Do you write Historical Fiction? Writing historically accurate fiction starts with RESEARCH.
Well, duh! I know that.
What most writers forget is that they take for granted a great many aspects which can lend more credence to their works, as well as a better experience of the story they want to put forward to readers. Additionally, if you want to be considered historically accurate, you must behave as a historian–do you due diligence. Can it always be done? Some things might slip past you. No human is perfect. Try your best. This series is going to help by presenting articles of interest from around the internet and get you started on the research necessary to complete an amazing manuscript.
Photos provide a unique resource as windows on the past. They’re not perfect, not by any means. Photos can be staged to skew the meaning of the image contained, regardless of being called documentation and an honest snap shot. The source of the photograph must first be considered. The details examined and further documentation brought forth to support the image.
That said, a photograph can provide a ton of information. A few years ago, while I was marketing OP-DEC: Operation Deceit, I came across a color photograph from 1942 of Times Square in New York City. My graduate program had gone over the details of proper research and I was interested in exercising this new skill. This is a photograph I practiced on, which you can find in my OP-GHO: Operation Ghost (sequel to OP-DEC) Facebook album. My findings in the photograph above:
- Red Cross Flag, V for Victory and Buy War Bonds signage, on the back corner building.
- WAAC (Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps) or WAC (dropping the Army designation) signage on the left.
- Johnny Walker, Schaefer Beer, Saludos Amigos, and The Human Comedy Billboard.
- Globe Theater, Astor Theater, Orpheum Theater and Loew’s State Theater on the other side.
- Right foreground: it appears that a trolley or trolley-like bus was running.
- Left foreground: Father Duffy Cross (Duffy’s statue is on the other side).
- The taxis boast wartime lamps on their headlights.
- Orange and Yellow Taxis
- The street sign: one way.
The reason for finding all of these points is that it can narrow down the exact spot of where the photo was taken and the date. For instance, Saludos Amigos places the photograph in 1942. Films ran for only a specific amount of time, so this photograph was sometime in around February of that year when the film was released. The Father Duffy Statue plants it in Times Square.
The sign for Loew’s State is too blurry to make out, so finding another photograph of the same area, even older (as provided by the four year prior image of 1938), clarifies what you’re looking at.
Where can I find photos like this to do my research with? Well, that depends. If you’re looking for any image you can google it specifically, such as Times Square 1942. Then you’ll have to vet the image exactly as I did above, to make sure that someone didn’t mistakenly label it wrong. Sometimes, when a search spits back results, it ignores one or more of the search items, so read the caption if there is one provided. Go to the site if it is safe to browse there and read what it is attached to.
The Library of Congress has vetted images for perusal online, which takes some of the work out of research. Should you come across physical prints, old photos in storage or in someone’s private collection, you would still need to do the vetting. It is possible to do so with the local town historians, library and town hall.
Why do you need to vet a photograph? Isn’t it proof enough?
The truth is that photographs can be staged and altered. They are windows onto a very narrow point of focus: what is in the frame. You have no idea that what you are looking at is an actual image of an event or a staged photograph. There are ‘counterfeit’ images everywhere, not to mention that memes are one of the worst providers of historical evidence or truth. Anyone can make a meme, implying that the text and quotes on it are factual. You can do a quick search on Google to see if the quote is accurate, but you’ll need to dig up the text from which it was gleaned. If statistics and other facts are shown, you’ll have to find a legitimate resource that can verify the numbers/facts written. Legitimate resources are not YouTube videos by conspiracy theorists, or Wikipedia pages. You can use Wikipedia to find the sources that someone used and verify them. Furthermore, just because someone wrote a book or claims and PhD, this doesn’t automatically make them a reliable source. Dr. Mengele had a PhD in medicine, would you trust him? Just because you want something to be true doesn’t mean that it is. Be sure your sources are peer reviewed and trusted in the field.
Stock photographs provided by sites like Pixabay, Unsplash and the Morgue File contain some of the public domain photographs from yesteryear (not Unsplash) as well as modern images that can give you your bearings. If you’re writing a story that evolves over time, having images of the places at points on your timeline will be quite useful for description purposes. For example:
“The old Paramount we used to go on our first dates was now a derelict, twenty odd years later, some of its lights not lighting and making the town seem rundown. It was rundown. The boon of war had worn out and there was nothing here. I grew tired in my life, afraid this was it.”
That is just one example. You might be sending someone to a certain venue in 1950 and then they leave the place for a decade or more and come back. You’ll want to know if that venue was still there in 1960, or had it been refurbished as something else, because that really matters to your character and the historical aspect of the work. The loss of things is very much a point of concern in the human condition: Change. It can symbolize much in the growth/stagnation of your character.
Well that’s all great, but what if my place and time is overseas? Good news! The British Library just released millions of antique illustrations (copyright free) and they’re a resource for photographs. Don’t forget the moving picture. British Pathé released 85,000 stock films on YouTube and most are historical.
An ocean is not an excusable barrier with today’s technology. Do your due diligence. Part of doing research is finding these treasures, so don’t put your head down and give up because you don’t know where to start. I have given you some great starting points. I’m sure you can interpolate from there and find even more!
Have a topic you’d like discussed on writing historical fiction? Leave me a message and I will do my best to get to it.