How often have you read a scene in a book and wondered how the author crafted such a perfect depiction of the time or the place of a scene? More than just good storytelling, the art of setting the correct scene is most often the product of extensive research by the author as well as excellent writing. Research is especially important when writing works of historical fiction, about times and places far removed from the world of the author. And while the author’s end product is ultimately one of fiction, the historical elements must ring true.
What happens when they don’t? Recently, I picked up a piece of historical fiction that the author had set in a location about ten miles from where I live. The location’s proximity was one of the main reasons I wanted to read the book, in addition to a recommendation from a friend. On page six, however, the author had a significant geographic error, a piece of historical description that could not exist at the place she described, in any time or age. It was simply geographically impossible. No matter how wonderful the story, no matter how real the descriptions other than that, that one piece of historical impossibility threw me out of her creation. Actually, it made me skeptical of the rest of her book. If she missed a relatively simple thing, I was unable to willingly suspend my disbelief to continue the story. Despite several efforts, I returned it to the library, unread after page six.
I don’t know whether the author just simply misread a map, or whether her research was faulty, or if she merely mixed up her words and no one caught it in the editing. But it raised the question of where do writers of historical fiction find materials to do their research? The answer oftentimes is the internet, with its almost unlimited breadth and depth of resources. Books are often another favorite source, especially works by historians and scholars of the particular field, as well as a myriad of available reference books on any given topic.
However, Archives and Special Collections, those marvelous places whose very function is to preserve and provide access to historical materials, are a potentially overlooked source of research materials, as are local history museums and historical societies. Chock full of letters, diaries, photographs, scrapbooks, newspapers, and just about any other historical materials one might ever need, most archives are untapped potential in terms of their ability to help a fiction writer research a particular place or time that they are writing about. Back in February, Judith Miller wrote a wonderful blog post over at one of my favorite blog stops, Seekerville. In this post, she offered some very helpful suggestions and tips for writers about using archives and historical societies to research their fictional writings. Her tips were spot-on in terms of what to expect and how to achieve the greatest success from your efforts, and I highly recommend anyone interested in doing historical research read her post before setting out to visit an archives or local historical society. I added a comment with some other ideas and tips, but since I was a few days late to the post, sneaking in at the very bottom, I thought I would repost my comment here as well. Here is my comment in its entirety:
Terrific advice, and spot-on! I work as an archivist, and your post was one of the most succinct “how-to’s” I’ve seen.
You’re correct that if we have a “heads-up” that you are visiting, it helps us plan for your visit, no only to pull materials that will be helpful to you (and therefore save you valuable research time) but also to block off some time to learn more about your research and writing. Trust me – if you’re excited to have found materials that will help your research, we are doubly-so that you are using our materials!
Here’s a couple of other suggestions to keep in mind, too. First, if you do find something that you would like to use, we can often provide a copy or scan and work with you to use it in the book or the cover or as part of your promotion for the book! There (most likely) will be some cost, but as much as possible, we try to keep it low. If you offer a mention or credit to the institution as part of that use, we’re even happier! Recently, for example, one author was using a nearby location as one of the settings, and we were able to provide pictures from the period being written about to help with details. Those pictures became part of the book and the promotional materials!
Second, be sure to ask if the institution would be interested in buying a copy of your book when it comes out! Sure, we’d love a free copy, but we’re also likely to have the ability to purchase it to become part of our research collections. Our facility purchases books that relate to our collection areas/topics, and we use them to help promote our collections to other researchers (and thereby promoting your use of the materials in your book) and also by using them in exhibits and such (your book + the research materials you were using, etc.). We’ve also hosted special events and book-signings as part of our public outreach programming. It’s a wonderful cross-promotional opportunity for both parties!
A pleasant conversation with an archivist or librarian in your area of interest might lead you somewhere unexpected! After all, you are both passionate about research/history and books!
Thanks again for a great post!
What are your tips and tricks for research, historical or otherwise? Are there any ideas or suggestions that have worked well in your research?
What’s the most helpful thing you have found on your research adventures?
I look forward to hearing your ideas!
[Note: This post is #1 of 26 of the April A-to-Z Challenge. Please see the button at the lower left of the page for more information.]