Writers in the Storm

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March 21, 2016

5 Research Tips for Historical Fiction Writers

Susan Meissner

Every now and then I get a little jealous of the freedom that fantasy fiction novelists have to create a world and its history with such creative and even reckless abandon. Since I write historical fiction (emphasis on historical), I don’t experience the same level of artistic liberty. And while I love the genre in which I’ve chosen to work, I admit the research aspect of writing historical fiction can be ponderous; interesting and inspiring, yes, but still ponderous. The mining of old data and details to give the historical novel its context is not only time-consuming, but it often yields so much material that it’s easy to feel swamped by the amount of facts and figures you unearth.

Dictionary.com defines historical fiction as the genre of literature “comprising narratives that take place in the past and are characterized chiefly by an imaginative reconstruction of historical events and personages.” I love that bit about imaginative reconstruction because for me, that’s the perfect description. We typically don’t reinvent or rewrite history but we reconstruct its effect on humanity by creating fictional characters who experienced it.

Every writer of historical fiction has to decide how much historicity to fabricate, bend, or warp to tell their story. My personal goal is to get as much authenticity in the pages as I can, even down to the minute details. But even if you only care about getting the big stuff right, you will still need to spend a lot of hours finding out the truth of the big stuff. I have found that there are ways in this electronic age of ours to get what you need in a relatively quick fashion and be assured of its veracity.

Here are my top five tips on getting great information with less use of literary license:

1. Archived newspapers:

Many big city newspapers have digitized their old issues and you can view them online by getting an out-of-state library card. Old daily newspapers not only have the news of the day (obviously) but they also reveal what people were thinking, buying, and doing at that time in history. The social pages tell you as much as the front page, as do the advertisements and the obituaries. For the book I am writing next I need access to Philadelphia’s oldest daily newspapers. It only cost me $50 to get a non-resident card with access to them. Totally worth it.

SOSB_NEW_Final.indd2. Historical societies:

The men and women who work or volunteer at historical societies care very much about the authenticity and preservation of the past or they wouldn’t bother with it. Many societies have websites with contact information. If you begin your email of inquiry with stating who you are, what you are writing, and that getting your facts straight is important to you, you will more easily get connected to someone who can answer your questions. When I was writing Stars Over Sunset Boulevard, I needed to know how my character would get from home to the Hollywood studio where she worked using a street car in 1939. There are no more streetcars in Los Angeles. But there is a historical society dedicated to them. I got my answer within a few emails.

3. Ordinary experts:

There are often people currently living who either experienced your historical time period or they know someone who did. Sometimes they will write a memoir of their experience and they might even publish it themselves with little editorial advice. The book itself may not be written in stellar fashion but that doesn’t mean the content isn’t helpful to you. Sometimes these ordinary experts have social media pages that you can follow or they are on Facebook, not as a public figure but just as an everyday member. I have reached out to such people on Facebook who know the time period or the environment about which I am writing and have humbly asked if I might ask them about it, letting them know that, again, getting the facts straight is important to me. I rarely get turned down.

4. Wiki’s fine print:

Wikipedia is a great place to start a research project -- not because it’s completely, and 100% trustworthy but because Wiki’s best articles are always cited. It’s those citations at the bottom of the article that can provide you the most factual information in pretty quick fashion.

5. Professors and dissertations:

When I dive into a new historical event that I know nothing about, I often look for articles or other scholarly work written by graduate students or professors. Oftentimes a professor will have been quoted in an article or documentary on the very topic I am researching. Most university professors have email addresses that are listed on the school’s online faculty directory. If I approach one, I always ask if I can ask and I am very careful to express my gratitude for any help they can provide.

Sometimes you can find dissertations online, or you might have a friend or family member who is a university student or faculty member who can access dissertations and other scholarly work. You may not have time to read an entire dissertation but you can always look to the author’s primary and secondary sources. The lovely thing about scholarly work is it’s trustworthy. It may not be riveting reading, but you don’t have to worry too much about its accuracy.

What I enjoy most about writing historical fiction is what my readers say they enjoy most about it; and that is, that we learn something new about the past. History is never appreciated more than when it is threaded into the fabric of a great story. If we can agree on that then I think we owe it to our readers to give them the most factually-based work of fiction we can. They are expecting it.

It’s a lot of work to get to the nitty gritty truth, but oh, so worth it. You might even find it more interesting, compelling, and evocative than what you could have dreamed up on your own.

So, WITS readers, do you have any other historical hunting tips for us?

