One of the hardest parts about writing historical fiction is the research. Getting your research down pat ensures your world is historically accurate and helps paint the world for your reader. Reading primary sources can help you get in your character’s mind as well if you are writing about a historical figure or witnesses to a historical event. Right now I’m working on a historical about a sixteenth century Hungarian countess. I put off writing the book longer than I planned to because I dreaded the research on it. Turns out, the research wasn’t as bad as I expected and I’m even looking forward to writing more historical fiction. To think people said I’d never use my history degree. Ha! I sure showed them. Now to write another dozen historicals to make the degree worth it…
So where to start your research? You’re going to want to delve into the time period and events you’re covering. Depending on your prior knowledge, you may want to start your research on the bigger details before working down to the smaller details to get a general understanding of the time before narrowing it down. I started by reading overviews about my countess and Hungary’s wars with the Turks, the fighting between Catholics and Protestants, and other issues of the time period before reading biographies about her and researching specific traditions (like weddings) and clothing of the era.
So how do you research? Thanks to the marvel that is the internet, you can go on Amazon and search for books about your time period or historical figures to buy and read. Don’t have much money to spend on research? No problem! There are other ways to research than through bought books. I approached my research the same way I always did in college for my history classes, which means the library played a vital role for me from the books it had to the online research databases. Once I got started reading for my research, I had to force myself to start writing because I got so sucked into the time period and people that I wanted to just keep researching. Notes from your research will come in handy once you start writing, so don’t forget to take some! I kept a list of characters and dates of important events among some other details.
Using Google is easy, but you’ll want to check your sources carefully. Look for sites written by academics or historians or with academic connections. Depending on what you are writing about, looking up historical sites or museums can be useful. Some castles and other places have video tours online you can watch to experience visiting the site. This is especially useful if you can’t travel to wherever you are writing about and want more details about the place and let’s face it, most of us can’t just up and travel on a whim. If there’s no pictures or video tours of the place, you can likely find pictures taken by visitors. Google images is a good starting place for getting a visual aid of the era’s fashion and buildings.
Still looking for more information or reputable sources? This is where a library card comes in handy. If you are sitting there thinking you haven’t had one since you were a kid, you should go get one. Like right now. A lot of libraries, especially major city libraries, have more than just print books and news articles. They have e-books and PDF articles now. And best of all, they have subscriptions to research databases like EBSCO and Google Scholar. The databases will give you access to more e-books, academic articles, and even primary sources. If you are looking for translations or primary documents, these academic research databases will be beyond valuable. I found that reading primary resources, including letters written by my countess, helped me get a feel for her personality and writing style. The primary resources also inspired me to include a few incidents I hadn’t originally thought to include in my book.
So if you are looking to write a historical or another book you want to do research for, get a library card!