Betty Thomason Owens
Research: discover facts by investigation for use in (a book, program, etc.).
Historical writers all have to do it. For some it’s an art; an occupation in which they excel. For others, it’s a necessary evil; a dreaded chore. Get it done so I can get on with the fun part––the story. But for historical writers, there’ll be no story without research.
Historical settings require research. Some writers start the story and when their writing raises questions, they research it. Others like to get the details up front. I jot down the main thrust of my story, then follow that with a few questions (who, what, when, where questions) then research. As I write, new questions arise. I jot them down so I don’t interrupt my progress with research. I can always go back and fill in during my subsequent rewrites and read-throughs.
When I started my first historical, I didn’t own a computer. I worked on a typewriter. I realized the need for research and background, so got in the car and headed to the nearest library. I checked out a stack of books and took them home where I perused their contents for several days, taking copious notes. I returned those books and checked out another stack. In this way, I built a good, solid foundation of facts for my story. I didn’t use them all. I wasn’t writing a history book, I was telling a story with props, like butter churns, spinning wheels, and quilting frames.
What works for me:
I decide on the era and jot down the main idea for the story. While I’m at it, I jot down any questions that pop into my head. What appliances were in their kitchens? What automobiles were popular? Who were the world leaders and what issues were on the minds of the individuals?
Hit the internet and answer the main questions. Here are a few of my favorite pieces of background information:
3. Current events
6. Popular brands
In the mouth of two or three witnesses.
Most everything you need has been researched and documented on the internet. But you can’t trust everyone. I go to History.com first, because I trust that website. Other sources: Youtube (for the near past like the ‘fifties, ‘sixties, etc., surprising what you can find), Wikipedia - take care here - Wiki is not always right but they do often have helpful pictures. For instance, when I Google “1950s” I get a lot of information, including the above sites and About.com, and various articles from around the world, all regarding that era. I read through the information and jot down the essentials to form my ideas for the background, or to check the facts. These days, you have to be your own fact checker, so you need to get it right.
And remember, there’s nothing like a book, especially one with pictures. I go to my favorite bookstore, sit in the coffee shop, and thumb through history books and magazines. I jot down the names of kitchen gadgets, farm machinery, clothing brands, anything I think might be significant. Then I go home and Google specifics and download pictures to a file. These pictures spur my imagination and give my story depth and interest.
Setting. In my current work-in-progress, my setting is an actual location. I went on the internet and googled that town. They had a website and it contained a wealth of history and other information I could use. I studied the street map so I can refer to directions and roads and highways. Just take care you don’t mention a factory or a place or even a bridge that didn’t exist during your era. When in doubt, leave it out.
Play the music from the era while you write. It really helps. And it’s not always what was popular during that particular era. When I was growing up in the ‘fifties and ‘sixties, I often heard Big Band Music, because that’s what my mother liked. My dad listened to a little bit of everything. He liked Country Music, Rock and Roll, R & B. So my childhood was filled with all those sounds. My characters might be hearing and/or singing songs while they work, drive, or gather in the neighborhood hangout. What songs were being sung in their church services?
Try living in the era you’re writing. I don’t do this, but others do. They listen to the music, eat the food, wear the clothes, use the washboard––really. This is how they get into their character’s head. I don’t go that far, but I do try to imagine what it must’ve been like. That’s enough for me. I’m too fond of all my amenities, thank you very much. Which brings me to the last and perhaps the best research tip.
Go there. If you can, visit your setting or find something similar. If you’re writing a civil war era novel, visit a plantation. If you’re strapped for cash, keep your locale local. I’m fortunate to live in Kentucky. We have so much history on display in this state, I could research for the rest of my life and not run out. But if you really can’t go there, Google it. I read that some travel writers have never visited the places they write about. They were just really good at research.
I hope you’ve found some of this information helpful. For the historical writer, research is an important step you should not skip, even if you’re writing from memory. Sometimes we remember wrong.
Your comments and suggestions and questions are welcome.
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Betty Thomason Owens, writes historical fiction and fantasy-adventure/fiction. She's a member of American Christian Fiction Writers (ACFW) and Bluegrass Christian Writers, a co-writer at www.writingpromptsthoughtsideas.wordpress.com, and two critique loops (ACFW). She blogs weekly at www.bettythomasonowens.com and promotes the works of others wherever and whenever she can.
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