Some writers believe that the only research needed for a good historical novel is a few clicks on Google. But this way of thinking has its flaws, as anyone who has spent time perusing Wikipedia knows. Faulty information, no matter how nicely it’s presented, can cause a reader to lose immersion and is best avoided when possible. Here are a few tips to make sure your history rings true.
- When searching online, look for websites ending with .gov and .org. This usually indicates the website is run by a government college or government-run organization, and will more likely have information that’s been fact-checked by more than ‘I’m pretty sure that’s how it was.’
- Look for the newspaper archives. Many major cities have online archives of newspapers from at least a hundred years, as well as books, essays and other publications. I suggest glancing through these even if they aren’t on your subject of interest, many times useful bits of information will present themselves.
- Invest in books. Check libraries, bookstores and Amazon for books on the subjects you are researching. Often, the closer the book was written to the time period in question the better. Check the bibliographies in the backs of the books for more reading material suggestions.
- Visit the location. If at all possible, take a trip to the location you are writing about. Give yourself several hours, if not days, to walk the streets, talk to locals and dig through city archives and museums. Take tons of pictures for future reference.
- Research songs and vocabulary. If you are including a hymn or common song in your story make sure the song was written before that time period, and that the words were the same. Many songs have verses and words that change over time. If a word sounds iffy to you, look it up and make sure it was in use. http://www.worldwidewords.org is a great resource to find out how long a word has been in use. Who would have realized the word ‘nerd’ was invented by Dr. Suess in 1950?
- If you are writing about a specific profession like a glassblower or blacksmith, try to find someone who actually works in the field and see if they’ll let you shadow them for a day. You will pick up all kinds of fun little details that will make the profession come alive for your readers.
- When you include animals in your book, make sure to compare notes with a vet, zookeeper or pet owner. I once had a long argument with a reader about whether or not horses drool (they do, I’ve seen them).
- Check for times when vegetation is in bloom, crops are harvested, etc. It could be different in another climate than the one you live in. This is also true for seasons.
- Prepare to be wrong sometimes. No matter how much I research, I have–gasp!–had a few historical inaccuracies sneak into the pages.