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?

Researching a Contemporary Novel in a Foreign Setting

Norma 2017 2

I am thrilled to have Author Norma Gail as my guest today. After reading her novel Land of My Dreams I fell in love with Scotland. She’s agreed to share how she did her research to make her setting so believable. By the way, Land of My Dreams just received the Bookvana Award. Way to go Norma. I’ve got my notebook out and my pen is ready.

LoMD Bookvana cover

Accuracy is a challenge faced by every writer, no matter what your genre. A contemporary setting can be just as challenging as a historical one. When I decided to set my debut novel, Land of My Dreams, in Scotland, there was quite a learning curve. During a two-week vacation, I barely glimpsed the top of the ben (mountain) when it came to understanding the language and culture necessary to portray Scottish life with accuracy.

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Photo provided by Norma. Sheep farm in Scotland.

 

More than just the northern part of Great Britain, Scotland is a unique and unusual place. Everyone knows about kilts, bagpipes, and castles, but little else. I’m from New Mexico, and as one of my main characters remarks, “Scotland and New Mexico are as different as water and dust.” So what can you do when your setting is unfamiliar? The internet is wonderful, but some things are hard to understand if you haven’t been there.

If you can travel to your setting, stay in small hotels, get out among people, and make opportunities to talk with them. Develop the art of observing small details. Take photos of everything, but also make notes about things that strike you as different, food, architecture, speech, and music are easy. I created a file of over 400 photos, some from our trip, but most from various websites about the area around Fort William, and Loch Garry. I set it up as a screensaver on my laptop. Now, whenever I walk through the room, I catch a glimpse of scenes that trigger thoughts of what might take place in such a setting. Watch YouTube videos where people describe the countryside or talk about some local event.

A selection of pictures Norma took of Scotland for her research.

A Scottish accent either confuses the daylights out of Americans or makes them swoon. I love their unique English, peppered with Scots, a Germanic language, and Scottish Gaelic, a native Celtic language. Fun words such as bubbly jock for turkey, tattyboggle for scarecrow, and clishamaclaver for chatter or idle talk make me giggle. Pesty insects are wee beasties, and they might refer to a disturbance to as a stramash or kerfuffle. The first time we ordered water with a meal, the waiter asked if we preferred “still or sparkling”.

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Highland Games

Scots might be among the toughest people on earth, plans continuing in spite of the weather. While we layered shirts, sweaters, and rain jackets for the Highland Games, children sported shorts and sleeveless shirts. A dapper, elderly couple, him in his kilt and her in a tartan skirt, eating ice cream cones in the chilly weather, declared it a “Lovely day!” It was August, after all.

Determined to eat what the Scots eat, I ordered their national dish, haggis, a “pudding” made from the heart, lungs, and liver of sheep, minced fine and mixed with spices and oats. Imagine this mixture, resembling dark, coarse sawdust, sewn into the stomach of a sheep and boiled. It wasn’t bad. We ate in small local restaurants so we got a real sense of local flavor.

I have a playlist of Scottish music on my phone. Yes, I love bagpipes, but much is traditional and some is contemporary. I listen as I drive and remember the images that spring to mind. I read Scottish news from time to time. It’s necessary to know what kinds of issues affect the lives of your characters, like the recent referendum on Scottish independence and Brexit.

I met Scottish editor through ACFW who combs through my manuscripts to make certain things are accurate. She suggests words, customs, or a change of scene that might work better.118 D&N Old Town Weaving Co 5x7(1)

The time you spend creating your story world is never wasted. Above all, strive for accuracy. Readers will never go for a book that doesn’t ring true to life and believable.

© Copyright Norma Gail Holtman, June 12, 2017

 

Thanks for the great information, Norma.

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Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Land-My-Dreams-Norma-Gail/dp/1941103170

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