Author Topic: Researching for historical novels  (Read 1437 times)

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katiescarlett

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Researching for historical novels
« on: January 09, 2013, 01:27:43 PM »
I am kicking around an idea for a novel that is partly historical.  As I have never written a historical novel before (and again, it is only partly, alot of it is set in present day) I am a novice at the research.

Any advice on where to get started, from those of you who have written historical before?

Thanks.

Lynn2000

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Re: Researching for historical novels
« Reply #1 on: January 09, 2013, 01:38:03 PM »
I usually start with Wikipedia. I think it's a great way to get a broad spectrum of information quickly, and it can help you to figure out what more specific questions you want to ask. Sometimes the biggest problem I have is that I just don't know what something is called, so I can't search for it effectively. Plus, Wikipedia articles usually have some links at the bottom to get you started on more in-depth sources.
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m2kbug

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Re: Researching for historical novels
« Reply #2 on: January 09, 2013, 02:01:07 PM »
Just start with key words on the internet.  I agree that Wiki is a good place to start.  You probably already know not to rely on Wiki as being 100% reliable, but can offer citations and information to give direction and get started.  Anything from any website will work as a base.  There's the library.  Here, if you need more intensive historical information you need to go to the downtown library or the university library where they have periodicals stored on microfiche or old, historical books.

Venus193

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Re: Researching for historical novels
« Reply #3 on: January 09, 2013, 02:23:57 PM »
There are books for writers on this subject.  If you're doing 19th Century England, there is



Another good source are authors of the period and place you want to write about.  Emile Zola and Honore de Balzac were infamous for their detail on the cost of apartment rent, food prices, the cost of a visit to a house of ill repute.... Casanova's memoires are full of such details about different European countries during the 18th century.

Talley

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Re: Researching for historical novels
« Reply #4 on: January 09, 2013, 03:26:17 PM »
I write historical fiction (nothing published, though - yet), although it might be a little different for me since I write about an era that I have been studying for, ugh, 20 years or so, on and off.

I agree with PPs, the internet is great for research. If you have a specific historical event that plays a part in your story, do an internet search to get you started. One search will inevitably lead to another, and another... ;) Wiki is ok to start, but don't rely on it - look for something more specific. If you can, find at least one good reference book for the time period. Also look into novels that were written at the time you are covering (this only applies to more modern times, of course) to get a feel for the mindset and language of the people at the time. It's important not to just get dates right but to get a good idea of what life was like at the time.


Slartibartfast

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Re: Researching for historical novels
« Reply #5 on: January 09, 2013, 03:33:11 PM »
What time period/place are you writing about?  That will determine the best way to go about researching.  In general, though, I suggest starting by reading books set in that time period and watching a few movies set there - you get an idea of what to expect, what types of things are different than we have today, etc.

(I'm writing a steampunk romance set in 1870 right now, so I'm in the middle of a ton of research too!  Anyone been to the botanical gardens in Manchester, UK and want to PM me?  :P)

audrey1962

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Re: Researching for historical novels
« Reply #6 on: January 09, 2013, 03:40:27 PM »
And don't forget about libraries and archives.

anniehawks

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Re: Researching for historical novels
« Reply #7 on: January 09, 2013, 03:42:48 PM »
A great place for finding history books for your research is archive.org.  They have an enormous collection of books that are free to read online or download to your Kindle, Nook, etc.

doodlemor

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Re: Researching for historical novels
« Reply #8 on: January 09, 2013, 08:48:52 PM »
When I was teaching I found that going back to primary sources of history was the most interesting for the children, and for me too. 

Primary sources of history means original eyewitness accounts - letters, journals, and so forth. 

I found that the easiest way to find great materials was to check the bibliography at the back of a history themed book.  I would order some of the interesting looking sources from that book through library interloan, and keep the chain going if the interloan books had bibliographies. 

To read the exact words of our ancestors was and is still fascinating to me.  An eyewitness account of just about anything has a mesmerizing effect. 

One day some furnace repairmen came to my room when my class had gone to gym.  There were multiple copies laying around of a book about a young man who had been a rider on the orphan train, because the children had had to leave during an activity group time.  This was a true story, with photos on the cover. 

After the men fixed the heater they came over to me with multiple questions about the book - just from the cover.   These two adults literally did not want to leave my classroom until they knew what had happened to the young man in the book.

