Monday, January 29, 2018

How To Effectively And Efficiently Do Research for Your Historical Novel



Stephanie Morrill is the creator of GoTeenWriters.com and the author of several young adult novels, including the historical mystery, The Lost Girl of Astor Street (Blink/HarperCollins). Despite loving cloche hats and drop-waist dresses, Stephanie would have been a terrible flapper because she can’t do the Charleston and looks awful with bobbed hair. She and her near-constant ponytail live in Kansas City with her husband and three kids. You can connect with her on FacebookTwitterPinterest, Instagram, and sign up for free books on her author website.


Research is intimidating. Before I wrote The Lost Girl of Astor Street, I thought I would never write a historical novel, as stated here in Go Teen Writers: How To Turn Your First Draft Into A Published Book.



I remember thinking there was no way I could know everything I needed to know to feel confident that I had done a good job. How could I ever be expected to know what 1920s era Chicago was like? How do you find out details like what was served for school lunch? Or what was taught in science class? Since I write YA and the parents are still involved in shaping my main character, I thought I also needed to research and understand not just the generation of my character, but the generation before!

Not only that, but I knew from talking to historical writer friends that there are book reviewers who seem to delight in pointing out history-related errors that authors make. If I attempted to write a historical novel, I thought, it would surely be obvious that I'm not a real historical writer.

Have I talked you out of writing a historical yet? Here are a a few things I realized that helped me get over my fears, and I hope if you're feeling nervous this can help you too:

1. I realized I don't need to know everything from the moment I start. I learned how to research in phases. More on that in a bit.
2. I'm telling a story, not writing a textbook. Most readers of historical fiction care about the history, yes, but they mostly care about the story.
3. I'm not claiming to be a scholar. I'm a novelist. Someone is going to read my book who knows more about my subject than I do. Maybe they'll knock me down a star on Amazon if they notice a mistake, or maybe they won't. But it says there on the front that it's a NOVEL. I did my best, but mistakes happen.
4. What, exactly, do I think makes somebody a "real" historical writer? I never once worried that someone would think I wasn't a real contemporary YA author, so why did this mess with me so much? I think this is just a part of writing in a genre that wasn't your first love. Contemporary YA is what I grew up writing, what I wrote in my early days as a published author, and what I had self-identified as for a long time. That was more about me and my perception of myself.

(If you feel other barriers about writing historical fiction or historically-inspired fiction, I would love to interact with you about those in the comments section!)



Let's go back to number one on that list and talk about the research process. I'm often asked, "Should you research before you write your book? Or while you write it? Or at the end?"

The answer? YES!

I'll have more posts in the future about research, but today we're just going to talk about phase one of your research.

Like I talked about last week in my Story Spark to Story Blurb post, developing my idea into a sentence and a few paragraphs typically takes very minimal research. I needed to know the time and place of my story, so I had done a bit of research about that to identify some plausible locations, but that was it.

After writing my blurb, I like to write a chapter or two of my story so I can get a feel for my storyworld. For me, that's the most effective way to think through the rest of the story. I used to think this was weird, but now I've talked to more and more writers who are the same way. There's just something about mucking around in your character's heads and hearts that helps figure out where the rest of the story needs to go. (Shan talked about this some last Friday in her post Discovering My Protagonist.)

My research goal at this point is to know just enough to write those chapters and get a 2-3 page synopsis together. The more you understand about what you need to know the less time you'll waste researching stuff that never makes it into the book.

Reading through my story blurb, I identified a few questions I needed to answer and research:
  • Where did Italian American and Japanese American families live in San Francisco in 1941? How would Evalina and Taichi have met?
  • What did America's involvement look like in the war in 1942?
  • After the executive order was signed, how long was it before the Japanese American families were removed?
  • What did those removals look like? How did families know?
  • When the Japanese American families from San Francisco were evacuated, where were they sent?
    • After I discovered several options and settled on Manzanar in southern California, I also put "research life at Manzanar" on my list.
  • What did the average teenage girl do after she had graduated high school in 1942?
For a while, you will feel like every question you answer just leads to more questions. I promise that's normal.

In phase one of research, I try to do as much online and through the library as possible. I tend to be a bit of a binge shopper at my library. Here's a stack of books I picked up early in my research for Within These Lines:



That's a lot of books. But it's important to keep in mind that you don't have to read all of the research book, usually. Within These Lines takes place entirely in 1942, with a few flashbacks to 1941, so when I researched WWII and the evacuation and life at Manzanar, all I focused on was 1942. (I found, and you probably will too, that I was so naturally curious about how things turned out that I frequently read more than I really needed to just to find out what happened to certain people after the war.)

