Thursday, April 30, 2009

A Special Blog Post for Historical Novelists

There’s a special place in my heart for historical novelists, and simply because I consider myself one. Mind you, the job isn’t the easiest in the world. We’re reputed to have next to no audience. We have to do a lot of research and fieldwork to accurately portray the times that we set our novels in – and if accuracy is going to hurt the story that we want, then we either change the story and deal with it, or keep our story and brace ourselves for historical purists who will soon barge into our lives and tear our novels apart.

If you are working on historical fiction, here are a few tips that you might want to consider. I’ve found that these work for me, so if you have more ideas, post them in the Comments section or post some links to articles that can help you, me, and other historical novelists who are currently developing dust allergies in the Archives sections of libraries everywhere.

1. Wikipedia is not the end of the road. This is a common illness propagating through college students nowadays: they Google a term, find a Wikipedia entry on it, and then use that single entry to form the bulk of their research work. If you must use Wikipedia, let it be your jump-off point for more research. Historical research is made deeper, richer, and more accurate if you can get your facts from as many sources as you possibly can.

2. Don’t be afraid of your library – bring bug spray and anti-allergy medications if you must. If you have a local library in your area, lucky you! If you’re still in school, then you’re way luckier than other novelists who have to spend on their history books. Visit the library, tuck yourself happily into the Archives or Stacks or whatever your Old Books Section is called, and do your research. A lot of historical research is still stashed in between the pages of books and isn’t available online.

3. If you’re really serious about historical research, branch out into journals and magazines. There are magazines such as National Geographic, Military History, History, and even Discover that tackle historical research. You can find interviews with experts and information on archaeological digs – these can enrich your work or provide new storylines that you can explore.

4. When you find historical research that you are interested in, try to search out experts in the field. Google their names and try to email them. Interview them if they’re close by. You can find these names in your favorite historical research magazines, or in the directory of your local college or university. Be careful, though: if these historical research experts are actively involved in research, you will need to work around their schedules and respect their need to devote more time to research.

5. Make maps. Ready to plot out your novel? A map can help you take care of things. Have a world map and an atlas ready for big epics that take your characters across continents; sketch your own little maps for your personal navigation through your settings.

6. Create a “planner.” What I like to do is print out calendars detailing what my characters will do from week to week. I won’t need to document everything, of course, but it gives me time to explore my characters in depth and write them better; it also makes them more real to me, so that I don’t feel like I’m creating them out of nothing, but simply writing about real people and real friends.

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