Monday, October 25, 2010

Don't Get Bogged Down: Keeping on Course When It Comes to Historical Research

Too much research?
I've always had this fascination with history. I kid you not when I tell you this, but when I was in junior high school I was adamant about naming my firstborn child Cholera (only pronounced differently, which gave it a musical lyricism) because of the copious amounts of Oregon Trail I played on the computer (there are a couple of you out there who know what I'm talking about ☺). Of course, now, I never would name my child such a thing, but from an early age I was hopelessly stuck in an alternate past filled with Southern belles, gorgeous plantation homes, and handsome army men with their shiny brass buttons. It didn't help matters much that I became obsessed with John Jakes' North and South mini-series that came out in the late eighties and early nineties. I guess it came as no surprise that, when many years later, I started writing Historical Fiction.

It's interesting the reaction you get from other writers when you tell them what genre you write. So many times, their faces light up and they always say something along the lines of, "How fascinating!" or "I've always wanted to do that, but I just don't think I'd be any good at it. There's too much work involved." The simple truth is that anybody can take up writing Historical Fiction, you just have to be patient and take it one step at a time.

Some writers say that you should research as you write, so you're not wasting needless hours pouring over other manuscripts when you should be writing your own. I agree, but I also think that history is a little bit trickier than that. To even begin writing in a time period from long ago, you need to do some groundwork first. Just throwing a story on the page and being ignorant of the history behind it makes for a long road of revisions in the months/years to follow. When it comes to jumping into the world of researching history there are a few things you need to keep in mind:

1) Have a definite time period. Don't say to yourself, "I want to write a story about the American Civil War." Do you realize how involved the history of the American Civil War really is? That's way too much area to cover, unless you have a magnificent idea in mind and you are a genius writer (aren't we all?). You must be specific about where your characters will be and when. Otherwise, you'll find yourself researching needless information, frustrating you to tears, thus causing you to stop before you've even started. Ex: In my three novels, the first takes place between the years 1850-1851. I chose these years because the Fugitive Slave Law was enacted in the States in 1850. In my second novel, I chose the years 1929-1930, because of the Stock Market Crash. My third takes place at Los Alamos during the last two years they were building the first nuclear bomb. The key here is to not extend your research beyond what you'll actually need or use.

2) Choose a real incident or events around which to center your story. Ex: Book #1 -- the Fugitive Slave Law and the Christiana Incident. Book #2 -- the Stock Market Crash and the Ku Klux Klan movement. Book #3 -- the building of the atomic bomb.

3) Don't litter your story with too many historical events. This creates non-fiction with little storyline   worth following. Put your characters into the events, but don't make history the centerpiece of your novel. Your main protagonists must shine no matter what time period you dump them in.

4) Check and double check the historical information you've written into your story. Of course, it's fiction, but that doesn't mean that some music buff out there isn't going to notice that you used a jazz song that wasn't written until after 1929. You want to make sure you have all your facts straight.

5) Visit your setting, if you can. This one's optional, and the reason I say this is because early nineteenth century Virginia looks nothing like it does today. With some places, it's virtually impossible to recreate the historical setting in your mind, especially if it's nothing but congested interstates and sprawling cities. But, if your story takes place in a place where things haven't evolved much beyond what they looked like at the time (Ex: The Trinity Site in New Mexico where they detonated the bomb. Visitors are allowed only twice a year and they've kept the site as well-preserved as they possibly can. Very fascinating to see! On the flip side, almost none of the original buildings from the 1940s remain in Los Alamos today.) then by all means go check it out and get a feel for your character's movements in everyday life. If it's impossible to visit the original then look for something similar. It's just a good idea to be able to visualize where your story will take place.

6) And last but not least, read in your genre. This is the best way to see what's out there and to see who's publishing works similar to your own. If a time period (American Civil War, anyone?) seems completely flooded with novels, it might be best to look at another period and set your characters there. Just food for thought!
Thin it out a little!

As long as you keep writing while you're researching then you should come out all right. Just don't let your story wander away from you, or your characters for that matter. Keep plugging away at it!

Just a quick shout out the the following blog -- Rach Writes. Click on the link and read about the Writers' Platform-Building Crusade she's launched. Hey to all you Crusaders out there!!

Feel free to check out my book reviews at


  1. Excellent counsel from a scribe who knows her stuff- though I must say my favorite part of the post was the intro. Sweet, little Cholera. Such a lovely child.

  2. Hey ladies, great post! I got Lorena's note about joining in my Crusade, would love to have you on board. I've popped your link in my List of Crusaders. Hi Mary Mary, I didn't realize you hung out here as well ;)


  3. I am so glad you didn't name your child Cholera! (In Spanish, aside from the name of the illness, it means anger :)) I suppose you love the book "Love in the Times of Cholera" (I do!)

    Thanks for the research tips. As a new historical fiction writer, I need them (I learned the hard way that I was doing way to much research after months of reading books and researching the internet and having written only a few chapters.) But I think it helped me get a feel for the place and the times. I still have to stop writing once in a while and do a quick (sometimes not-so-quick) search in the internet for a correct term or to find out if such and such object was used in the 19th century. I am slowly learning to not obsess so much over having the write information right away, and just continue writing so that I don't lose momentum. It helps that I have Violante nearby, who is my "walking encyclopedia" when it comes to historical facts and fashion :)

  4. Hey ladies! Nice to see you drop by Rachel. I must say, your Crusade is quite a clever way to get bloggers motivated. I like it!

