Diving Into Historical Research

This is my first post for the Corsets, Cutlasses, and Candlesticks blog, and I’m so excited. I’m especially thrilled to be blogging about what I love most: history, books about history, and historical research. Research? Yes. Research.

For you who think research is snooze-inducing, think again. There are scandalous facts to be found; there are heart-wrenching stories waiting to be uncovered; there are wonderful vignettes preserved for a researcher just like me to find. Historical research can turn up quite a lot of information in a rather short time, and if I’m not careful, it can become overwhelming. I have this terrible tendency to become so wrapped up in fact-finding that I never get around to writing the actual story. (Or is that procrastination? Wait! Don’t answer that.)

Through some trial and error, I’ve learned that the best way for me to approach research is to start wide and end narrow. Allow me to explain. When I’m just beginning to flesh out a concept, or trying to broaden my general knowledge of a particular era, I read widely—both fiction and non-fiction. I Google broadly—places, culture, events. I watch lots of television—movies, shows, documentaries—anything set in or pertaining to a specific time period. I keep copious notes. This “wide” stage can go on for months or even years if I’m not continually narrowing my focus with the intention of shaping facts into story.

Once I’m comfortable with my overall knowledge of a period, I’ll focus on garnering the details I’ll need to bring a character to life in a historical world. This is what I refer to as my “with” stage. I now begin to research:

1)    With intent—searching and seeking with a purpose. By this stage, I know where my characters live, what they eat, what they wear. I now search out the finer facts and details related to their lives. The goal with note-taking at this stage is not to be copious, but specific.

2)   With an open mind—being open to inspiration and new directions. Though I’m now conducting more narrow research, I do try to keep an open mind. I never know when a snippet of information may lead my story in a new and far more interesting direction. Even if a new direction doesn’t evolve, authentic details capable of adding depth and texture to my story may be uncovered.

3)   With a filter—understanding that not every detail will make it into my story. During this narrow-focus stage, I turn on my internal filter and attempt to leave behind the facts that obviously won’t add merit to the story. I know from the start that I won’t—I can’t—use all of my acquired information. After all, the ultimate goal is to tell a meaningful story, not give a history lesson. Right?

If it weren’t for these three “with” phrases, I’d surely wander aimlessly through the library, the internet, and Netflix, never getting around to developing a story or an actual book. While it’s true that the thought of research can cause some folks to head for the hills, for me it can become quite addictive. And when you’re looking for any reason to avoid that rhythmically flashing cursor on a blank screen, “I have quite a bit of research to do” is a rather useful excuse.

This is becoming a bit long-winded (and likely confusing), and I have an important date with a rhythmically flashing cursor on a blank screen. But first, I have quite a bit of research to do.

Laura Golden is the author of EVERY DAY AFTER, a middle grade novel about letting go and finding your own way. Set in Depression-era Alabama, it will release from Delacorte Press/RHCB on June 11, 2013. You can find out more about Laura and EVERY DAY AFTER by visiting her website or following her on Twitter.

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8 thoughts on “Diving Into Historical Research

  1. I’ll also leave stars and make notes in my MS as I’m writing (*find words to describe the food* or something like that) so that I don’t get caught in the trap of researching and completely losing track of where I was with the writing. Love your post!

  2. Well-done, Laura! I really like your “withs” summarizing what you do. Students would really benefit from those, so please be sure you mention those when you do your school visits after EVERY DAY AFTER comes out. 🙂 Aloha!

  3. What a great post! Though I don’t usually write historical fiction, I am going to attempt a steampunk novel for NaNoWriMo this year and I definitely need to do some more research on the Victorian era before I start. This post is a great launching point!

    • Laura Golden says:

      Yay! I’m thrilled it was helpful! Loads of good luck on writing your steampunk novel during NaNoWriMo. I hope to make it through NaMo this year as well. *fingers crossed*

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