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.
Beat Feet On The Street
Nothing can beat getting out there and actually looking, first hand, at the things you are planning to write about. The age doesn’t matter. There are literally artifacts and places all over the world where you can touch time. Do you have a specific setting for your 18th century novel? Go visit the city in which you plan to place that tale.
Why would you go to all that trouble? Aren’t things pretty much built over and gone? In a lot of cases, yeah. The stuff you’re looking for may not be there anymore. But do you know what is? Many streets remain in the same pattern and have the same names as years ago, but you can’t be sure unless you reach out for historical city plans from the city itself. You can give the town clerk/city clerk’s office a call to see what you need to do to gain access to those records. Telephoning appropriate businesses and services is beating feet on the street.
I know, I know, but you’re an introvert. I am too. The cold truth is that you need to overcome that or allow your writing to suffer. When I looked into Boston between the 1930s and 1940s, I got in touch with the Jamaica Plain Historical Society, and I spoke with natives who knew the city well. There’s only one thing better than finding a photograph in the same period, and that’s standing on the spot.
Nothing can give you perspective like standing in the place where your particular episode of history took place. Just think what insight it would give to stand on Cemetery Hill instead of reading about it from documentary? Second hand information is no replacement for the first hand.
How can you make it work? There are a few steps you can make to plan your research trip. Contact a few university professors or experts on the topic and see if you can get their recommendation for where you should go, what you need to NOT miss and if there were any difficulties they faced as far as access. Don’t worry if they don’t respond, because they’re pretty busy with their students and free advice is at a premium these days. Your next step, check out your friend’s list and see if anyone on it lives in the region. Post the question to Facebook or Twitter, or whatever social media you use. Check out travel sites that might talk about the location. Lots of people leave feedback on those sites that can be quite helpful. Have you thought about searching through Flickr. or Instagram? If you locate an image of the place, you could reach out to the person who snapped it. After that, check with the city/town chamber of commerce/visitor information. They can help get you in touch with the information you need, including local historians who will be enthusiastic to talk about their slice of history.
Once you have your plans set out, don’t book that trip yet! Have you thought about grants for travel? They can cover research costs like travel and supplies. I’ll talk about doing this in a future installment. But, keep that in mind. This is the point you need to start making moves about applying for grants, because you’ll need to write a proposal which includes your itinerary.
Skipping ahead, let’s say you nailed that grant, or you have funds and no barriers. You’re on your way! Make sure you set appointments with the people you’re going to meet and the businesses you plant to utilize. Reach out not just to the city but also the library and any local universities and colleges to see if you can find people and resources there. Book a tour. I know it sounds chintzy, but tours can give you a good starting point sort of like a live Wikipedia page. This is especially useful if you know nothing about the topic but the basics, but can also be useful to those with more information. Tours allow people into places that the general public cannot go. That’s the pull of a tour. The exclusiveness is part of the deal.
If you do a tour, use that time wisely. Verify that you can take pictures—and then take a lot of pictures. If the place you’re going is far away, you won’t be getting back there any time soon, or if you forgot something and need to double check. Pictures are great for reminding us of the moment. Also, check with the tour guide and/or business to see if there is anything else you can get out of your time there, like more information. Be reasonable. You’re not entitled to anything. Graciousness will get you further than ego filled attitude, so don’t be that writer muscling them into allowing you behind the scenes. Always ask politely and nudge only delicately.
Other Tips: Researching on a budget, look for Groupons and other deals to the locations you’re looking to review. Go to the areas frequented by locals (get off the beaten path—carefully!). Get them talking about their memories. You’d be surprised the things you learn. This also introduces you to their culture, and each location has one. On the plus side, you might even find someone who knows someone who can get you into a historical place, or share information you had no access to before.
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.