And I'm constantly amazed by what kind of information I can find on the internet. In The Lost Girl of Astor Street, I have a very important scene where Piper makes a long distance call, and I wanted to get it right. I was shocked to find video tutorials from the 1920s on how to place a long distance call. Who felt the need to upload these on the internet? I have no idea, but I'm sure grateful to them!

Some questions you'll be shocked to find answers to by simply Googling them. Others you'll have to dig a bit. Next week we'll talk about keeping all your research organized!

27 comments:

  1. Great post Stephanie! I'm the past I've wrote several historical stories (I'll not call them Novels, because they were nowhere close), but they were always in the cowboy, Wild West era. I've read probably 5000 westerns in my life, so I was always comfortable with my knowledge of that. BUT this year I'm writing two novels that required considerably more research. One is actually a dystopian, but it's set in Cody WY, a place I fell in love with on my honeymoon, so I've had to do lots of research on the lay of the town (because I forgot the Dug up Gun Museum is across the street fro the Irma Hotel). But my story also involves living without electricity, and since a lot of Cody is built like historical replicas, I've researched a lot about old time cooking, making ammunition (in probably on a watch list now), etc. it's been super fun. For the most part I just researched my questions as I came to them. I had a decent grasp on the basics of my story, so it's just been a matter of hopping on google earth when I need to know where in town my MC is going.
    The second one is less forgiving, I think, because it's actually set in the past. It takes place in 1868 Nebraska, and deals with a former civil war soldier, homesteading, and a mail order bride from Chicago. Me and my big ideas lol. SO MUCH RESEARCH. I live in Nebraska, so geography and climate etc was easy, but it took me a long time to find the perfect town for my setting, that was already well established by 1868, where the railroad was, if telegraph had made it to NE yet. I also had to do some (not much since the story isn't placed there at al) research on post Civil War Chicago. And research on homesteading. When Mail order brides were most popular, and why someone would apply or respond. Some information about certain aspects of the civil war, because my MMC informed me he has PTSD, so then also some PTSD information. (It just snowballs) Along with information on how sexual harassment would have been handled in that era. I ended up buying The writers guide books on everyday life in the 1800's, Wild West, and Civil War and they've been super helpful for little details, and keeping the info all in one place for me. Especially things like what my FMC would have wore in Chicago vs. what the women in NE were wearing.

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    1. Those sound like really interesting story ideas! I love history, but I'm not very patient to do the research. Good luck on yours!

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    2. Thanks Maggie! Research is hard! Definitely not my favorite part of writing, but necessary.

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    3. These sound great Maddie! I love when you find a good research book that offers lots of details about every day life in the era. I feel like that's the trickiest part sometimes.

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  2. I don't write historical fiction, but I love reading it. I found this post to be very interesting. It is quite amazing what you can find on the internet. Thanks for sharing!

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    1. Thanks, Ashley! I'm glad you enjoyed it :)

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  3. I love history in general, and I'm one of those weird kids that actually likes history class, but I've never really tried to write a historical. I don't seem to come up with ideas (or let'd be honest, good ideas that have potential) for them and I've always told myself that I don't have the patience or memory to research and remember everything for it. The one idea that I do have is going to be extremely hard to research because it takes place a few thousand years after the human race evolved. I don't think there's an extensive amount of research on that. Maybe I'll tackle it one day. Who knows.

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    1. Oh, that sounds like an interesting period to write about. At least with something like that, where there is very little documentation, you have a lot more freedom with your story. No one will care if it's not accurate if they don't know it's not accurate :)

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    2. That's true! I hadn't thought about it that way. Thanks :)

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    3. With your love of history, I bet one of these days you get knocked over by a historical story idea that you can't ignore!

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  4. I love history. I'll admit I'm one of those people that will tear historical fiction writers apart. I have this thing I say... most historical fiction is really just a story with a paragraph of fact, while G. A. Henty's (a great historical fiction author!) books are a book of history with a paragraph of fiction. But occasionally I do find modern historical fictions that do not bother me. Your book, for one.

    My second novel is sorta ancient historical fiction. I took a lot of liberties writing it. I know I'll have to address those when I rewrite it. I never realized just how hard it is to write historical fiction until I tried. I have two more historical fictions I want to write someday. One of them especially will take a lot of research! Looking forward to reading more of this series :)

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    1. Thank you for the compliment, Keturah. There are certainly some authors who cherish historical details more than others.

