If you aren’t familiar with J. Gunner Grey then you should be.
Gunner is the author of Deal with the Devil Part 1 and the just released Part 2.
Deal with the Devil, both parts, is available at www.astraeapress.com and at
Gunner’s blog http://the1940mysterywriter.wordpress.com/
Undertaking historical research while maintaining the remainder of one’s sanity
Researching for historical fiction is a road with more potholes to fall into than an old logging path through the woods. Where do you find appropriate information? How do you keep track of it all? How much research is enough? While I don’t pretend to be an expert on this (or any other) topic, I have recently completed and published a World War II mystery, and can give you the benefit of my numerous mistakes. Besides, if I write all this
down and put it on Lindsay’s blog, where I can’t lose it, I’ll find it and remember
how it’s done next time I start down a historical road. (Hear that, Lindsay? Don’t lose it.)
Read read read (like we need an excuse, right?)
Now, the two World Wars have fascinated me since [censored],
so I began this process with a head start. My library already contains such
esoteric works as The Armed Forces of World War II: Uniforms, Insignia and Organization (by Andrew Mollo, © 1981 by Orbis Publishing Ltd., London, printed in the USA by Crown Publishers, Inc., a fully illustrated first edition) and British
and Commonwealth Armies 1939–45, Supplement Volume 1 (by Mark Bevis, © 2005
by Helion & Company, a Helion Order of Battle publication). Gotta admit
I’ve read most of them, and spent an outrageous number of hours poring over
photos and tables.
For most historical fiction, it’s likely you won’t need such an in-depth indoctrination. But the first step remains the same: read a couple of general nonfiction works so you understand the era in question, at least roughly. Your Regency romance, for example, becomes juicier when you include gossip about the latest royal scandal (“Have you heard? The Prince Regent spent 31,000 pounds on his stables!”) but
if you didn’t know the profligate Prince of Wales despised his wife and argued
with his porphyritic sire, George III, you’d have lost that chance.
That big ole tangled Web
Even with my long-standing World War fascination, there were
a number of questions that needed answers before I could tackle the rough draft
of the mystery. While nonfiction books, paper or pixels, are best for general
understanding of the era, nothing beats internet research for answering
Just be careful selecting websites before giving them your
trust. They’re not all created equal, but of course if you’ve spent any
appreciable amount of time online, you already know this, right?
I guarantee that, no matter how in-depth your notes, you will want to look at the volume again. If you can’t buy the book (and it’s downright silly to buy all of them—no, don’t look at my library, listen to me), then consider photocopying the page(s) in question. Be certain to make a note on the back of the page with the title, author’s and publisher’s names, and
where you got the book (library, friend, clueless enemy) so you can find it
again when (not if) you need it.
Some modern writers use spreadsheets to organize their historical notes. Personally, I had a bad experience with a spreadsheet program back in the mid-1990s and never recovered from it, so I still use index cards and my memory. Thankfully, despite my general ditziness, I have a really good memory for otherwise useless bits of historical trivia, such as the fact that British WW2 parachutes could be guided by their passengers in flight while
German ones couldn’t.
How much is enough?
Generally, my brain starts mapping out the story, often without my conscious input, while I’m otherwise engaged with the research, and that’s likely true for other writers, as well. After reading a few books and exploring a few websites, I imagine one day you’ll wake up and say, “Hey, I understand this stuff and I need to start writing.” If that doesn’t happen,
maybe you haven’t found the right book or website to spur your imagination.
Consider adding a dash of fiction, either written by a writer from that era
(such as Jane Austen from the Regency) or by a modern writer interpreting it.
And remember, while you’re writing, there’s such a thing as
too much (historical) information. Ask yourself:
- Do some paragraphs in your story read like a guidebook?
- Do you get lost following your own descriptions?
- Do you find yourself skimming over some paragraphs you’ve written?
- Do your critique partners praise the research but not the story?
If any of these problems resonate, chances are you’re including too much historical detail, or perhaps the wrong details. Try to find the ones that strike a chord in the reader’s imagination, not the ones that bore her to tears.
On the other hand, if you can yank the story and characters from that era and insert them into another one without effort, then maybe you’re not including enough details or performing enough research. The best historical fiction intertwines the plotline and characters with the events and mores of that particular age so tightly, they can’t be torn asunder.
If you’re curious
Some of the websites I discovered while researching my World War II mystery include:
- The Royal Air Force historical timeline
- The 1940s Society of the UK homepage
- U-boat.net, which covers the navies on both sides in both wars
- The Virtual Tour of Oxford, since that’s where part of the story takes place.
- Sonicbomb videos
- Glamour Daze blog, “an archive of vintage fashion and beauty”
- The BBC website for archived memories, called WW2 People’s War
- The Scottish Police Services Authority website on forensic history
- The PBS website for Secrets of the Dead (hint: search for World War II)
Thanks for hosting me, Lindsay. Now it’s your turn on the hot seat. Everyone, help me convince Lindsay that one (sort of) good turn deserves another, and an engagement on my blog, Mysteries and Histories, is now in order.
(NOTE TO GUNNER:) Anyone ever tell you that you don’t play fair. Just say when and where. Being the challenged the choice of weapons is mine-word at 20 paces.