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Besides Google and Wikipedia, what do some of you do to gather research about a specific time period to write about when doing historical fiction? Do you travel to those places? If so, do you find it more worthwhile than searching the internet? Where else besides Google and Wikipedia can one find information about specific time periods of a certain US State/City? (like criminal records, people of interest, etc.?)

I'm a complete newbie at this, but I have an idea of a historical fiction/fantasy story I've been thinking about doing, but I have no idea where to start, what to do in terms of research....
 
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Use the sources listed in the relevant Wikipedia articles as a starting point. At least in my case that usually leads to a real fountain of information.
 

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It's best to set Historical Fiction in an area where the research is tangential and an adjunct to your own well-heeled knowledge of the period. For example, I have degrees in Chinese History and have published many books based in Sinology - both modern settings and 12th Century Chinese settings. I do my research from my own bookshelf, but generally only when I need a detail that wasn't covered in my training. Despite this, my work is character based and NOT history lessons. The background only serves to bind the reader's credibility. Such emersion fiction isn't served by a cursory search of the web. You need to smell and taste the places. It is better to cook a Chinese meal from a 12th Century recipe and experience it (both the taste and the mechanics of cooking it) to serve a paragraph in Historic fiction than to look up something on-line and guess at how it could be derived. Like all good fiction, your experience counts more than your research, which only corroberative facts and incidental details.

Edward C. Patterson
 

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Find nonfiction monographs or incident studies published today about your topic, historians rely on the work someone else has done as much as they rely on their own independent research.

As Edward said, build up a personal library and use it and perhaps go further than you think you'll need, just getting the flavor of something is enough sometimes even if you don't use it in a particular work. The more you know through book reading the more realism you can incorporate. Wikipedia is great for hunting down some quick fact or date, but never has enough to give you for creating a sense of realism.

Google Books and Project Gutenberg have out of print books from modern to 17c and adding works daily. Cornell University has a growing collection of 18c and 19c periodicals online now and as DreamWeaver mentioned find what newspapers existed then that still exist now and cull their online archives.

Library of Congress image collection would be another source for what people looked and dressed like.

Living history events, reenactors put a lot into research and portrayals.

Nothing beats visiting an area though if you're writing about someplace further away than were you live and there are museums and collections everywhere that you can't access online that have unique primary sourced material that can be studied.
 

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University libraries are great and, if you know someone who is a student, they should have access to a huge range of online resources.

I'm writing an historical novel atm and it's driving me nuts.  I feel like I have to check every sentence.  I like the idea of cooking a meal from the period.  I'm going to try that.
 

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Echoing what others have said,  or some of it.

Wikipedia can merely give an overview. Wiki content and most web articles are volunteer efforts and can be inaccurate factually and conceptually misleading.  The better course is to find the primary materials and academic publications in order to both get an overview of an era and verify details. Depending on the era for your HF, there are specific search engines to find the right info. A university librarian can steer you in the right direction.

Even in writing about our era, unless the writer has experienced something or read an adequate personal account of it the writer's version will be skewed or incomplete; for example,  if one attempts to write about having dinner at the Savoy but has never done so.

If you can afford it, firsthand experience from travel is the best.  I could read at length about how a bronze sword was cast at 2500 years ago and write an adequate version, but that didn't compare with attending a workshop in Cornwall that had hands-on Bronze Age casting in a reconstructed roundhouse.

A really remote era may need years of research before the writer can convey it for a reader. Don't let this discourage you, though.  The market seems to prefer inaccuracy for some HF subgenres and for those titles a lack of research hasn't impeded big sales.
 

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Also, for anything mid-17th century or later, read a fair number of contemporary novels - they needn't be bestsellers - from the time in question, even if they're not specific to the location you're writing about. And some general-interest magazines, if you can. They all have their limitations and biases - magazines of yore tended to have fairly overt agendas, more often than not, and fiction is rarely a completely accurate representation of contemporary society - but they'll help you pick up on a lot of small details that have otherwise gotten overlooked over the years. Reading editorials about the Korean war written while it was still ongoing gives a very different picture than reading a modern "interpretation" of the attitudes of the time; modern-day references may overlook the matchless cooker, Shmoos, the changes to daylight savings during WWII, and the casual racism of the Edwardian era, among many other things, but they're all there in the books and magazines of their eras.

