As a confirmed giant nerd, I really, really love researching everything about my setting. One of my favorite parts of the writing process is digging through books (or even better, archives and museums!) and finding out what my characters would eat and wear, what books and news sources they would read, what they might think of important issues of their day, and so on.
At the same time, it’s a bit overwhelming–even for a history lover like me– to get started. There’s so many sources, and some of them are going to disagree with each other. Some might be written with more dedication to the writer’s agenda than to facts. Some might exclude information which was only discovered later. And that’s before you dig into the primary sources! So here’s some tips to help you get started researching your historical fiction.
Getting the Big Picture
If you have little base knowledge of your chosen setting, you’ll want to know some basic facts and key historical events to orient you before you burrow into the in-depth sources. (Even if you think you have the basics down, you might want to fact check those assumptions– we all pick up an amazing amount of ideas from pop culture and similar that might not be accurate!). Children’s books can be a surprisingly good place to start, since they highlight the most important points in a clear, easily remembered format. Once you’ve mastered the basics, it’s time to really get into the details.
Primary and Secondary Sources
There are two major types of sources that historians rely on for research– primary and secondary. A primary source is a document created in that time period, about that time period– diaries, newspapers, paintings, photographs, letters, ships’ logs, business receipts, and legal documents are just a few possible types. These are the best sources for capturing historical details, since they are a contemporary snapshot of what people were actually thinking and doing and is minimally filtered by outside interpretation.
Secondary sources synthesize information from multiple primary sources to tell the overarching story of a particular historical period, or make an argument about time period. Examples include academic journal articles, popular nonfiction history books, and history textbooks. These are good for getting an in-depth analysis and overview of your time period of interest, and can point you towards the best primary sources to enhance your research.
Evaluating Source Quality
2016’s fake news outbreak isn’t a new phenomenon. And without immediate context, it’s hard to tell a genuine historical news article from the ramblings a historical conspiracy theorist or scammer. There’s no perfect way to winnow, but the following can help you distinguish the fact from the fiction*:
Do a basic fact check. Are the author’s claims independently verifiable? Do they correspond to physical evidence, or the testimony of others, or make sense for the time period?
Check out the author’s agenda. Is your scholar or primary source creator pushing a particular view? What facts or context might they omit or emphasize to shore up their arguments? Is there a cultural mismatch between the scholar and their subject that might influence their interpretation of people or events? Does the primary source creator belong to a group with a distinct perspective (for example, nobility, a religious or racial minority, a member of an extremist political party), or do they see themselves as representing a ‘typical’ citizen?
What information is available to the author? For primary sources, the source creator won’t have the benefit of hindsight, which will affect their point of view. This can also be true of secondary sources, where information might be concealed from the general public and only discovered later (for example, a new archaelogical find, or the declassification of an important document).
What context do you have around this primary source? Are their experiences representative or unusual for their time and place? What were their motivations for creating the document (for example, persuading people to join a cause, documenting their labor for billing, art for art’s sake)?
While there is no perfect fact check, especially when you go further back into history, these questions can help you think critically about your sources and try to present the most accurate version of events. Now you’re ready to dive in to your research and unleash your inner history nerd.
*Not to say historical conspiracy theories aren’t interesting and worth studying in their own right– you can learn a lot about the social and political zeitgeist of the time period you’re studying by checking out which conspiracy theories got traction. But this requires you to first sift fact from the 17th-century equivalent of Natural News or Brietbart.