Saturday, August 29, 2009

Efficient Research for Historical Novels

My wargaming hobby straddles the realms of history and historical fiction. The table-top armies gather as their actual historical counterparts however, once the game starts it's anybody's guess as to how it's going to end. Events more often than not, unfold that did not occur during the actual battle. There's even a chance for the vanquished to emerge as the victors in such table-top simulations: Robert E. Lee could win the Battle of Gettysburg and Napoleon could prevail against the English and Prussians at Waterloo. These aren't likely outcomes, but such alternate-endings are possible.

So as a "wargame correspondent" adrift in the PNWA Summer Conference, it seemed appropriate for me to attend the Effective and Efficient Research: The Foundation of Historical Novels workshop. This seminar was presented by Larry Karp, author of The King of Ragtime and The Ragtime Kid. While I haven't written any historical novels (yet), I still conduct extensive research for every gaming article I write or YouTube movie I produce.

But am I doing effective research?

Here are some of the notes I produced during Larry's informative seminar:

History is concerned with the following basic questions: Who? What? When? Where? & Why?

However, historical records are often parsimonious in answering "why?" These are known as the "why-holes."

When writing historical fiction, look for these why-holes and fill them with suggestions.

The advantage in writing historical fiction is you can use real people and locations that are already in-place and structured.

However, the disadvantages are that you must leave history as you find it. You're also constrained by a real person's historical actions. Which means you need to get your facts right or you'll lose you credibility with your readers. So no matter how many rewrites and revisions you do, Robert E. Lee looses the Battle of Gettysburg and Napoleon is defeated once and for all at Waterloo.

The primary research tool for historians and historical fiction writers is, well primary sources. These are materials written at the time of an event but are not necessarily "the truth." Such primitive pieces of spin-doctoring can be embellishments, propaganda and even outright lies. Which means sometimes fiction can be more accurate than "reality." However, some of these realities can be too strange even for fiction and it may be best to leave such tales out of your story.

Unearthing little-known factoids can be an enjoyable exercise. And therein lies the danger--getting bogged down or fascinated by research. Other research abuse are the over-pursuit of reality and overuse of detail within your story.

Other stumbling blocks include: Anacrhonisms and using modern speech, concepts and attitudes and placing them in the past. (This is my biggest pet-peeve with historical fiction).

Effective research helps set the mood of your story.
Sources can include:
-history books
-historical articles (print or on-line)
-movies, and
-historical fiction by other authors

Note: When using on-line sources beware of any website that doesn't end with a "gov" or "edu"!

You're not limited to musty documents as pictured above, or wacky websites either. You can seek out experts in particular fields such as historians (both amateur and professional), specialists (such as re-enactors), law enforcement personnel (for archived "police blotter" material) and older folks who may have experienced an event first hand or heard about it from their parents.

Despite the plethora of on-line material, libraries are still a cornerstone to effective research. Inside these institutions you'll find general histories, biographies and autobiographies, diaries, letters, newspapers, magazines and photographs that may not be available on-line.

Finally, nothing beats on-site research for adding authenticity to your story. This includes but is not limited to:

-interviewing local citizens
-conducting research at local libraries, city directories
-reading locally-written histories, newspapers and even obituaries

I would add that for stories with a military element, you must "walk the field" of any historical battle within your narrative. Touring a battlefield gives you an appreciation of the difficulties soldiers and commanders faced when confronted with rough terrain, adverse weather conditions and a determined enemy. Pouring over maps and even logging on to Google-Earth is no substitute for actually being there.

One lively discussion occurred during this seminar and it's worth noting here. The question was should historical fiction writers have their characters use words and phrases some modern readers may find offensive?

Larry used an example from his book The Ragtime Kid. The protagonist, 15-year-old Brun Campbell who's white, takes piano lessons from the soon-to-be legendary ragtime musician Scott Joplin. During these lessons Mr. Joplin would refer to the black keys on the piano as--(and I'm taking a deep breath here)--the "nigger keys."

Why on earth would Scott Joplin of all people use such a term? Because as Larry explained, EVERYBODY in the turn-of-the-century music biz called them that. To avoid using the term would have glossed-over such an historical fact; while "talking-around" it would be too wordy and modifying it to something like the "n-word keys," just plain silly.

At the risk of sounding my tin horn, I pointed out to the class that readers of historical fiction "get it." They understand that historical fiction writers aren't closet racists (or sexists, or some other such prejudice, for that matter) and are trying to illustrate how our ancestors viewed their world.

Doing any less is and you're pulling your proverbial punches. What you want to do is hit your readers right between the eyes and give them a "we're not in Kansas anymore" experience.

For more about Larry Karp's ragtime murder mysteries, visit his website:

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