I feel your pain, BTW. I'm writing a story set during the first two weeks of August, 1915, and have been reading newspapers from those days to figure out what people were talking about just then - and when, because news didn't always circulate in real time. Just because something happened on the 5th, doesn't mean people were talking about it - or even knew about it - on the 6th. Sigh.

kathrynoh said:
I like the idea of cooking a meal from the period. I'm going to try that.
What period? For that matter, what country? Most US/Commonwealth recipes from about 1800-1910, 1925-1939, and 1965-today are easy enough to make today; it's the pre-19th century, 1910-1925, and 1940-1965 ones you have to watch out for, for various reasons - and French recipes from the interwar period. :/
 

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I wrote a big historical novel - Daughters - set in Palestine in the mid 1850's through 1950.  There are many many memoirs from knowledgeable people who visited the area (it included Jerusalem)and also religious groups who had outposts there. There are also a slew of historical books that trace the events in a general way.  A more intimate source of information were the diaries of the Society of Friends who had schools in the area around this time.  I knew from day to day what was happening.  Another great source was Jerusalem Walks - a book that mapped many of the main streets and registered the shops, banks and establishments that were there.  This gave the book authenticity.

Also, if you know anyone who can trace  relatives back generations of their family living there at the time, do an oral history.



 

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I read quite a lot of 19th century literature or novels that are set during that time (I write Victorian romance and erotica)
and I also visit museums, but most of all (when I have the possibility) I try to visit the actual place where my story is set.

It is a tremendous boost for my creativity and whether I want to or not characters promptly arrive in my head,
demanding that I write about them right now!

(I also bring my camera with me and take quite a lot of pictures, which have been appreciated by quite a few of my readers.
(Here are some of the photos I took last year from the town Bath in England:
http://www.mysecretquill.com/victorian-pictures-photo-bath.html
...Writing a Victorian romance novella after that felt like cheating somehow...)

Happy writing everyone!
 

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Delurking to say: try the historical society in the town (or a town near) where you are writing about.  Not only are they proud of their town's history and usually very eager to help someone writing about them get it right, they can also put you in contact with people that might have been living through the times or events you are writing about (if it is in living memory) OR have made recordings of interviews with people living during that time period.  Nothing beats a living witness!  You can also try university video and audio collections (as an example, University of Maine has the most complete collection of folklore recordings in the U.S.).  Good luck!
 

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I found out the hard way that the setting can be a bitch to research. I have a trunked historical WIP set in Cuba circa 1900. I'm sure there's a lot of historical books in Cuba from that era, but there aren't a lot here. I hit the B&N, the library, and the internet (the internet turned out to be wrong REPEATEDLY, if the books in the library are to be believed). I've put it aside, but it was daunting enough to make me consider writing about something else.
 

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I just want to say from our experience, no matter the level of historical detail and accuracy you write into your novel, be prepared for many readers to be unsatisfied. For our stuff (romance set in the Regency period), our readers are split into two camps: those that read for the romance and the history/setting is secondary, and those that read for the accurate portrayal of Jane Austen's England. Elizabeth definitely writes more for the former, but there are plenty of somewhat disappointed readers in the latter category. I'm not sure how to deal with this disconnect; just thought i'd point it out, since it's tangentially related to the OP.
 

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If you can afford to travel to the setting(s) of your story, the visit lends some authenticity to your descriptions, but it still won't help tap into things that define the characters. Try connecting with reenactment societies, people who are living the particular period. With all research, including library books and the internet, you'll get contradictory sources and sometimes, just wrong / biased info. I tend to go with whatever the majority of sources say. Just keep in mind, you're trying to entertain.
 

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If you can't get somewhere, often tour guides or speakers at those sites will be willing to talk to you on the phone.

I'm a complete nerd though. I'm that person that the tour guide whispers, If you have time afterward, we'll show you that closed room. Honestly, you'd be surprised how excited they are to meet others who are excited about what they do.
 

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Some really good advice in the these replies - all worth following.  I would say that there is another resource that you shouldn't deny - that is yourself - how would you think in such a such situation? - what would you do and what resources would you bring to understand what the character might/might not do?  Historical setting or not, it is your pen. For me I felt I got to be a lot better writer when I gained the confidence to consciously use myself as a resource.

Best

John
 

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I usually buy about a dozen non-fiction books on the era/location. Sometimes you can find journals and letters. Newspapers online, museums, historical societies, YouTube for re-enactors and clothing and weapons enthusiasts, etc. For the US, the Library of Congress has tons of fascinating collections.

If you can't get there, and the location hasn't changed all that much, you can use Google Street View to "walk" around the area. I've found that really helpful.

Pro Tip: Don't forget what came before. We are shaped by not just the times we live in, but the times we grew up in. Don't just plot your characters down into a period, research what's come before that before. What events would have shaped their lives? How have they *become* the people you are writing about. As an example, knowing a little about the impact WWI made on the world can really help flesh out and inform characters living in the 1920s, etc.

 

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RM Prioleau said:
Thank you for the advice, guys! My target setting/era that I wanted to write about was Charleston, South Carolina from 1792 - 1862. Knowing my luck it seems like it might be a difficult era and place to research....
Oh, there will be tons of books with info for you. I'm reading one right now - Mary's World: Love, War and Family Tie in Nineteenth Century Charleston by Richard N Cote. Charleston is/was a fascinating place with a lot of important history. You should have lots of research material available. Have fun!
 
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