Wednesday, July 24, 2013

What Goes Into Researching a Historical Novel?

I recently finished my latest novel, Enticing Julia Morgan. The book is set in 1898 during the prim and proper Victorian Era. My next book in this series, Enchanting Lydia Walker, will be set in 1917-1918 during the quickly changing Edwardian Era.



It was during the Edwardian Era that America entered WWI, the Spanish Flu killed between 50-100 million people across the globe (affecting up to 500 million people in all), aviation drew the imagination of the world and the Silver Screen began to shape our culture.
Actress Colleen Moore arrived in Hollywood in 1917.
I have the basic story plot for Enchanting Lydia Walker structured, giving me a direction to take my research--however, this era is a little further outside of my historical expertise. My last two novels--set in 1857 and 1898--were in familiar time periods--this one is not. This means I have a lot more research ahead of me! Not only do I need to learn as much as I can about national and international history, I also need to brush up on my local history, because my stories are set in my hometown in central Minnesota.


Based on the early ideas for my novel, I also have these areas I need to research: barnstorming/early civilian aviation, local logging history, pilots in WWI, local effects of the Spanish Flu, social customs, clothing, food, transportation, education, architecture, farming, orphanages/adoption, house servants, vacationing/cabins/lake culture, and motion pictures. And that's just the beginning! Once I get immersed in my research I almost always discover more I need to know. But that's the fun part. :)

click to enlarge
Photo courtesy of ameshistoricalsociety.org. This is a flying school in
Davenport, Iowa in 1917. If you look closely there is a woman student
in the front row named Neta Snook. 
I have the basic story for Enchanting Lydia Walker in my head (I'm just starting to lay it out on paper), but I know I will find a wealth of new ideas as I delve into my research.

What about you? If you're a writer, does this kind of research excite you, or overwhelm you? If you're a reader, what do you enjoy most about historical novels?

18 comments:

  1. Oh my word!! I love/loathe research! My first book, The Secret Keepers, takes place in Boston between 1874 and 1894 AND in the Navajo Nation in 1864...AND...Flagstaff, AZ from 1864 to 1894.
    Still with me?
    I had to research everything from telegraph fire alarms in 1892 Boston, to what a traditional Navajo man does when his family dies, and how he copes with surrendering to the enemy.
    My second book takes place at Bosque Redondo in 1867-8 and then in Fort Defiance between 1872 and 1876.
    In that book, I address the issues of slavery among the whites and Native Americans, the effects of alcohol on Native American culture, assimilation of whites into Navajo culture AND the relationship between Chiricahua Apaches and Navajos.
    Yup, I've done a fair bit of research.

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    1. I'm in awe of writers in general, but historical writers have my deepest respect. I know what it takes to research a novel, so when I read one that is filled with historical depth I shake my head in awe at that writer! Jennifer, your research sounds extensive and thrilling! I love your subject matter and I can't wait to read your novels!!

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  2. oh, neat! It's always fun and challenging to step out of that comfort zone a bit, isn't it? I'm there, too. Moving from 1900 to 1910 and the research that goes with that. Not to mention those fun odds and ends when we realize our characters interests and such. I admire your extensive research. It will really pay off. :) Way to go!

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    1. Yes, Joanne! I haven't even listed my hero and heroines hobbies and interests in this list! It's a fun and challenging process, but I love it completely. I can't wait to find out what your next story will be about. 1910 is a fun era!!

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  3. Like we've talked about, I would love to write historical...except the research is overwhelming. Don't get me wrong, I love history. But I'd always be afraid there was something I didn't know and would get the facts wrong or something.

    Can't wait to read your next book!!

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    1. We have talked about that, Lindsay. You'd be surprised at how many people tell me the same thing. It can be a daunting challenge, but it's also a lot of fun! I can't wait to share the next book with you!!

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    2. I think that's a concern for all writers in all genres, or it should be. Historical fans do tend to be very knowledgeable, though. I look at it this way. If someone points out something I've gotten wrong (which doesn't happen often yet since I'm not published), they because a resource. More often than not, they're happy to be consulted.

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    3. Wendy, that's a great perspective! My biggest concern is my local history. I know it well, but I know the ladies at the local historical society (who are good friends) know it even better!

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  4. My first book--the one I hope deteriorated long ago in a landfill--was a historical. I loved the research. It was fascinating, but it was hard to set it aside and write the book.

