After writing an opinion piece on integrating figures into works of historical fiction (TL;DR | It’s totally fine to bring real people from the past into your stories, so long as it is done with a level of respect and does not twist the facts so much it warps them into a completely different person), I thought the next step would be to provide a few of my tips for researching.
As a historical fiction writer, I do a LOT of research while I’m working on a project. If you follow me on Twitter, you might know I have been buried in research about barley and rye growth in the Regency Era as I’m working through the first draft of Against His Vows. In addition to that, I’m also double-checking things relating to Guises to Keep as I’m editing it, just to make sure I have everything right. While finding the facts can be challenging, it’s oftentimes fun.
Note | These tips do not apply to just historical fiction. It’s important to research any topic you are not familiar with, whether it be antique lace or lasers. Getting the details right helps create a vast and immersive world.
Kinds of Sources
Let’s start with the basics. Every form of research falls into one of three categories.
Primary Sources come from the source itself, and are what other research items are based on. These are the most reliable. In the case of historical research, the journal or diary of a person who witnessed a significant event or even just lived a day-to-day ordinary life in that time period provide first-hand accounts.
Examples of Primary Sources
Diaries or Journals
Letters or other Correspondance
Portraits or Photographs
Original Research such as Scientific Studies
If you were to write an essay on a historical event such as The June Rebellion in France and found an article quoting a diary entry, the article would be a secondary source, as it is quoting the diary entry which is a firsthand account and primary source.
Secondary sources interpret and analyze primary sources. These can be helpful in explaining primary sources and providing a level of further insight. For example, an author might reference a letter and in a footnote explaining the context of some remark within the period, or how certain political changes at that time made a former custom obsolete today. However, be advised that interpretation is not always fact but opinion.
Examples of Secondary Sources
Book or Film Reviews
Tertiary sources compile primary sources and secondary sources. These can act as launchpads when you are in need of direction for research or are not sure where you should be looking.
Examples of Tertiary Sources
Even with these examples, it can be difficult to figure out where to start or how to go about your research. Of course, every writer’s methods are different and can take time to develop, and can even change from one project to the next depending on what kind of research is needed.
Where to Start?
In the early stages of the research process, it can be a little overwhelming ~ especially if you are highly unfamiliar with the subject matter.
Whenever we started a new unit in elementary school, our teachers would have us fill out a KWL chart, sometimes individually or sometimes as a group on a giant sheet of paper at the front of the classroom.
KWL stands for Know-Want to Know-Learned
The chart was divided into three columns.
KNOW ~ This is where we listed what we already knew about the topic (Penguins cannot fly.)
WANT TO KNOW ~ As the name suggests, the second column was reserved for what we wanted to learn about the topic (Why can’t Penguins fly?)
LEARNED ~ This section was left blank until we finished the unit, and then we filled it in with everything we learned, often based on everything in the W column (Penguins cannot fly because they evolved to adapt to their environment and likely had no predators long ago, according to Wonderopolis.org).
Even though I don’t actually make the chart in the same way, the KWL method is still one I like to apply to my research as a novelist. Most times, I know what my focus is based on the plot I have in mind. Once I’ve listed everything I know about the focal point, I like to jot down any questions I have when I start out as well as any that pop up while I’m working.
For Bound to the Heart, which revolved around bookbinding and printing presses, some of the questions included:
How does a printing press work?
What kinds of fabric would have been used for a book cover in the 1800s?
How were endpapers marbled? What other patterns were common?
What tools would have been used in bookbinding?
How was ink made?
The KWL chart helps with brainstorming what you need to be looking to find out your research, along with the things you may not have realized you needed to look into.
Organization is Everything
While researching, I like to keep my information organized as I’m going through it.
Below is a screenshot from my web browser. I have a bookmarks folder dedicated to all of my writing and research-related links, which is broken up into subcategories like proverbs used in different cultures, what flowers were popular for gardening in the Regency Era, and specific locations my characters find themselves like St George’s Hanover Square Church in London.
Whenever I start researching a new subject, I make a new folder for it. This keeps me from losing any links in the ever-growing list of resources I have gathered over time.
I might also print out the text from a webpage that is particularly informative and highlight the most important sections and jot down any thoughts I might have for later, like something I might want to look more into later or if something gives me an idea for a scene I can add.
With books, I like to keep a stack of Post-It flags at hand. Typically, I’ll stick one in the margins of the text next to the line I’m marking. It might be helpful to have these be color-coordinated, like green flags for anything having to do with planting crops and orange for harvesting, but I personally don’t worry too much about that. It does work for some people, though.
