Writers often need research to uncover the specific answer to a specific question. When was the battle of Waterloo? (June 18, 1815) About what time did the word "sexy" come into the language? (around 1925) Who was King of England in 1800? (George III) Writing a convincing historical novel requires-- and this should come as no surprise --a great deal of knowledge about one's chosen period. Happily, it's been quite a long time since I read any historical romance that contained a major error of history. That's because authors hold themselves to a high standard of accuracy. Most of the "errors" are of the sort that make me feel as if, regardless of factual accuracy, the author dressed modern people in old-fashioned clothes and plunked them into the historical setting.
Characters in historical novels need to fit their time, and that means the writer needs more than dates and figures at hand. The characters should feel, speak, act and react in ways that are true to the time period as well as true to themselves. They need to be more than just a composite (can you say stereotype?) of what we think people were like back then. It isn't enough to throw in a "Tis" or end a statement with an appended question. "He's a fine looking fellow, is he not?" Not all women were subservient doormats, not all men were domineering misogynists. But, by the same token, male authority was the norm, and women did not have equality in the eyes of the law. We historical writers must take this into account in our characters. More to the point; a character who transgresses social and cultural norms will pay a price. Thus, a woman who flouted the authority of the men with control over her life would, one way or another, pay a price. Writers who fail to account for that end up with a story that feels false.
So, the historical author needs more than facts and dates. She needs details and a sense of time, place and culture. Easy enough to say. How do you get all that? Read on.
I have the habit, when looking up a word in the dictionary, of getting distracted. (This is not at all uncommon among readers and writers.) I might read entries for ten or twelve other words before I get around to the one I meant to look up in the first place. I have, in this way, come across many fine and interesting words. It's possible and profitable to do research in exactly the same way. In fact, it's possible to find valuable information without actually having a question in need of an answer. Not only do I often learn something I didn't know and was intensely wondering about, over time, the details I absorb often end up in my stories. The tips suggested here are not geared toward finding a specific answer to a specific question. Like that trip through the dictionary, this is research that meanders. Eventually, you'll find yourself connecting this randomly acquired information in ways that make your stories authentic.
Reading contemporary writers is one way to get a feel for the past. Authors who, like me, write in the Regency era of England are fortunate indeed that Jane Austen is a contemporary author. From her novels you can develop a sense of life in the period. Diaries, too, are helpful. There's poetry, of course, and an array of other authors to read in order to round out one's sense of time. Reading in a specific time period (both fiction and non-fiction, by the way) is an excellent method of absorbing the past.
A recent project for my graduate school work had me searching through the Times between the years 1790 and about 1825. I did locate a good deal of the material I was looking for. But, as happens to me with a dictionary, I read off-point in my research. (Newspaper Archives.com is a website worth checking out, but beware, once you've found a page to peruse, it's not free.) In preparing to write what follows, I pulled up one of those pages and began a random scan of a page from February 25, 1802. I found this: "We have received various applications respecting the continued high rate of Hackney Coaches, whole fares ought certainty to be now reduced. At present, they are not only exorbitantly high, but constantly a subject of dispute between the Coachman and his fare, from the prices being so little understood."
Skipping to January 17, 1809, I found this in an advertisement for King's Theatre: "The splendid artificial Fire-work, Mr. Hengler on the Tight Rope, and other Performances, having been received with unbounded applause, will be repeated every Evening this week; after which the Rope Performance will be withdrawn."
July 22, 1813: "Hume v. Weir. This action was brought to recover back 50l. the price of a horse sold by defendant to plaintiff, and warranted sound; it being alleged by plaintiff that, at the time of the sale, the horse was a roarer. . . a horse who is a roarer is not as capable of doing his work as if he had not such a complaint. [Roaring is] a complaint of the windpipes, and sometimes affected the lungs. . . if a roarer was worked in the hot sun, he would succumb. . ."
From these three items, I can tuck away knowledge that flavors my fiction writing, not the least of which is the language. Some of the sentence structures are usual to the modern ear and quite distinctive. Perhaps one day I'll have a heroine caught short on fare, and arguing with the coachman. Or perhaps a hero who refuses to buy a horse because he suspects it's a roarer. Or perhaps I'll insert tightrope walking into a conversation about entertainment to be had.
Used book stores are a great resource. If you're lucky enough to have a good one near you, try to make a physical visit every now and then just to see what's there. You never know what you may find. It's difficult to browse online bookstores in the same way you can browse physical aisles of books, so do both.
Wandering around a good antique store can teach you a lot about furniture (and other items). An honest-to-goodness antique looks, feels and smells different from a reproduction. If you visit enough antique stores, you'll learn to spot the difference. When you see something that interests you, find the proprietor and say, "What can you tell me about this piece?" If the owner knows anything at all about his business, he will have an answer and be more than happy to tell you, too. Don't limit yourself to the big stuff either, there are lots of neat gizmos of historical interest. If you don't ask, you'll never know.
Research for someone without full access to a university or college library is significantly harder and potentially more expensive. If you have such access, use it for all it's worth while you can. Even if you're not a student or a professor you can use at least some academic resources. If you're near them, take advantage. Most libraries have online catalogues, and there's inter-library loan.
The internet, as we all know, has a good deal of information, but for heaven's sake don't limit your research to online material. You're really doing yourself a disservice if you do. The mere existence of a web page (or a book, for that matter) alleging a fact doesn't make it true. Use as many sources as you can and try to confirm your findings from another source, but most of all, whenever you're researching, don't be afraid to meander.
My website at http://www.carolynjewel.com has a section on research with lists of books I've found valuable as well as links to helpful websites. I also have section on contemporary material from magazines, newspapers and other sources.
Last Updated: 1.31.2004