Thursday, August 8, 2013

How do I start researching for my novel?

Roseanna M. White pens her novels under the Betsy Ross flag hanging above her desk, with her Jane Austen action figure watching over her. When she isn’t homeschooling her two young kids or writing fiction, she’s editing it for WhiteFire Publishing or reviewing it for the Christian Review of Books, both of which she co-founded with her husband.

~*~

So the other day I got a note from Stephanie--I mean, some eager writer. Let's call her "Bursting to Begin," just for fun. ;-) It said:



Well, Bursting, you've made my day. =) There are few subjects I love more than historical research! (Yes, I'm just that nerdy.)

So here we go! The basic steps to historical research.

1. Identify your setting
Silly as it may sound, the first step is to nail down your location and your year. These are the two things that determine all your other research. And the more specific you can get the better, though often it's the research itself that determines exact months or parts of a city you want this to take place in. Have a basic idea going in, but don't be afraid to hit the backspace key if you stumble across something better as you read!

2. Who are your characters?

While much character development comes as you write, you have to know some specifics going in. What does you character do for a living? Are they wealthy or poor? On the cutting edge of the changing times or stuck in the past? This helps you determine things like what neighborhoods they would live in, where they'd be going to work, and what fashions and technology of the day you need to know. You'll also need to know things like what company, businesses, organizations etc. were called back then, how they were viewed by the public, etc.

3. Era-specific details

These not only enrich your setting, they influence your characters and should shape your whole story! Things to look up include: 
  • Fashion (yay!)
  • Modes of transportation (chariots? buggies? trains? ships? cars?)
  • Houses (very different styles were built in different eras--much depended on heating sources)
  • Vocabulary and idioms of the day (you can often find lists of, say, "Regency idioms")
  • News items (you can often even find archived newspapers!)
  • Music / Film of the day (search "popular music of 1919", for example)
Start by looking these up online, follow links, have fun--and then browse through relevant sections at your local bookstore or library too.

4. Subject matter

What's your story about? Colonial quilting? Civil War Baltimore? The last Russian Czar? 20s Gangster Chicago? An Egyptian archaeologist? Look for non-fiction books that deal specifically with those topics. I've yet to look up my topic and not find a slew of historians who have already done some of the homework for me. =)

Check reviews and descriptions to determine which ones are most targeted toward your interests, and then check first to see if your library has (or can get) them for you. Though I usually end up buying my primary resources, the library helps me thin the ranks to decide what that will be. It's also a great idea just to go the library and physically browse the section dealing with your subject. So often books will jump out at me! They also always have fashion books on the different era, with beautiful color photos. Snatch those up and start taking notes. =)

It's also a great idea to talk to other authors who have written in this era--ask them what their favorite research books are and for any link lists they have. And if you happen to have a best friend with a shelf full of research she's willing to send you to get you started, then all the better. ;-)

5. Pay a visit to YouTube

It took me years to figure this one out, but seriously. Need more than a few still photos to get a handle on your setting? Go to YouTube and search for some videos of the area in question. I've taken YouTube tours through Ancient Persia, several counties in England, the principality of Monaco, and have even learned a colonial dance this way.

6. Keep www.etymonline.com always open

Seriously. When you're not used to writing historicals, it's a good idea to look up the etymology of words. As in, lots of them. Words you never thought to question, words you're pretty sure are old enough, anything that might possibly raise a red flag in someone's mind. Look it up, and if it's too new, chuck it out. While readers might not all be sticklers about this sort of thing, using era-appropriate words creates a tone that can't be beat.

7. Find a Native

This isn't always possible, but when it is, you really can't beat someone who knows your area for go-to advice! Even if your book is set a good ways back, finding someone who knows the landscape or city is so helpful--they usually know which sections are oldest, where the "good" neighborhoods have always been, which restaurants have been there for centuries, and also general things like weather patterns, surrounding land, plant life, animal life, all that fun stuff.

When to Stop Researching and Start Writing


This answer is going to be different for every historical writer, but here's how I do it. Before I write so much as a word, I need a basic handle on my setting. If I've written something in this era before or have read a lot around it, I might go ahead and sketch out a few chapters. But usually I'll have steps 1-3 above completed first, and I'll be in the midst of step 4. Reading books takes a while sometimes (especially a non-fiction book that's packed with fact but not style, as some of them are), and I rarely have time to read a research book the whole way through before I begin writing. More often, I read enough to get me started and then finish the book(s) as I go. Steps 5 and 6 are usually as-it-comes-up.

A good rule is to take a look at your schedule, figure out when you really, really want to start actually writing, and then pencil yourself about a week to get a good handle on research first. If it's a totally new-to-you era, you could very well require more. But don't go overboard--I've heard stories of people taking six years to research one book, and that's the way books don't get written! Say a month at the most.

