I am a non-fiction history fanatic and I have been since junior high. I’m not saying I didn’t read my share of Sweet Valley High or Flowers in the Attic, but I was probably the only one in my class devouring tomes on Tudor England or ancient Egypt. I’m so familiar with the historical section of the library that, depending on what I’m working on, I know instantly whether to head for the 930s or the 940s. For my ancient Rome novella, Mask of the Gladiator, I headed straight to the 930s and delved into the tense days surrounding the assassination of Emperor Caligula.
Not everyone is as big a history buff as I am or as eager to crack open a history book. However, if you’ve ever visited an old home or heard a great snippet of local lore and thought “That would make a great story,” get ready to delve into some non-fiction. To help you take the plunge, I’ve compiled a few tips to get you started.
So, let’s begin.
First, learn about the era. Choose some overview books and delve in to the politics, people and feel of a time period. For instance, if you know you want to write a book set in France, you’ll find a very different country under Louis XIV than Louis XVI. Also, understanding the bigger picture can help you craft your story. Your characters will have a very different experience in Versailles France than they will in Revolutionary France.
Now that you know about an era, pinpoint the date the story takes place then narrow down your research. Discover who was and wasn’t alive at the time and what did and didn’t exist. Learn about the politics and current events and the thoughts and ideas influencing people’s lives. Study the art and architecture, get a real sense of what it was like to live during that exact moment in time.
Once you know your date, learn about the details of daily life. Everything from the food and clothes to the language and daily rituals will help you craft your story and make the characters more believable. Also, when your plot hits a sticking point, a little research can go a long way to helping get your story back on track.
Speaking of tracking, don’t forget to keep track of your research. Take detailed notes along with the book title and page number and make sure to keep it organized. Collect it in a binder or post it to a note taking website. You never know when an editor will ask a question and you’ll have to back up your answer with your research.
I hope you enjoyed this brief primer on research and that it helps you get started. Please feel free to leave a comment with your thoughts and ideas. I always enjoy hearing about and learning from other people’s methods.