrently.

Once I am happy that the chronicle is done I use it as the basis for the story. I fill out historic events with narrative ones in the wobble points. I always choose the more narratively satisfying interpretation of events and motivations.

I keep individual notes on each character and give them all their own personal timeline which is the basis for their character arc. I try to keep some separate notes which just remind me of the relationships between characters.

I also keep notes about things I'm just plain making up in a separate place.

I keep a list of authentic names. Try to get a map of the locations from around the time.

With these resources I plot the story and I start writing.

As I'm writing I may well come to a point where I want the character to do something but am not sure of the appropriate language. At this point I mount a little mini-topic research expedition and get exactly what I need. Then I get back to the story. I keep each topic research article, usually about 300-600 words with the rest of the notes in case I need a refresher.

That's what I would call the minimum. A general overview, specifics on real people, a good line between reality and fiction and only ever specific research when I know I'm going to need it. This research approach is made possible only with the internet but the tool is there, so I use it. I suggest you do the same.

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I don't disagree that entertaining > accuracy. However I don't think that ‘as little as you can get away’ with is best for the final edit. The mind of Henry VIII is a fair example, but if you have Henry VIII in your novel and portray him as kind, forgiving, and slightly effeminate you'd just be so far wrong it would be laughable, especially to any UK readers. Likewise there will be other areas that you might not know, but will be common knowledge to others. There here has to be a some research done, and one should strive to do it well. How would you suggest performing that research? –  Panda Mar 22 '11 at 21:54
    
@Panda: I didn't advise doing too little research. I advised as little as possible. e.g. think of it as a task where you will satisfy yourself you're not going to make some egregious factual error and proceed. It's easy to get hung up on the moot points and arguments and worrying about whose side you're on or who is the more eminent historian in this or that debate. Anyway I've added an edit to expand upon this. –  One Monkey Mar 23 '11 at 11:07

I am currently in the process of researching and writing a novel based upon actual events which occurred in 1897-1899. Here is the process that I have been following, which might be of some use for you:

(1) Identify and locate any original source material which is directly on point with the story you are writing. Obviously, the existence and amount of this type of material will depend upon the historical period you are writing about and the events you are covering. In my case, I was able to track down the original court documents from over a century ago. There were also a number of newspaper articles written at the time which were archived at my state historical center's library.

(2) Identify and locate contemporaneous secondary source material. These would be materials that were written at or close to the time of your novel. In my case, I was able to locate a history of my state and a history of the county in which the events occurred. Both books were written in the early 1900's and covered the time period in question. This gave me a better understanding as to what was going on at the time, from the perspective of those who were living through the time period. Another example of contemporaneous source material was a copy of the store catalogs in use at the time. I was able to locate a reprint of the Montgomery Ward and Sears catalogs from that time period, which has automatically given me a picture, description and better understanding of what existed at that time. Magazines, newspapers and other print media from the time period is also helpful not only in getting a better understanding as to what was going on, but also to word choices, etc.

(3) Read some novels written in that time period. This has been mentioned in other responses. I've found it mostly of use with regard to dialog and description rather than plot or character development. I am writing for a 21st century reader, not a 19th, so I am more concerned with learning how they describe doing things or getting to places so that I can better incorporate those ideas into my own writing (e.g. how long it took to get from one place to another by train) as opposed to writing in the style of the time period. Also, I figured that my own characters would have been aware of the books when they were written and perhaps read them themselves!

(4) Read current day historical novels and watch movies/tv shows set in that time period. I have read three or four modern novels set in the time period I am focused upon and have gotten some ideas from them. It has been useful to see what other authors found to be important or necessary. I have a journal that I've kept when reading them to keep some notes on the time period. I've found it useful to make a simple alphabetic list (one letter per page) with things I have run across that I otherwise wouldn't have even considered. As an example, from one I learned that in my relevant time period the floors were often dirty since most men chewed tobacco and spit, either in the spittoons which were everywhere or simply on the ground. Just a detail that caught my eye, but thanks to wiki I was able to learn a bit more--and even found a photo of a spittoon in a 1910 courtroom, which is important in my novel since it is a legal thriller. Movies set in a time period can also be very helpful as it gives you the chance to look at the background scenery, items in a room, etc. They've already done the research, you just have to blockout the story line. Try turning off the sound or better still, changing the audio to a different language sans subtitles. That forces you to simply watch and listen to what sounds are present in the background. Works well on old movies that don't have a musical score.

Much depends, however, on the type of novel you read, however, as I've found there are two types of historical novels. The first is a novel that just happens to be set in that time period, that is the time period itself is really the focus of the novel. You could put the story in about any time period and it would be the same. The second type has the historical time period at the very heart of the story, it is what the story is really about. A novel about a well-known historical figure, for example, will call for a much greater focus on the historical issues.

(5) Cultivate friendships with those that are experts in parts of the historical time period in question. The fact is, there is only so much you can realistically learn secondhand. If you think about it, however, there are people that already love a particular time period or at least an aspect of it. By figuring out who they are and making their acquaintance, you've got an expert to consult and help make sure you are on the right path. For instance, if your novel is about knights, hit the local Renaissance Fair. There you will find a lot of people that are more than happy to help you, plus you can actually see how rope was made, chainmail, bread, hold a sword, etc. In my case, our local living history farm features authentic meals from the time period my novel is set in, in a historically accurate house. They've dedicated their life to recreating that time period and simply love to answer questions. If you read the dedications of many books (not just historical fiction but most genres), you'll find "hank you's" out to people that have helped the author with specialized information or read a draft with an educated eye.

I've also spent some time in historical museums just looking at things, clothing, etc., from my time period and tried to picture what they looked like when they were brand new. Our job as writers of historical fiction is to make the past come alive. Picturing what a dress or book or gun looked, felt, smelled like when it was first worn, opened or held is a good exercise. BTW, I'm not saying I am very good at it, but am doing my best!!

Again, the above is just the process that I am following. I am sure there are things that I have overlooked and would love to hear them (so I can incorporate them into my own research!). Hope this helps.

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I'd disagree with this answer—if you don't do any research beforehand, not only are you not going to know much about clothing, architecture, etc., you probably won't have a very good idea of what the mindset of the time would be. The person who has their patrician character from Ancient Rome sympathizing with slaves isn't going to get published—obviously. Make sure you have a good idea of everything that would be surrounding your character—architecture and clothing, how they would have done simple things like go to the bathroom or eat dinner—first, and if you forget something while you're writing and need to quickly research it, do so.

Also, look at the bibliographies of other historical novelists. You'd be surprised at the sources they reference. A book about what kind of perfume Marie Antoinette would have used might not seem so useful when you're writing about her, but it's the sort of book you may need to reference someday. After all, you need to be there in all five senses when you're reading a book, so do that for your readers with research, hopefully before you've tried to summon the time period.

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