“Your challenge will be especially hard,” cautioned my creative writing professor, “because you are writing historical fiction. You are writing a time, place, and culture you’re unfamiliar with.”
Don’t we all write about that, to an extent, regardless of genre? Sort of. But in some cases, we’re allowed to simply make up the rules as we go. When writing about real places and real faces, authenticity is essential for true immersion. You want your reader eagerly devouring page after page of your novel, not pausing and scratching their head at some reference that’s completely contrary to the time period. Or when a character completely immersed in this specific culture acts like they themselves are from another time and place.
In my days of independent writing for preexisting series (yes, I’ll say it, fanfiction), I loved using narratives as a teaching tool. Every sentence was an opportunity to move readers temporally, educate them seamlessly while (hopefully) entertaining them. That is what the genre of historical fiction as a whole has the potential to do. That is what many books can do, regardless of time, when set within a particular culture. But the content must be true to the time and place no matter what.
That’s why quality research is integral to the writing process. In fact, half your time may be spent researching, pouring over books, rifling through site after site, diving into countless testimonials for one specific detail. And that detail may get all of one single line of text in a 300-page novel. But that’s what we must do so every word belongs.
So, how do you best go about this invaluable practice of researching for your novel? This guide shares some of my own journey, which in turn was shaped by advice from established authors who had to do their own share of investigating for a literary cause. Additionally, I included some pointers based on courses I’ve taken that outline where to look, how, and even why. I hope you can gain something from this and if you have further details to add, please feel more than welcome to share them!
Getting Started: Wikipedia Can Be Your Friend!
School teachers understandably grimace and brace themselves when the topic of Wikipedia comes up. Many also show their students how easily pages on there can be changed to give them completely wrong information. In the quest to learn the truth, there can be no greater danger.
However, Wikipedia does provide some very useful things that make it a worthy place to go when just starting out. It offers:
- A general overview of the information you seek
- Dates, relevant parties, chronology
- More key points and words/phrases to look into
- Feeds into broader context, which adds necessary depth
- Sources (the good details will, anyway)
- New places to look that offer valuable insights of their own
So, if you’re going to compile a bibliography, you won’t necessarily be including Wikipedia, 20xx. But it will give you an important overview with new areas of interest that, ideally, have reliable sources cited in the body of the article and at the bottom of the page. Those sources, in turn, can vary and are worth considering.
What to ask your sources
Whether primary, secondary, or something else entirely, sources require some consideration. To an extent, all have some form of value; you just need to make sure their particular value matches your goals. All sources will have some degree of bias to it and that has its own benefits and hurdles, such as:
- Pros: Insight into that person’s mindset, the views of others like them, cultural context, educational opportunity
- Cons: Might be skewed, unreliable, trying to achieve its own goal/paint its own picture inconsistent with the objective truth
With any type of research, one important phrase to keep chanting through your head will always be: trust but verify. It is actually an old proverb that saw immense popularity after Russian cultural scholar Suzanne Massie taught it to then-President Reagan. As advice outside geopolitics, it’s a way of life among journalists, which is what you’ve become in a way as you research for your novel. Take in whatever you learn from a particular source, but be ready to follow-up.
In an age where any sort of information can be put out anywhere, it’s easy to think this cycle of research, doubt, repeat can go on forever. But a mix of common sense, pragmatism, and curiosity can make this not be the case. Book research doesn’t have to be daunting. You’re simply doing your homework and making sure you’re creating an authentic picture. Your goal for fact-gathering is accuracy, yes, but you also want to craft a good story and good stories have scenes described using all five senses: sight, smell, touch, hearing, and taste. Put yourself in that time to get all the right ones in each scene.
So, what sources can you consult?
Things to consider:
- Unreliable narrator
- Intentional due to bias or some goal
- Unintentional; what we see isn’t always true, we simply perceive. Maybe what you read is what they think happened
- Contextual and cultural insight
- Consider the source’s own background (economic and social status, ethnic and racial identity, occupation, age, etc)
Again, even with a bias, primary sources can be valuable for giving us a look into the source’s world. How does someone in that position think?
At first glance, secondary sources seem the ideal way to stay free of bias. They are separate from the whole original events, after all, right?
Usually, ideal reports on a topic keep the language plain. Didactic. Free of adjectives that skew any which way. (Though, a new school of thought calls for a little more from such reports, stating that it’s important to call something what it is each time.)
But those too are written by people with their own thoughts, perspectives, backgrounds, and even elements that would affect how they perceive primary testimonies. So, there are still things to be mindful of when considering secondary sources, namely:
- How did the author get this information?
- Do they cite their own sources?
- How much detail does it provide? Are the facts balanced and full?
- Does it reference just one side? Not as a question of, “Oh, was X justified or in the right?” But simply to paint a full picture. For research when writing, the more the merrier
- What is the temporal context surrounding the secondary source?
- Values and norms change over the years
Valuable pieces worth using
From my own experience, there are some pieces of insight that really hit differently. Written words provide something you can easily reference back to, lift quotes from (cited properly), highlight, memorize, and so forth. But humans have other ways of recording their lives. In my case, I conducted a lot of historical and cultural research for 588, a tale of one young woman coming into her own as she joins the Night Witches, Russia’s surprise heroines of the skies during WWII. I ended up consulting different sources of information that all had incredible value, such as:
- Vast collections of quick knowledge to learn and incorporate
- An even deeper dive into events, along with firsthand testimonials
- A bit of a taste of what life as a Night Witch looks like in written form
- All-encompassing, even making note of the scent of oil that clung to runways/air fields
- Visuals right before my eyes
- A true look at the speed, logistics, mechanics, and procedures of everything
- Other people’s perception of this new group
My creative writing professor gave me invaluable advice regarding sources to consult. He instructed me (not suggested, told me) to consult other novels written by Russian authors about World War II and, ideally, by authors that lived during that time. But, overall, reading works by Russian authors about the Great Patriotic War would give my own work a crucial cultural flavor that would otherwise make 588 just another outsider’s book about something she knows little of.
Putting it all together
So, you’ve looked through Wikipedia for a starting place, learned more keywords related to your area of interest, consulted THOSE recommended resources, and compiled some more sources of your own in the form of books, videos, and more. What do you do with all this new content bouncing around in your head now, before it has time to make it into your novel?
For me, I had a separate document for all the relevant facts I knew I would need. I made a mix of bullet points and full quotes from the sources, and was careful to include links (when applicable) below so I would never be left wondering, “Wait, where did I get that?”
(Unfortunately, I learned to do that from experience; there’s one blurb I’d love to be able to back up with a source, but because I did not save the link, it eludes me to this day.)
For the sake of your own sanity, I highly recommend organizing them some way. You can do that by:
- Something else
It comes down to your own story and what you’ll need as you write. All of these sources, their wisdom, the things you consider, and how you compile them go towards allowing your novel to tell a full story with all the senses that also creates an immersive experience complete with accuracy.
Be on the lookout for another post exploring the ways to research and write for journalism.
Do you have additional tips for researching for a novel? Share them in the comments!