This being late thing is starting to become a pattern. I don’t like it. Hopefully, I can get back on track this month.
Historical Fiction is one of my favorite genres to read. I love a wonderfully researched story that transports me into the past. So it should come as no surprise that I would start this series, which I’m calling Researching For Writers, with researching Historical Fiction. Not only do I love the genre, I firmly believe being able to research this story translates into being more easily able to research stories with Secondary World and Contemporary settings.
What Is Historical Fiction?
There are a few accepted definitions of the genre, but my favorite is that Historical Fictions is fiction set at least fifty years in the past, and not something the writer experienced themselves.
I particularly like that definition because it makes sense. It’s concrete and separates Historical Fiction from Autobiographical Fiction, fiction based on the author’s life. A type of fiction that doesn’t have a set time period of its own.
Primary Sources and Secondary Sources
I think anyone who remembers research papers in school and college vaguely remembers what primary and secondary sources are. I certainly do. But no in-depth post about researching Historical Fiction would be complete without defining these words for the sake of clarity.
Primary Sources are sources of information from the time period you’ve chosen to set your story in. A letter from the American Revolutionary War, World War I or World War II would be a great example of a primary source. This type of source is really great at giving a writer a feel for the era they’re writing about. The thoughts, the lives, and technology of the time. Which can lead to even more ideas about how to fit the story into the era it is set in.
Secondary Sources are sources of information from after the event. Sources such as documentaries, books, and magazine articles about a certain era in time. Because of their separation from the event, these sources are great for learning basic facts and how to interpret the primary sources you’re coming across in your research.
History is vast. This is especially true if we’re counting pre-history as part of human history, which we really should if taking Historical Fiction seriously as a genre. And because it’s so vast I want to take a brief detour and talk about some basic questions to jumpstart your research before getting into where to find your sources and evaluating them.
I find these questions are most effectively answered if I start by reading a general text on a historical era I’ve chosen to write about, but don’t be afraid to try to answer in a way that works for you. What works is more important than strictly following someone else’s methodology.
- What do people eat?
- What is their clothing like?
- How are they governed?
- What is the technology of the time like?
- What is the prevailing opinion on various topics?
They’re very general, but at this stage, that’s perfectly OK. Remember I tend to read a general text on an era or event before delving deeper into things. Those texts tend to provide me with the basic answers to those questions, which then inform more in-depth questions I wish to research later on.
Location, Location, Location
Perhaps more important than having a set of questions handy for directing your research is being able to locate your sources. There’s no shortage of ways to do this. But this also brings to mind a quote from a great book to dealing with research, Going To The Sources. In it, the author notes that people are prone to starting and sometimes ending their research on the internet. This is completely true. And while I’m certainly not as anti-internet as the author of said book, I can honestly say I don’t think this habit is a good thing.
Depending on how close to the location of our story we live, basing everything on the internet at the very least robs us of being able to absorb the setting we’ve chosen. The internet, great resource that it is, can’t replace visiting real historical locations or the feeling invoked by handling or even just seeing the primary sources we’d previously seen pictures of. It can’t orient us in time so completely like those experiences often do. So with that in mind, I thought I would talk about finding sources in real life.
Public Libraries are great for locating secondary sources that can introduce you to the time period. But they’re also a place where the local paper tends to store their older editions on things like microfiche, which is sadly becoming rare as time moves on. This makes them great for local historical research.
University Libraries are a great option for those with access to one. Especially for those who are going to school or can get permission to use the resources at a given university as they tend to have a more varied collection than your typical public library.
Museums are great for really getting a look at something. While you generally won’t be able to handle things in a museum unless under special circumstances, being able to just see a bit of history really brings the time to life.
Historical Societies are a great way to actually be able to get your hands on local records that can inform and enrich the story you’re writing. Though, there are general rules about handling the material, which tend to be primary sources instead of secondary ones. What you can handle, what can be taken into the rooms housing the materials, if you need protective gear of any sort in order to be able to access the material etc.
Much like seeing the object in a museum, being able to come face to face with history in this way makes the time period and its people more real. Even if you do come across views and attitudes you find disturbing during the process, which you likely will at some point.
Now that you’ve found your sources, it’s time to examine them. Unreliable sources are the bane of a researcher. Here are some quick tips:
- If starting somewhere like Wikipedia, make sure article cites its sources and they’re easily traceable, the author of said sources being in good standing with the academic community.
- The same can be said of books. Citing sources and being in good standing is important for all of them.
- When reading documents from the era, keep in mind that even modern texts tend to show the biases of the author.
- When handling artifacts, if you have the chance, look for indications of the era. Sometimes things can be dated incorrectly and it’s up to you to be able to spot the differences.