R: Research Round-Up
Researching for historical fiction is such a huge subject that it’s impossible to cover in only one post, as evidenced by the countless hours many of us have spent down the rabbit holes chasing elusive details and facts.
Here are five sites that talk about researching historical fiction. Okay – four sites about historical fiction and one site that discusses researching vintage and antique signature quilts. There’s a wealth of information in these five sites – along with more great links to follow and read.
See you down the rabbit hole!
- Study old pictures.
Evocative historical writing is made up of more than facts and figures. By examining old pictures—either paintings or photographs—you can glean impressions that inspire your imagination and details that populate your descriptions. Many digital archives are now coming online, making this aspect of historical research easier than every before. I relied on the New York Public Library’s Old New York collection, where you can see a photograph of the Hebrew Orphan Asylum. I also used the Beck Archives Photograph Collection at the University of Denver, where I saw a photograph that informed my description of heliotherapy (a real treatment for tuberculosis) and inspired my fictional Hospital for Consumptive Hebrews. The photograph below of a dormitory at the Hebrew Orphan Asylum was crucial for the setting of several important scenes in the novel.
My first two purchased antique Signature quilts took place in 2000. The Navy-related one was found at a large antique show in Chantilly, VA in January. The New York Album-style quilt was found at the Howard County Maryland Fairgrounds Antique Show late March 2000. I was so excited I quickly transcribed the 42 signatures and started googling. Genealogy-focused websites are also a great place to start.
My first guess for dating this quilt (based on the fabrics in the quilt) was that it may have been made somewhere between 1860 and 1875. One of two things could help me prove this: genealogical research or finding a quilt with a stitched or written date on it that included some of the same fabrics.
One way to examine fiction, either as writer or reader, is to consider seven critical elements: character, dialogue, setting, theme, plot, conflict, and world building. Every story succeeds or disappoints on the basis of these elements; however, historical fiction has the added challenge of bringing the past to life within each element.
Research is key. What are readers looking for? Where do you start? Below is an explanation of the seven elements of research in the context of historical fiction followed by a series of tips on researching material for your historical novel.
As all fiction writers understand, the success of any story or novel depends not only on the writer’s ease with technique, with the elements of plot and character and dialogue, but also on the sense of authority one conveys. And mastering the content is just as essential as mastering the craft. So just as writers of contemporary (or more autobiographically inflected) novels and stories need to “know” their characters, settings, and subjects, historical fictionists must “know” whereof they write.
- Be as specific as you can when researching.
When you’ve chosen your time period, or when your time period has chosen you (as it occasionally happens), then it’s time to narrow your topic to a workable size. This is particularly true if you’re dealing with a vast subject, like the American Civil War, for example. To research the entire war would be too huge of a project, that is unless you’re Shelby Foote and willing to dedicate 20 years of your life to the task. There is simply too much material to shift through. If you can narrow your focus to something like a single event, a single year, or a single battle then the research will be far more workable and not as burdensome.
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