If you want to write accurately about an historical period, try reading some original sources from that time.  You may change your mind about the subject matter after you read about various periods, but I bet that you will find the materials interesting.

katiescarlett

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Re: Researching for historical novels
« Reply #9 on: January 09, 2013, 09:00:01 PM »
It is set in Tudor England.  I want it to focus on the sweating sickness, which I find fascinating.  I am still working out a plot. 

I had thought about somehow tying it in with present day, maybe have two stories running simultaneously, and have the sweat reemerge in an epidemic in the present.  But, I am not sure if that is the way to go.  The link between the past and the present was going to be that my main character in the present time was descended from the character in Henry's England.

My main problem with this plot is that since there is no known cause for the sweat, I haven't figured out how I would bring it back.  Any thoughts on this?
« Last Edit: January 09, 2013, 10:16:27 PM by katiescarlett »

Winterlight

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Re: Researching for historical novels
« Reply #10 on: January 09, 2013, 09:40:52 PM »
If you're in a university town, contact their main library and see if you can talk to the history subject specialist.

If wisdom’s ways you wisely seek,
Five things observe with care,
To whom you speak,
Of whom you speak,
And how, and when, and where.
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doodlemor

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Re: Researching for historical novels
« Reply #11 on: January 10, 2013, 01:14:55 AM »
Wow!  That sounds wonderfully interesting, katiescarlett. 

I just looked up the sweating sickness.  Yuck.  We forget how fortunate we are to live in this age.

Years ago I read a novel by Anya Seton called Green Darkness.  This has a Tudor and a modern storyline intertwined.  You might like to look at it.  Here is the Wikipedia information, but I don't think that it is a good description.  However, it has been awhile since I read the thing.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Green_Darkness

Here is a link to a fascinating book about old time customs and homes in the UK.  I think that the author may have written another similar book or two.  You would find many authentic details in this about the way that people actually lived in days gone by.

http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0802779956/ref=oh_details_o09_s01_i00

Best of luck on this endeavor.  Let us know how you are progressing.  I would really like to read this when you are done.

katiescarlett

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Re: Researching for historical novels
« Reply #12 on: January 10, 2013, 01:53:51 AM »
Thanks everyone!

Doodlemor, I am glad you like the idea I had.  It sounds better in my head (to me anyway) than when I was typing it out here, at least before I edited my post.  I was afraid it might sound stupid and only make sense to me!

I do live in a university town, and am in fact an English major at the university and we start classes back on Monday.  Whenever I have spare time this semester (which granted will be hardly ever, school is so much busier in your 30s!) I will do some research in the library.  Today I found a very interesting article from a journal on my university's library website. 

I think this little project of mine is going to be extremely fun.  Maybe I will have the research done in time for campnano this summer. 

doodlemor, I might just have to let you critique it as I write it.   :)

katiescarlett

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Re: Researching for historical novels
« Reply #13 on: January 10, 2013, 08:46:46 AM »
What time period/place are you writing about?  That will determine the best way to go about researching.  In general, though, I suggest starting by reading books set in that time period and watching a few movies set there - you get an idea of what to expect, what types of things are different than we have today, etc.

(I'm writing a steampunk romance set in 1870 right now, so I'm in the middle of a ton of research too!  Anyone been to the botanical gardens in Manchester, UK and want to PM me?  :P)

This sounds interesting!  Are you going to try to publish?  I hope we all get to read this someday!

Lynn2000

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Re: Researching for historical novels
« Reply #14 on: January 10, 2013, 10:37:00 AM »
Maybe you've already looked into this, but the history of disease and its effect on humanity, and trying to figure out medical conditions based on historical descriptions, is a vibrant area of research, with a number of books written for a mainstream audience. Something like "Plagues and People" by William H. McNeill, for example. Or "Deadly Companions: How Microbes Shaped Our History" by Dorothy H. Crawford, "Post-Mortem: Solving History's Great Medical Mysteries" by Philip A. Mackowiak, or "The Medical Detectives" by Berton Roueche. On Amazon I searched for "medical history mystery" under Books; the History of Medicine category is also a good one.

Maybe they would give you some ideas about how to devise a fictional cause for a real disease, based on how people have sussed out real causes in the past. Something twisty that uses multiple organisms (bacteria --> fleas --> rats --> people) would particularly pernicious, I think.
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