Tips for doing research for an historical novel

One of my husband’s ancestors. Great resource for period clothes.

If you’ve been following my blog for any amount of time, you know I write Historical Romance. And one of the key things any historical writer or fiction writer in general needs to do is research.

When I get a germ of an idea and the plot noodles around in my mind, I do research. It can take days, weeks or months depending on how familiar I am with the time period, setting and other details beforehand.

Let me share how I research my first novel Secrets & Charades

The idea of a female doctor going west as a mail-order bride formed in my mind. I knew nothing about female doctors in the mid-1800s or if they existed. I’d read mail-order bride stories but didn’t understand the process. My thoughts on ranching came from watching Bonanza and Big Valley as a kid. And although I’d lived in Texas for a while as a child, I still needed to research setting.

Google it

First, I used the internet to answer some basic questions. Were there female doctors in that time period? Who were the notable ones? What was the male view of female doctors?

 I looked at historical maps (which are really hard to see online) for setting and railroad lines. And checked out ranching of the period.

Pinterest has boards of wonderful pictures of historical dress.

There are websites with photos of the time period and models in period dress. Those photos helped me describe the clothing. I found some interesting faces that helped me picture my characters.

And there are YouTube videos on a variety of historical subjects, from guns to preparing food in a fireplace.

Books, books, books

Where I really hit the mother lode of research was the library and used books on Amazon. My local library has a wonderful atlas of period maps. I was able to see the geography of Texas more clearly and where the railroad lines traversed the state in 1870.

I found diaries and biographies from women of the period, and books about cowboys and ranching. Large coffee table books with town scenes showed me the architecture of the time, and photos of homesteads and ranches. That’s where I learned about soddies and a dugout homes. I spent way too much timing reading about food preparation and how to cook a roast in a fireplace.

Those same books were great reference material for my last for historical romances.

Reenactments

I went to a Civil War reenactment encampment and ask lots of questions of the man playing the doctor. That information along with the research I did on female doctors helped me shape Evangeline’s backstory.  I used the Civil War reenactors’ insights to create a deeper backstory for Jake.

Living History Display

I purchased a few out-of-print books explaining the customs of the 1800s.

Some writers use historical accounts from their own families as a basis for their novel. I have some miners as minor characters in my recent novel WIP. My Welch ancestors moved to Southern Illinois and open coal mines. Mining was more privatized in the 1800s and that information changed the way I approached my setting.

Makes it feel real

Research is so important for believability. But you only need a sprinkle of details through historical novels to bring the setting and characters to life. Readers want to feel like they are there but not get bogged down with a history lesson.

Lastly

And one last key thought. You need to have a passion for what you are researching. Then the story you create is richer because of your investment in your research.

How do you research and what is your favorite resource?