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.
Google Tools: Google Scholar, Google Books
If you’ve gone to college in more recent years, then it is likely that you’ve been introduced to online research resources, especially if you are writing historical fiction, history, social sciences or hard science and math. Your professors will likely have reminded you that not all resources are created equal. Simply “googling” a topic doesn’t mean that the results are bringing you to a source that is trustworthy. How do you know? Know your source. Here’s a fun reminder:
A couple great resources that are at your disposal are the growing Google Scholar search engine, and the pretty extensive Google Books search. Both tools can be “googled” to get to the search engine, or you can click the links I’ve provided above and bookmark them for future use.
In my post Research: How Much Can I do Online?, I went briefly over the use of these two searches:
‘Google Books and Google Scholar are resources available to anyone, which bring books right into your lap. On Google Books, you can bring up a book and search it for your topic, before purchasing a copy and finding out that it has nothing of use to you inside. Additionally, that one page that does have something you need, you can view there, and save yourself some money. Google Scholar was created for research by students. It allows you to search for resources in the same Google format you’re familiar with, but limits the results to ‘scholarly’ articles. Now, before you start drooling, you have to put on your researcher hat and get to know what is a scholarly article, peer reviewed publication and all of that. Just because someone wrote for History Magazine doesn’t make them a scholar and doesn’t imply that they were reviewed by scholarly peers who can back up the findings or theory presented. Producing work that takes this for granted is fine in certain fiction, but you’ll never gain a reputation as a trustworthy author should you disregard the parameters of good research and present a work that is claimed to be factual.
These two websites can save you a lot of time slogging back and forth to libraries. For most, the nearest college is distant and often closed to them. Town libraries, except in major cities, don’t carry a lot of books that are scholarly level, and if they do, they’re likely out of date. A high school library will not suffice. So, make use of the sites! Then you can pick and choose the books you buy. You’re really going to want to own the ones that provide the most information, because you will need to refer to them throughout the process of your writing, which can take years, in some cases. Amazon (maybe Barnes and Noble, too) has a great book buy back program, which means you can steal a lot of these for a few dollars.’
Above, I mention libraries, and I will get to them in an upcoming installment. Another resource, which I’m sure you’re familiar with, is Wikipedia. Wiki isn’t a good resource on which to base your research for any texts. The problem is that the pages can be manicured by just about anyone. Usually that someone is someone with an agenda or someone with a form of bias. By bias, I mean that they have a certain level of knowledge that is based on the findings of certain research, which may or may not be vetted. How do you know where they’re getting the information from? Wikipedia provides a cite your sources section, and, if you click through, you’re likely to find some cites of which you can’t be all that certain. Some articles are fine. That said, like any encyclopaedia the information you find is limited and it’s merely a starting point. Wikipedia is good for giving you points to further research and a starting bibliography to peruse. Do not rely on it for anything else.
So, once you have some parameters to look into, you can wander on over to Google Scholar and Google Books to do a search. Your vetting isn’t done yet, though. First of all, Google Books contains a multitude of books and they’re aren’t regulated. Google Scholar is a little better, as the articles included in those searches are geared toward scholarly work. You’ll still need to check into your sources. You can do that by doing a standard google of the publisher and finding a little more about their history.
No one said that writing historical fiction was going to be easy, but it is rewarding. With experience, you’ll get to know more intuitively and by memory what is going to make your resources cut. If you care about your writing, then you’ll make the steps necessary to carry it to the next level.
Please refer to the following works regarding research materials and online research tools:
- Appleby, Joyce, Lynn Hunt, and Jacob Margaret. Telling the Truth about History. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1994.
- Benjamin, Jules R., A Student’s Guide To History, 11th ed. (New York: Bedford/St. Martin, 2010).
- MacMillan, Margaret, Dangerous Games: Uses and Abuses of History. New York: Modern Library, 2009.
- May, Lary. The Big Tomorrow: Hollywood and the Politics of the American Way. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2000.
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.