Start online, in whatever spare minutes you have. Wikipedia is a great jumping-off point, but be sure to follow reference links back to original sources and make sure those are dependable! Other online articles, brought to you by your favorite search engine, are a great place to start too. That usually gives me enough to help me form my basic idea. From there, go to actual books, newspaper articles, and original texts from your time period--you can't beat those for learning how people spoke in your era!

And one final tidbit to remember: make copious notes about interesting tidbits--and remember you can't use most of them. But they can still provide context for YOU and help you shape your character's voice.


45 comments:

  1. I came up with the idea for a historical fantasy, but I decided to wait until I'd written a few more novels before dipping my toes in that genre. ;) I totally love history, though, and think there is so much people can explore!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. So, so much! And the more I learn, the more I realize the stories are waiting EVERYWHERE. =) I used to think "I love biblical history" and "I love European history." But as I researched American settings, I came to a startling realization--I just love history, plain and simple, LOL.

      Delete
  2. Thank you, Roseanna! I've got a historical fiction project whirling around in my head right now, so this is perfect! I will definitely come back to it when I actually start that project. :)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Timely, then! Excellent. =) And the "whirling" stage is always one of my most favorite. =)

      Delete
  3. I love reading historicals, but I don't think I could ever write one, lol. I'm a supernatural/dystopia person. I have great respect for those who can though! Same goes for mysteries actually. My brain refuses to stick to stuff that obeys the laws of physics.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. LOL on the laws of physics. Who needs 'em? ;-) I don't think I could ever write a mystery either. Or a dystopian--though I love reading them. =) To each her own, as they say!

      Delete
  4. I'm not writing a historical right now (I want to in the future, though), but I still need to do a ton of research. I am writing a story following a relief force in the army, but I need to know the words of certain African languages, which African tribe I am writing about, names for places and things, etc. etc. Do you have any suggestions for that kind of research?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. That sounds really interesting, Maria! I'd say to start with the home front. Figure out which army folks did work similar to what you're thinking of and find some documentation of them. That will at least tell you things like what part of Africa you'll be looking at and what tribes live there. But if you want to make up your own history about it, turn then to some research on the tribes. Some simple internet searches can tell you basics like their primary beliefs, their ways of life, etc., which can help you figure out who you want to work with.

      Finding resources on specific dialects can get tricky wen they're not well-known ones, but most are "sister" languages to larger language groups, so those can be a jumping off point. When I wrote something that needed Sicilian, I couldn't find anything but a more generic "Italian" online, so I actually ordered a little $5 pocket travel dictionary that suited my purposes fine. Oftentimes with more obscure languages you can't find the stuff free online, but you *can* find used books on the cheap.

      Is that helpful at all? LOL. Need more?

      Delete
  5. I had an idea for an American Revolution-based novel once. I didn't pursue it because the research was so daunting. This was very helpful! :)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It's intimidating if you think you have to have a working knowledge of the WHOLE Revolution--but what I've found to be very helpful is to take just take a cross-section. Your characters likely wouldn't know everything that's going on everywhere, so you don't have to either. Focus your research on the neck of the woods you're dealing with, and suddenly it becomes bite-sized and much easier to handle. =) Occasional references to events elsewhere usually suffice!

      Delete
  6. I love history and I enjoy reading historical fiction. I started writing a novel during the Great Depression, which I abandoned for a little while, but I'm planning to go back to it. I also had an idea for a character in Victorian Era England. This is a great post that I'll definitely come back to!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Both such rich eras! Glad the post could prove helpful. =)

      Delete
  7. Historical fiction is awesome. I love reading it, and actually I just had an idea about a historical last night. I've never thought much about writing it, because of all of the research, but that sounds like a really cool thing to do. Thanks for the post, Roseanna!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It's not nearly as scary as it can seem. =) And can be SO MUCH FUN!

      Delete
  8. Such a fun post for me! I'm a historical fiction writer and reader at heart, though I love dabbling in other genres as well. I'll definitely be referring back to this next time I dive into research. Jill Williamson often mentions getting buried in the wonders of world building. Well, my equivalent is historical research. Especially primary sources!

    One of my favorite resources is the Writers Guide to Everyday Life series. Like a lot of online stuff, the books are not always 100% reliable, but they're a fantastic and fascinating place to get started.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Oh yes, that's a fabulous series for getting started! I don't have them personally, but some of my friends have referred to them when questions come up on our list. =)

      Delete
  9. Thanks so much for this post! I was actually just thinking today about researching for a historical novel I want to write and how to go about doing that. Your post really helped to give me a starting point! Now I'm more excited than ever to jump into researching, then writing!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yay! So glad it was timely for you, Grace!!

