One of the reasons I love historical novels is they transport the reader to another world in a way no contemporary story can—no matter how compelling. Reading a good historical romance is like going back in time. The period adds a lush, delicious layer to the escapism we all love to get from a captivating romance book.
There’s another side to writing historicals. A side that is less dreamy and more an intellectual challenge and constant labor of love for me as the writer. Research.
In order for escapism to work, there has to be detail. There has to be accuracy. The whole setup must be seamlessly convincing, full and rich, an intimate glimpse into our nation’s history and into the hearts and lives of the people who lived back then. How does a writer know about life on the frontier? Or how the people spoke or how they managed their chores? How would a writer even know what the chores were?
The answer is research—endless, constant research. When I’m writing an historical novel, I research before I start and continue checking sources throughout the development of the story. Both of these are important to the final product.
There are certain events I know I’ll have to research. Because the period of western expansion was one of rapid change, I always confirm political and geographical facts of the particular time period and location where my stories are set.
Some questions repeat themselves:
What parts of the country were settled during the period of the story? How regions were divided and what were the boundaries? What laws governed the people? Were there any specific, common known events that took place around the time period?
A settler’s journey westward can be as big a part of the story as a character’s life once they’ve reached the west, making the hardships of travel another substantial research topic. It certainly required a lot of my attention while I was writing Colin’s Quest! I started writing with the basic facts. As the story developed, I continued to research until I found the detail needed to create an accurate picture of easterners traveling west by wagon train.
I spent some time in college studying American history, which gave me a good knowledge base. As I’ve written and researched more and more, I’ve built on that knowledge. However, like anything else, I can always learn more.
When I write a romance, I need details that make the setting come alive. A readers expects to know how women’s clothes looked from one end of the country to the other, how a man protected his family from danger, and know how people expressed themselves. What were their social lives like? How would a young family have outfitted their kitchen? What did their cookware and dishes look like?
It’s these details I have to catch, correct, and fact-check as I’m writing. Sometimes I find myself backtracking because what first appears to be a simple factual error. I would be lying if I said this wasn’t challenging.
The great aspect about research is it builds on itself, and the process is a skill you can hone as a writer. Every time I create a story, every time I make and correct a mistake, I’ve learned for the next book. I use several resources over and over again, which are a godsend when I’m researching.
Here are a few of my favorites from my quick, convenient resource cheat sheet.
Webster’s Dictionary: I use two editions of the dictionary to check my word choice. For historicals, I always check the Webster’s 1828 online dictionary first. http://webstersdictionary1828.com If a word appears in this resource, I’m comfortable using it. The second is the current Webster’s online edition. The modern edition of Webster’s will often offer the approximate date of first usage.
www.HistoricalTidbits.blogspot.com: This blog is great for looking up whatever topic comes to mind during the creation of a story. The blog is authored by Lynn Coleman, a fellow historical novelist, so it’s no wonder the information she chooses to feature is so interesting and useful to me.
www.USHist.com: This is one of the resources I use to learn about period clothing. This site sells highly accurate, custom-made reproductions of frontier clothing, and is chock full of information and pictures of the everyday items of 19th century life. These folks are good enough that museums buy their wares!
Redwood’s Medical Edge http://jordynredwood.blogspot.com Let’s all take a moment to thank our lucky stars we don’t live with the medicine of the 19th century. Illness and injury are facts of life, and were even more so on the tough western frontier. This blog is dedicated to “Medical Fact for your Fiction” and has several posts about 1860s medicine. Some of it is pretty grisly, but interesting once you stop squirming in your chair.
www.IdiomSite.com: This one isn’t specifically historical, but it is helpful when a phrase is on the tip of my tongue.
Conner Prairie Interactive Park www.connerprairie.org This is a great resource for learning about the daily lives of women and families on the frontier. It is organized by a non-profit with a physical site in Indiana. There is plenty of helpful information and pictures on their website for writers or those who are simply curious.
I’ve enjoyed putting this post together and hope you find the information useful—as a reader or a writer!