"You Know Nothing, Jon Snow" (Courtney McKinney-Whitaker)

I'm going checklist style with my top tips for researching historical fiction.

·         First and always, remember this: 

·         Even if you think you know things, trust me, you do not know things. I don't know anything. Whenever I start researching, I am shocked by how little I know and how much I learn.

·         Don't assume anything. Like my dad says, assuming makes an ass out of u and me.

·         Pick a setting you can live with for all the years it will take to do the research, write the book, revise the book, find a publisher (we hope!), revise the book some more, promote the book, and live with the fact that you wrote this book for the rest of your life. If you're getting bored by your research or even if you're not really, really excited, quit while you're ahead and go with something else.

·         Start with the secondary sources to get a sense of your setting's overall structure and context. If they exist, start with the books written for laypeople and not professional historians. While I am a formally trained historian and have deep love for a good scholarly article, I always start with the layperson's history if I can. They tend to be more general, which is good for this phase, and they tend to be written with your entertainment as well as education in mind, which means you'll have more fun.

·         As you study secondary sources, pay close attention to their bibliographies and acknowledgements. This is where you find more specific resources and experts.

·         You can probably write a first draft at this point. It will be only a bare bones story structure, but from this you can get an idea of where you need to focus your research.

·         As you're writing your first draft, check out primary sources from your setting: letters, images, etc. Go to university and historical society sites from your setting and check out their online collections. If you can't find what you're looking for, ask one of their experts. Email is a great tool. Don't be shy! Most people love to talk about their areas of expertise.

·         Read books and other significant documents written in your setting. These can help you get a sense of the time and place.

·         Read other historical fiction from your setting. You can be very sneaky and make other people do some of the research for you this way. This also helps you avoid writing books that are too similar to everything else on the market.

·         Several drafts in, I do a "research draft." I print the manuscript and go through it, circling every detail that needs clarification and drawing a line out to a bubble in the margin where I write my research question. Better people than I can do this digitally, no doubt, but I am visual and tactile and this helps me.

·         Choose your beta readers with care. Find someone who lives where you've set your novel or who's an amateur expert or a professional expert in some element of your novel. They can help you avoid embarrassing mistakes. (Example: I read a novel set in South Carolina and the author referred to palm trees throughout. I gritted my teeth through it for about a hundred pages, and then I just couldn't take it anymore. The novel had other problems, but we have palmetto trees in South Carolina, and it drove me crazy.)

·         Beware of stereotypes about your setting. They're probably significantly less prevalent than pop culture would have us believe. (Example: In another novel set in South Carolina, which I literally threw across the room, erryone et grits and aigs and pork fat fer brekfust all the time and somehow the book was not about people having heart attacks. Further example: I did not see a single Scottie dog in the whole month I was in Scotland.)

·         Which brings me to this: You should probably actually visit your setting. I have a personal rule about this. It might seem a bit limiting, but in fact it's a useful tool for narrowing and choosing settings.

I know we can add to this list. What are your top research tips?

But remember:


  1. Definitely agree with so much here! While writing, I had an obscure question about merchants in medieval England and I could not find an answer anywhere. Then I recalled than on a visit to York, England, we had visited a site called the "Merchant Adventurers' Hall" which was the guildhall for merchants in York in the middle ages. I hesitantly sent the most hesitant email you can imagine and got the most lovely, thoughtful reply in return. So yes! Reach out and ask someone! People love to talk about the things they love.

    1. Well, perhaps I should amend that. MOST people do. I just remembered that (in years of researching) I have gotten one rather nasty, dismissive reply. But I ended up abandoning that path, anyway, so I forgot about it. It's funny. I find that the more legitimate and important people are in their fields, the more willing they usually are to talk to you, probably because they really care so much about the topic and how it's presented.


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