    Sadly enough, I never named my child Cholera, but let that be a cautionary tale when it comes to your characters. Don't ever name them something that can come back and bite you in the keester!

    I'm glad I could help you girls out on your merry writing way!

    Sorry, I posted this through the Sisterhood. Oops!

  5. Historical fiction (and its many branches such as H. fantasy or Historical thrillers) is the only genre I can still read with pleasure. I agree with all your tips, but I am still ambivalent about having to actually visit the setting, and I have disagreed with many on that issue. So, let´s see how I fare with the Sisters.
    I lived in NY for 23 years, but if were to write fiction set in that milieu but two hundred years ago or even the turn of the XIX century, I would have to research like everyone else. The past cannot be relived by just standing on a geographical spot. You learn much more from old photographs and memories (whether written or orally transmitted) than by being physically there. My humble and stubborn opinion

  6. Awesome post! I'm writing a mg hf novel based on a specific event during WWII in England. The research can overwhelm you. It can also distract you. I've been reading links on the BBC and a book by Winston Churchill...It seems that one sliver of information leads to another...

  7. I completely agree with you, Violante! That's why I say it's optional. I set portions of my first novel in and around Washington, D.C., but believe me it's nothing like it was in 1850. It would be rather useless for me to use information from the city today. And so, that's why all the research. But someplaces don't change much with time. It just depends on what you're going to use in your story.

    Funnily enough, this is a big debate amongst Historical writers. Some are passionately for it, while others strongly oppose it. What an odd thing to fight about. . .

  8. I had names like Maggie and you liked Cholera! Ah the memories!!

  9. Just stopping by to say "Welcome to the Crusade" to the lovely ladies of the writing sisterhood. Looking forward to reading whatever you come up with for the crusader challenges :-)

  10. Yes, Linds! Don't you remember those days quite well! I remember all the weird looks you guys gave me when I said Cholera would make a great name. Ah, yes, the memories . . .

    Hey to all you Crusaders! Thanks for following along and best of luck with all your writing!!

    ♥ Mary Mary

  11. All historical pieces are about present time anyway, so why take the detour? :)

  12. I'm not sure what you mean by that, but history is a completely different animal to tackle and write than contemporary fiction. Just like Sci-Fi and Fantasy are two completely different genres, even though many just like to lump them together. Each genre has its own set of guidelines, and historical is no exception. True, bits of the past are always in the present, but we aren't all riding horses or racing to build the first atomic bomb. That's all been said and done, but if we want to know how it was done, we don't make a stab in the dark. We research.

    Many of the underlying themes are very similar to present day, so yeah, there's that. And then there's Steampunk . . . A lovely mixture of the past and future. :)

    Thank you for your comment. It's always interesting to see how other writers view different genres.

  13. Amos, I believe I know what you mean. Most historical pieces today reek of XXI century ideas and morals. That is why I gave up on customers. However, a good writer would tune his frame of mind to the times he/she are writing about. I do.

  14. Welcome to the crusade, history buff. This should be right up your alley. I'm with you with North and South. Loved it and mini-series like that, and the books. I grew up reading Historical Fiction and loved it, but even though I taught history, both ancient and modern, I've not got my head around writing in a past era. But I will if I can.

    I've just posted my story for the second crusader challenge - if you have a moment stop by and have a read - you'll learn a little Australian outback history.

    I found your post so full of good advice.

  15. Thanks, L'Aussie for dropping by! We will most definitely drop by your blog and see what you've written for the challenge.

  16. LOL! You're so cute. Cholera, hu? So, did you ever name your girl that? I can imagine it as a diff pronunciation, it would sound pretty. <3

    Great tips on putting in research with the book without bogging it down.

    ~Elizabeth :)

  17. I could not agree more with #4. Which probably is an occupational hazard, seeing as I have two history degrees *lol* But I've read stories where people just take the historical details for granted and misuse them. Which is beyond annoying. On the other hand, when it's done well a good historical setting can add so much to the story!

    Also, love #5. I wouldn't mind visiting Victorian London, really! ;-)

    Welcome to the Crusade! Always good to meet new Crusaders :D

    *follows blog*

  18. Cholera is a pretty name when you pronounce it differently, but I couldn't imagine naming a child that and then sending them off to school. Can you imagine the jokes and puns that would ensue? I'm glad I could help with the research tips!

    Thanks for dropping by, and it's great to hear from other Crusaders as well!

  19. Wow, what sound advice! I have always had thoughts of doing historical fiction, but it has felt a little bit intimidating. This post makes it feel much more accessible to me, though.

    Also, my daughter's name actually is Cholera. And she loves it.

    (All right, that's a blatant lie. But I loved that story. And also loved the game Oregon Trail! Reminds me of the good ol' days.)

    Go Crusaders!

  20. You're a hoot, Weed! I would love it if somebody actually told me they'd named their child Cholera (it would make me feel like I'm not the only one . . .), so you had my hopes up there for a second. I'm glad you enjoyed the post. Now, go out and play yourself some Oregon Trail and enjoy the good ol' days!

    ♥ Mary Mary

  21. Love the design on this blog layout and the title of the blog! I love research so this one hit home for me!

  22. I'm glad you enjoyed my post, Angela. Welcome to the Divine Secrets of the Writing Sisterhood! We hope you continue to enjoy it.


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