Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Historical Research for Writers

I thought, since my PhD is in history, and I'm currently working on a project based around modern history for a client, that I might take a moment or two to reflect on ways writers can go about historical research. It's useful whenever you have something set in the past, or when you want to bring in historical references. It is, I think, essential for most fantasy writers, who often neglect the fact that culturally, they are writing some sort of generalised European Middle Ages without fully understanding how things fit together. I think I'm going to have to do this in several parts, so for now, I'm just going to look at some general priciples, for those people who don't know where to start.

  1. Get a general overview. Historical research is like doing a jigsaw where each piece is composed of smaller pieces, which are in turn composed of smaller pieces, which are... you get the idea. You can end up doing one corner of things without understanding the implications if you don't get a broader view. A general textbook, or even Wikipedia, may help.
  2. Work out what you need to know. My PhD contains a reference to herring renders in Domesday Book, not so much because medieval canons were big on herring, as because I'd found it interesting and come up with a way to get it in. There's a danger in any historical research that you get sidetracked by research into civil war hats when you should be looking up the battles, or vice versa.
  3. Check the date of your history books. Some of the 'classic' history books you may remember are fifty years old, Or more. Opinions change, as does the information available to historians. It's easier to start with something more modern. Not least because the modern ones will reference all the older ones if they're an academic text, letting you use it as a guide to everything else you need to read.
  4. Don't rely on one book. If you only read one, you don't know if this is the one proposing a radical and ultimately flawed view that no one really subscribes to. And make sure you read books, as well as just websites. Most websites on history are done by enthusiastic amateurs who don't necessarily know as much as specialists in the field.
  5. Do (just) enough. You need to do enough research to be authentic, but for most novels, you don't need to know every last detail.
  6. Get access to primary sources if you're doing a work of history, or even if not. Archives will have them, and many will be available online (project Gutemburg for example). They will give you a feel for the time much more quickly than many textbooks, even if they only cover a very narrow range of things.

1 comment:

Julie Luek said...

My WIP has required research into the civil war, specifically in PA and a little into the travel west along the Oregon trail --not a lot, just enough to give it authenticity. You brought up some good points that I'm going to write down and refer to as I do revisions. Thanks for sharing your expertise.