Research. As a writer, you either love it or hate it. In either case, one of the facts of life, or at least of writing historical fiction, is that it’s an essential part of the process. One of the reasons readers choose historical fiction is that they enjoy learning something new. They want to be swept away to a distant time, and they want that time to come alive for them. The only way that will happen is with the judicious use of historical details.
Note the word ‘judicious.’ A common mistake of beginning writers is to include what one author calls the dump truck. You’ve all seen that, where an author gives so much background information in the first chapter that your eyes glaze over with boredom. The trick is to use only snippets of information, enough to set the scene but not so much that your book reads like an encyclopedia. That’ll be the subject of another discussion.
First you need to discover all those fascinating details, and that’s where research comes into play. The problem with research is that it can become endless. One book leads to another, or if you’re on the Internet, one site leads to another. Before you know it, you’ve spent days – maybe weeks – reading, but your book still isn’t started.
How can you avoid getting caught in the sinkhole of research? I can’t guarantee that this technique will work for you, but I’ve found it useful. I call it layered research. The idea is to do only as much research as you need for the particular stage of the book. Planning requires one level (normally a cursory understanding), while the final draft will demand specific details.
The resources I’ve found most valuable are:
The children’s section of the library.
One of my publishers asked me to write a trilogy set during World War One. At the time, what I knew about that time period could be described in two words: not much. The adult section of the library had huge tomes, detailing each day of the war. I could have spent weeks reading them, but instead I went to the children’s section. The books I found there were considerably shorter. Even more importantly, they gave me the basic information that I needed to plan the trilogy, namely the causes of the war and the major battles.
Later, when I knew exactly when each book would take place, I consulted the ten-pound tomes to see what was happening on specific key dates. My advice is to always begin with children’s books.
Historic diaries and letters.
What I like about diaries is that they tell you how real people lived, and as such, they’re a valuable source of details. For example, when I was researching my 2012 release set at Wyoming’s Fort Laramie, I read excerpts from an officer’s wife’s letters. In them I learned that the dried potatoes the post store sold were considered virtually inedible. An interesting fact, and one you can be sure made its way to the manuscript.
Costume books. Readers want to know what people wore. Oh, they don’t need to have a gown described down to the last furbelow, but knowing that women wore bustles in the 1880s and that skirts often had panels draped over the hips and continuing into trains in back helps you add authentic details to your story. I find costume books, particularly those with extensive illustrations, valuable. There is also a growing number of web sites with pictures of clothing from various eras.
Like diaries, these help you understand what people ate during your chosen time period. Just as importantly, they provide clues to what people did not eat. If you don’t find a recipe for ragout, it’s probably because the term wasn’t used then. To be true to the period, simply call it stew. And that leads me to what I consider one of the most important research tools.
Dictionary with date of first usage.
I hate anachronisms. For me there’s nothing so jarring as to be reading a book set in the Middle Ages and read, “The sword slid off his shield as if it were covered with teflon.” Admittedly, that was an extreme example, but I found myself wanting to use the word ‘camouflaged’ when writing about the 1850s. My trusty dictionary saved me from that by pointing out that camouflage came into usage during World War One.
Why worry about anachronisms? They brand you as a sloppy writer. You spend weeks, months, possibly years researching a book. The details of daily life are accurate; the speech patterns are authentic; you’ve even ensured that your characters eat common foods from the era. Why spoil the effect with an inappropriate term. Consider this: checking a word’s first usage is simply another form of research.