In both cases, I make sure to have a notebook with me. This allows me to take notes and phrase things in a way that makes sense to me, create charts for anything having to do with numbers such as profits for various grains in different years, and even draw diagrams as needed, and it gives me a space to work through ideas for different scenes that may have been inspired by the research I have done or changes I need to make to what I have already written. Notetaking in this way also makes it a little easier to review the information I have gathered because I don’t have to wade through large amounts of text to find what I need.
Which Sources Are Credible?
Once you’ve found the information you’re looking for, a wise next step is to make sure what you are reading is from a credible source. You know what they say about the internet: if you’re reading it on the internet, it must be true.
There’s a reason this phrase is said wryly.
When you’re doing something as important as researching for a book, you want to make sure what you are finding in terms of information is accurate ~ or, at the very least, understand why it is being said in the case of a topic that is heavily debated.
When you check out a resource, consider the following:
Author ~ Who wrote the article? Is this individual knowledgeable on the subject, whether it be through an education background like a doctor discussing the physical side effects of a treatment for cancer in a trusted medical journal or through personal experiences like the husband of a woman undergoing that treatment who is chronicling the experience on a blog? Or is it the website of a company that produces a competing medication intent on highlighting the flaws of the treatment in question? Think about looking for information about your subject like shopping for an appliance like a dishwasher or a refrigerator. Are you more likely to ask a random person on the street what they recommend you purchase or take the advice of an employee at the store where you plan to buy the appliance? With your research, take the time to consider whose work you are viewing when exploring a website.
Date ~ When was the article published? Depending on the topic, it can be a good idea to see when a text was published. Something that was accurate five years ago may have since been disproven or made obsolete. New developments may have been made or new information may have been uncovered. Some authors make note of this if they publish an updated version of their article or will edit it to inform readers of any changes that have taken place. Again, the date can be more influential in some areas than others, but this may also be useful in observing how views on the topic you are researching have changed between the date of publication and today.
Domain – How is this information being published online? Looking at the domain can be a good indication of the resource’s credibility. Some domains like .com, .org, and .net are able to be purchased and used by any person or organization, whereas .edu is specifically for academia like college or universities and .gov is used for websites run by government organizations. The latter two are typically more credible. .org websites are commonly used by non-profit organizations, meaning their articles might be more persuasive than informative.
There are a number of other factors to be considered when making sure a resource is credible, like the overall appearance of the website or trying to find out how anyone else has used it in their own research endeavors.
I try to operate on a Rule of Three, especially when it comes to the big stuff. If I can find the same piece of information in at least three different resources, I consider it credible. This mostly applies to Secondary Resources and online resources, as they can be more susceptible to opinions and interpretations.
The Dangers of Wikipedia…and its Unexpected Usefulness
Thinking back to when I was in school, it was common for teachers to advise against Wikipedia as a resource. And by advise, I mean ban it in classroom use altogether in some instances.
This mostly came out of the knowledge that Wikipedia can be edited or changed by absolutely anyone, regardless of how knowledgeable they are on the subject in question. Granted, there is a team dedicated to making sure the information provided is accurate, but slip-ups can happen and fibs and errors can sneak in from time to time, as was the case with the so-called “Brazillian Aardvark.”
I consider Wikipedia to be more of a launching point for research.
Take this page about rye, for example.
You may notice several of the sentences have little numbers attached to them, sort of like exponents in an algebraic equation. This is where Wikipedia is at its most helpful. If you hover over those numbers, they bring up links to references where that information was found.
Following the link brings you to the very bottom of the Wikipedia page, which acts as a bibliography with sources listed in order of appearance.
The link brings us to a Google Books link for Domestication of Plants in the Old World; The Origin and Spread of Domesticated Plants in Southwest Asia, Europe, and the Mediterranean Basin by Daniel Zohary, Maria Hopf, and Ehud Weiss.
From there, depending on the text, it is possible to read further. Some may only allow access to a selection of pages, though, as a result of copyrights.
I have purchased books I came across through Wikipedia links a couple of times if I find them particularly helpful.
Remember, it is highly difficult if not impossible to find information on absolutely everything out there. Depending on how obscure your subject matter is, search results might be limited ~ and that’s okay. As I said in the article that inspired this one, taking the research you are able to find and using it to make an educated about the subject is far better than making a blind assumption.
And, sometimes, you might find out something after the fact. As I’ve been editing Guises to Keep, I’ve been going back and adjusting things based on information I have come across since finishing the first draft. I’m currently in the process of redesigning the manor house featured in it because of this.
We’ve all heard about mishaps that have happened in written works of fiction or film. Even though they are unintentional mistakes, to err is human. There is always going to be someone out there in the world who knows more about the subject than you do. That’s the whole reason you have to research.
As with anything on the internet, double-check your findings to make sure what you have read is accurate.