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About Susan

MeissnerHead2-1024x682Susan Meissner is a multi-published author, speaker and writing workshop leader with a background in community journalism. Her novels include Stars Over Sunset Boulevard and Secrets of a Charmed Life, a Goodreads Best Historical Fiction finalist for 2015. She is also RITA finalist and Christy Award winner. A California native, she attended Point Loma Nazarene University.

Susan is a pastor’s wife and a mother of four young adults. When she's not working on a novel, Susan writes small group curriculum for her San Diego church. She is also a writing workshop volunteer for Words Alive, a San Diego non-profit dedicated to helping at-risk youth foster a love for reading and writing.

Visit Susan at her website: susanmeissner.com on Twitter at @SusanMeissner or at www.facebook.com/susan.meissner.

22 comments on “5 Research Tips for Historical Fiction Writers”

  1. Good tips, Susan. I have talked with professors before, but had not considered the dissertations. I will add that resource to my thinking for next time. Another place I have gone are the living history museums. For my farm-based historical novel "Go Away Home," I visited the living history Farms in Iowa. The reenactors and interpreters had a wealth of information and I could see history in action.

  2. Great ideas. I've been lucky to find some first person accounts and letters that bring history to life. Of course, if your writing takes place in the year 900, that probably won't work. I find other excellent works of fiction set in the same time period can also be helpful, especially if they list their references.

  3. Thanks for sharing your insights. My best tip is to actually go to the site of your story (if that's possible). My WIP takes place at the Hotel del Coronado, in your neck of the woods! The Del is somewhat frozen in time, so it's mighty easy to check in...and check out the world of the past. And, I stumbled into a combination of your tips 2 and 3. I hung out at the Coronado Historical Association visitor center's reception desk. I met Jimmy and Marilyn, volunteers who were at the actual time and place of my WIP. They have been completely gracious about telling me their stories and answering my questions. They are bringing such a foundation of reality to my story.

    On another topic, how did you handle setting STARS OVER SUNSET BOULEVARD during the filming of GONE WITH THE WIND? Did you seek a licensing agreement with MGM or whatever company now owns it? Or, did you handle the film/filming more as a backdrop and less of a prominent subject?

    1. Love the Hotel Del! It's a great setting for a story. I visited the Culver Studios, formerly Selznick International, but so much as changed in the last 75 years. It's not the same studio as it was in 1938/39. Still, I had a great time there, was able to walk the lots, poke my head into the sound stages that were around back then (like the sound stage where all the interior shots of Tara were filmed). And yes, I used the setting of the film not the film itself as my canvas. Much luck to you on your Hotel Del book!!

  4. I enjoyed this blog, as I'm interested in learning more about writing historical fiction. I've done a lot of research, but I'm sure I've only scratched the surface. Any thoughts, besides my local university's library, for digging into the past in another country. My story takes place in Peru in 1897.

    1. Definitely scour the book outlets for books about Peru at the close of the nineteenth century. Look also for memoirs and biographies of notable Peruvians for that time period. I would also look at Peruvian universities and see which ones might have a history department that might provide resource material or point you in the right direction...

  5. This is great advice, Susan, and very timely for me, since I'm just venturing out on the historical fiction limb...thank you!

  6. Susan, thank you so much for posting here with us at WITS. This is a great resource whether you write historical fiction or not. I just updated your formatting and such a bit and the post looks so sparkly. 🙂

  7. I really do not want to sound lazy or anything, and I don't know if anyone has alluded to my avenue but I'm presently writing a thriller about the NYPD in the 1940s. Since its the time of WWII there is a large amount of detail to cover. Along with my reading, I found a ready resource when I'm tired of the books on Netflix. Amazingly it has an enormous amount of documentaries, even some you can purchase. A quick and ready source of information that I found helped me over many rough spots because you not only have audible data, but also visual. Much success to everyone writing Historical fiction.

  8. Susan, this is some really good information about historical fiction books. I like that you talked about how it would be smart to seek out living experts. It might also be smart to read a lot of historical fiction and see how others have done their research and how they used it in the books.

  9. Some solid suggestions here, Susan, thank you. Newspapers of the era are essential, for all of the reasons you named, and especially for the ads (since I want to know what products people used and what they cost)! I'm a fan of researching via WorldCat.org for books, journals and papers; and our major universities often grant access to their library collections with a "Share" card program. I find that oral histories (like those in the Library of Congress or on StoryCorps) and used books from the era I'm researching (at AbeBooks.com) help with lingo and language. These days, most US towns have a local historian publishing in the Images of America book series, also helpful thanks to the visuals. There's a wealth of old films on YouTube and other old film sites as well.

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