      Delete
  10. Roseanna. You just made my month! I've always secretly longed to write historical fiction, but I had no idea how to go about researching for one. You have no idea how much this helped/meant to me. Thank you! You're awesome. Always. Go have a celebratory cupcake on me.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. LOL. Permission for a cupcake accepted. =) Or maybe ice cream. Or a cookie. Fresh out of cupcakes. And so glad it was helpful for you! This is something I've been doing for so long, I sometimes wonder if my advice makes any sense, LOL. Glad it does. =)

      Delete
    2. I've loved each of your posts, and they've all made perfect sense! Lol, what about cookie dough ice cream?? :) Keep being you!

      Delete
    3. Cookie dough ice cream did indeed win the day. ;-)

      Delete
    4. I had brownies, in your honor. The things I do for the people I like. Such sacrifice. ;) Ice cream rules, but I have to watch my dairy/sugar intake... so I try not to have them together often. Lol.

      Delete
    5. Your noble sacrifice will be remembered forever. Minstrels will write ballads in your honor...and now I want a brownie! LOL

      Delete
    6. Come on over - I share nicely. Sometimes. Lol. Just kidding - I'm guessing the ticket/gas $ would be more expensive than going to the store and buying a brownie mix, but really, it just depends on how much you don't want to make those brownies yourself. And I'm rambling. Yep.
      Oooh. Minstrels. Now that is fame I could handle. Great job making me laugh out loud and get funny looks from my siblings. Have a brownie on me. (see what I did there? Ha. I said 'brownie' 3 times in one comment.) {4}

      Delete
    7. LOL--it takes true dedication to sneak "brownie" in that many times. ;-) And I had a mix--just made it! It's how I bribed my 5-yr-old into trying cauliflower, LOL.

      Delete
    8. I know right? And the sacrifice continued... My mom heard the tale... and guess what she started craving... and what I was making three minutes later... and what I can't stop eating. (Hint: the answer is Brownies.) Cauliflower? Bravo. You get Mommy Points. Redeem them at your local store by purchasing popsicles as a declaration that summer is not over yet.

      Delete
  11. How can you beat a friend who answers your writing question with a full-on blog post? Thanks, Ro!

    ReplyDelete
  12. This is why I hold so much respect for those who write historical fiction. I'm sticking to fantasy/paranormal YA for now.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. LOL. Totally get you. THAT sounds hard to me! ;-)

      Delete
  13. Thank you! I've been thinking about writing historical fiction myself, as I have recently done a short story in this genre that I really enjoyed writing. In the past I've written fantasy, and really enjoyed building the worlds and other details, and I think I'd really enjoy researching info for a historical novel as well. In some ways it'll be easier, because a lot of the info is there for you. But in some ways it could be hard because it could be restricting, and it could be hard to find the info you need. But I guess every genre has it's pros and cons. :)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. So very true! I like having fact to go on...until I can't find the fact I need, yes. =)

      Delete
  14. This was SO very helpful & encouraging! I knew this was my favorite genre for a reason!

    ReplyDelete
  15. This was super helpful Ms. Roseanna!!! I really enjoyed every minute reading this post (and listening to big band that my dad is playing in the background :P) I've often wondered how to research for a historical fiction. While I don't want to write one RIGHT now I would definitely be interested in the future. :)) So thanks! And super cool that you homeschool, I'm a homeschooler and it's the best thing ever!!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Big band = AWESOMENESS!!

      And we love homeschooling too. =) I've found lots of times when school and my research overlap, too!

      Delete
  16. Oh, good tips here! I've always stayed clear of historical fiction because I don't feel I could do it justice. (Or I do my own steampunk version.) But this doesn't make it sounds so overwhelming! Thanks!

    ReplyDelete
  17. I love, love, love history!! I have two historical fiction novels, one set during the Civil War and the other aboard the RMS Titanic.
    I'm obsessed with both of these time periods and have already read quite a bit, including going to a Titanic museum, which could also help with research, seeing the things they used and all. Plus, I have one set during and after the Great Depression.
    Yeah, I'm not crazy about history or anything. : )

    (MJ)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Oh, I totally forgot to put that on my list here!! But yes, seeing things is person is AWESOME when you can do that! Good grief, I knew I missed something important. Thanks for reminding me. =) And welcome to the History Nut club. ;-)

      Delete
  18. Wow. Wow! WOW!!! Thank you so much, Mrs Roseanna. This is exactly what I needed. I am SO going to copy and save this somewhere in my writing folders on the computer. This is just so great and such a great help to me. Historical novels beware! With the help of advice and research and lots of prayer, YOU SHALL BE CONQUERED!
    xo

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. LOL. Glad I could help! Onward into battle! =)

      Delete
  19. Thanks for this post, Roseanna!!!!! :D I've been wondering how to exactly start researching, and this is what I need. I have an idea for a fantasy, kings and queens, story, but I know little about what they wear, names of the court, etc. Any tips you have on this? Thanks.

    ReplyDelete

Home