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)
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.