    While I still love and read historicals, I love writing contemporaries. That's where I'm meant to be, I think. And while the amount of research I have to do for my book doesn't compare to a historical, there's still far more than I ever expected. And we have to get it right because people who read our stories are living now and will know if we fudged in some way.

    Gabrielle, I love the Edwardian dresses! Are you dressing up for genre night at ACFW?

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    1. Sally, you're right, there is a whole other level of research involved in writing contemporary novels. I definitely have a historical voice, so I know it would be a stretch for me to write a contemporary story. Also, I feel so out of touch with popular culture that I would blunder it big time!! :) My hat is tipped toward all my contemporary novelist friends!!

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    2. I forgot to add that I would LOVE to dress up for genre night! I have to find the right dress, though, and that's harder than one would think!! We'll see what I can do. ;) I wish I could get my hands on one of the dresses at the top of this post!!

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  5. It excites me and overwhelms me at the same time! :) I'm just beginning my research for my first historical book. Since it's set during the Civil War, I know it will be an uphill journey to fish among SO MANY resources and find "new" details for my story. I wouldn't trade the work, though. I'm enjoying history now a whole lot more than I did back in school. :)

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    1. Good luck, Savanna! I love the Civil War era! So many wonderful things to research and explore. One of my favorite places to do research is the Minnesota Historical Society. I'm sure you have a state historicl society (or one of the state historical societies where your story is set) that would be a good place to start. I spent an entire day immersed in the personal journals of a Civil War soldier and it was filled with AMAZING details I couldn't have found anywhere else. Have fun in your searching!!

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  6. Yes, Gabrielle, good point that the historical research really adds the extra time to writing. I think when you're trying to incorporate real people's stories and stay true to those, it can be a fine line of getting too historical and keeping the story interesting. At least I found that! I know my Viking novel took much longer to write than my Contemp., even though I did have to do some map-type research on the contemp. I loved learning all I could about the Vikings since it's a passion of mine. I don't think I could take time to research/write about a time period I wasn't passionate about! But I enjoy reading them and learning more. GIRL WITH A PEARL EARRING is one of my fave histfic novels--it perfectly wove details of that era with a character who was intrinsically interesting.

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    1. You're absolutely right, Heather. It is time consuming, but when we're passionate about the history we're studying, it can also be a source of pleasure. My last story (Enticing Julia Morgan) was inspired by two bachelors who built neighboring mansions on a hill next to the Mississippi River in my hometown. While I loved their true story, it would have been hard to put all the historical details in a novel and still keep it interesting for the reader. It's a fine balance, especially when I consider myself just as much a historian as a novelist.

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  7. I know just what you mean! I went from 1746 to 1905. The research from the new one is actually a little easier because 1st hand accounts and internet databases are more recent and abundant, but it's amazing how many little details I have to verify. In 1746, it didn't matter when flashlights were invented! On the other hand, I found an incredibly detailed website with daily weather conditions in Newport, RI in 1905, which has been a huge help.

    It sounds like you're better organized than I am. I never thought to break out the areas of research I needed to do. We might need to have a chat at the pizza party.

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    1. Wendy, I agree! It was harder to research 1857 for my first novel, because there are fewer resources. On the other hand, while researching for 1898, I was shocked to discover how many inventions had been created by that time (that we still use in some form today). It made the research more intense in a different sort of way! I've always respected historical authors, but my respect continues to grow with each book I write! ;)

      I have a lot to research for this coming book, so I actually have a more detailed list for my personal use. It helps me to stay focused! As you probably know, it's easy to get lost in research and realize you've spent a half an hour reading a fascinating newspaper article that caught your interest, but has nothing to do with your story!! Keeping a list nearby also helps me to not feel so overwhelmed. I can't wait to see you again! Looking forward to the MBT pizza party!

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  8. I really am envious of your love for research. :) As I mentioned in your post about Victorian dinner parties, I have to do a great deal of research work for my novel as well, and it was usually a chore. Occasionally I'd find something exciting, and I always find things that only benefit the novel, but still––I don't enjoy it. Though I love historical writing and wouldn't give it up, the hours I spend analyzing and examining can be tiring, and overwhelming. You seem to enjoy it thoroughly, though, and I'm happy for you. Also, congrats on finishing! :D That must be very exciting for you.

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