      I love ancient historical fiction. So far I have no interest in writing it, but I really enjoy reading it!

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  5. Wonderful post Mrs. Morrill! I've worked on historical fiction before - more like a historical fantasy, so I had a bit more leeway - and it's a really neat genre to write. I love reading historical so much, but not as many of my writing projects include it anymore. Research is probably one of the reasons why historical fees so daunting - so this post really interested me! And it's always so neat to hear how you are applying these techniques in your writing life, too. :)

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    1. Thank you, True! Historical fantasy has always really intrigued me. I love genre blends.

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  6. I seem to be one of the very few who loves the research and the writing both. (I don't like Henty books, though. . . not nearly enough story spread over the textbook excerpts, and it's the same story every time.) It's good, I guess, as I do end up having to research before, during, and after writing. I've found it's safest to do some big-picture things, looking up chronologies and important names and dates and social norms (what we think of as the boring things in school, unfortunately) first, to make sure the story I've got in mind isn't rendered impossible by some annoying anachronism. That's actually the easiest stage.

    For my current almost-WiP, that means I've been reading The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, I need to read The City of God, and I have a stack of books with titles like Early Christians Speak, Doctrine and Practice of the Early Church, or Roman Religion, and Rome's Vestal Virgins waiting for me. I haven't yet done quite so much pre-writing research for other stories, because it easily gets overwhelming and distracting and I never get to the story, but in this case all that background is necessary.

    https://ofdreamsandswords.wordpress.com

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    1. Your process sounds very similar to mine, Sophia. I'm relatively new to this, but I've already had a couple of stories that I had to shift around because of what I learned during the big-picture research time.

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  7. This is a great post, so thank you for sharing. I'm planning to write a historical fantasy set in Victorian England down the road, and my first questions are how much of the actual facts do I use? How close to reality does the story have to stick? I'm hoping your future posts will provide some guidance for me. I think this is the best website for writers - I have learned so much and am always inspired.

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    1. I'm so glad you find Go Teen Writers to be a helpful and inspiring place!

      With historical fantasy, mostly you'll want to research the time period itself. What did people eat? What were social customs? What did they wear? Etcetera. You want the storyworld to make sense to the reader, so you want to keep things accurate to the period you've chosen. You'll want to know a bit about the English history leading up to that period, and if you're writing about a specific true event, you'll want to know details about that too. Otherwise, you're free to play!

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  8. You inspire me, Steph! Historical scares me. I have this great fear of getting the details wrong. But one day I'll have an idea that I JUST HAVE TO WRITE and I'll be brave and I'll be historical. I feel it.

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    1. I know you can do it. I still sometimes catch myself feeling like someone is going to accuse me of not being a real historical writer, which is stupid, but normal. I'll be here for you!

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  9. I didn't like historical fiction until I read Rosemary Sutcliff's The Eagle of the Ninth. I started to actively enjoy it when I read The Three Musketeers and Twenty Years After, which spurred me to come up with all sorts of random historical fiction ideas (helps that I like history, I guess). For some reason I was never intimidated by researching facts--being a fantasy writer by habit, it's actually refreshing to not have to come up with facts for once. I only have to find them, which is actually a lot easier.

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    1. I had never thought of it like that! What a great point.

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  10. Historical fiction intimidates me too, for pretty much the same reasons! Even one of my contemporary/high fantasy cross WIPs has been a challenge, because so much of it takes place in foreign countries or involves things outside my realm of knowledge. There's so much to research--so much ground to cover! (Which is why researching fantasy is easier in some ways; my biggest fact source is my imagination. XD)

    My question is WHERE online do you research? I get stuck on Wikipedia and sometimes find it difficult to find credible sources.

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    1. Sometimes you really have to dig. I maintain there's a time and place for Wikipedia, but try searching using Google Scholar: https://scholar.google.com/

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    2. How did I not know Google Scholar exists? Thanks so much!

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  11. Hi Stephanie! I have a question that popped into my head while reading this - are historical fiction novels required to have a bibliography? So do you have to keep track of every resource you use? Or is it more casual than that? (High school has made me rather paranoid about citing my sources XD)

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    1. That's a great question! Not in a formal sense, no. You won't find a bibliography in the back of historical fiction novels. What you will often find is an author's note where they share their most helpful resources. We do that partly to recognize the nonfiction authors who made our work of fiction possible. But it would be very helpful for you to keep notes about where you found what.

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