History at its most basic level is a record of events that take place in the past. While that past can range from moments to years ago, the main characteristic of historical records is that the recorded events actually happened. The physical record of those events can be almost anything: a book, an oral recounting like a poem or even a painted wall. For a writer, using historical settings, events and people is a smorgasbord of story opportunities for all types of fiction.
Historical resources can be broken down into two basic categories: primary sources, which are contemporary records of the time period that you are researching; and secondary sources which are written after that time period. Primary and secondary sources each have their advantages and disadvantages.
Using a primary source like a diary or letters from the time period has the advantage of immediacy. It's a source using the language, slang expressions and phrases used in everyday life by the people who were right there. However, the same things that give that sense of immediacy also mean that those sources often don't have much perspective. Your average letter writer of the 18th century, for example, would probably focus on his or her daily life. Class divisions and educational differences would have meant that many people who were literate enough to write letters and diaries were often not familiar with the lives of people outside of their social class. It is also worth remembering that diarists and letter writers didn't have to prove their facts or justify their conclusions since they were generally not writing for publication.
Secondary sources, on the other hand, are written after the fact. They have the advantage of some perspective as well as being intended for publication. Where this is helpful to the fiction writer is that the authors of secondary sources provide proof of their assertions. There are bibliographies, resource lists and notes that tell you where they got their information. Often the writer is using multiple primary resources as well as other secondary sources.
Using secondary sources can provide a fiction writer with a broader historical context, not one limited to the activities of a unique individual. However, this can also function as a drawback because the writer of the secondary source does not have immediate knowledge of the time frame and is dependent on the information available to her/him. Writers of secondary sources also have their own biases and may be less open about them than the narrator of a primary source. In addition, meanings and interpretations of historical data often change over time and can be viewed from number of perspectives. There is no such thing is total objectivity.
Given the drawbacks and advantages to both types of sources, it's a good idea to try and read a broad selection of both primary and secondary sources. Using both should help you get the detail and the perspective that you will need to make your work come alive. The more you know about a time period, the easier it can be to write about it.
To begin with, you need good research tools. These tools may be found at libraries, archives, museums, on the Internet and a variety of other locations. Start in your own community by getting to know your local library and librarians; they can often provide a wealth of information. Some libraries even maintain reference librarians who can research questions for you. Even if this service isn't available, they can introduce you to research databases, electronic and paper card catalogues and archives.
But since libraries aren't usually open twenty-four hours a day, you will need other resources for information. It's worthwhile to have some references at home, such as an atlas and an encyclopedia. See what sources are available to you and check out library book sales, used bookstores and the Web for additional materials that you need. For example, I maintain a small library of books and journals about daily life and glossaries of slang terms for my chosen time period. In addition, I have good books on clothing, weaponry and several folklore encyclopedias. I have links to a number of websites with useful historical information on my web browser so if I have a question, I can research it easily.
Other writers maintain notebooks and scrapbooks full of information that they can refer to. Another possibility is to set up a database for information - names, dates, bibliographies and all the other things that come in handy when you want to verify something. One great starting place to find this information is the bibliography of a good secondary source. Take a look at some of the works that a historian is using to research his or her own work and see what you can track down.
But remember that all the information you're looking for won't just be in books. Many writers join historical reenactment groups or organizations that focus on aspects of the time period that they are interested in. Some examples include the Society for Creative Anachronism (medieval and Renaissance); the Jane Austen Society of North America (Regency England and all things Jane); the Victorian Society; and Civil War reenactment groups. These organizations often have knowledgeable people in them who are pursuing research projects of their own and like to share.
Try watching films and plays about your chosen time period, go to museums and travel if you can. Check out local restaurants with the cuisine of the area you're writing about. There may be community education programs on culture, language and travel at local colleges: try taking a class or attending a talk. Writing a medieval romance? Learn to ride a horse or shoot a bow and arrow or do silk embroidery. A mystery set in ancient Rome? Learn how to make pasta from scratch or take a beginning Latin class. At best, it will be great fodder for the fiction mill and at worst, you may find an interesting new hobby.
How much research is too much? If it becomes a substitute for writing, then it may be time to stop for a while. If you get excited about doing research, it's fairly easy to get sidetracked to the point you're doing more research than writing. Don't lose sight of your goal: a finished story where the settings, plot and characters pull the reader into a vivid picture that he or she may not have read before. Remember you can always check more facts later. There should be a point where you begin to actually write your novel.
Once you do sit down to write, the key is to be thorough but not too thorough. Too much historical detail will bog down your story and make it less appealing to the reader. You want enough detail to sketch out your setting and make it come alive but not so much that it sounds like a Ph.D. dissertation.
How much research is too little? This, too, is pretty subjective. If you find yourself wondering about details of daily life or who was king that year, it's probably time to crack the books or to develop a better note-taking system. How detailed you want to be will depend in part on your intended audience and on the kind of book you are writing. Is the setting crucial to making your story work or is it more of a stage background? Are you using real events and people as part of your story or is it all a figment of your imagination? These factors will affect how much detail readers and editors will expect from your work and what you should be prepared to provide.
Things to remember about doing historical research:
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