Researching Historical Fiction in the Digital Age

9781941861240-Perfect.inddAlmost every young adult novel written requires some research to bring it to life. Poll YA novelists and you’ll probably find them researching everything from medieval weapons and magic spells to lacrosse and drivers license requirements in South Dakota. Change that contemporary realism novel to historical fiction, and you’ve got yourself a writer who probably should be teaching college history at an Ivy League university. To upperclassmen.

With the exception of the whole distraction debate, the internet has been the biggest boon to historical fiction writers since the advent of the Gutenberg printing press. There was a time when historical fiction writers had to leave stories withering on the vine because they couldn’t afford the travel or the time off of work to visit the place where the records they so desperately needed to search were archived. The internet, and the continual effort of libraries and museums to bring their treasures into the digital spotlight, have changed that for many. There are still times when visiting a site is imperative. It can still be difficult to gain access to records held in distant places. But more and more, writers are benefiting from the ever increasing trove of documents and records that can be accessed at the click of a mouse.

How should a writer take advantage of this plethora of internet abundance? Cautiously and gratefully.

The internet is a perfect starting place for historical fiction subjects. When I was writing Leaving Kent State, I was continually consulting the omniscient Google (TM) for information on everything from left-handed guitars and cameras made in 1970 to the weather in Kent, Ohio, on any given day between January and April. Did the 1970 Ford Mustang have cassette capability? I consulted my Google (TM) crystal ball, and, booya, yes it did.

But just because the internet tells you something is true, doesn’t mean it is. So how do you verify that the information you need is accurate? One way is to check multiple sources. Look for sources that are highly respected or have authority. Most companies, for instance, have their company history available online and you may just find the information you need there. Scholarly articles and recognized news outlets are also worthy sources to double check the veracity of your research. For some items, government records may support the information you’re finding on that maybe-kinda-sounds-legit site your search engine offered up. Some sources carry their own authoritative stamp of approval. I trusted The Farmers’ Almanac, for example, for weather (although I also noted the weather patterns when I read local newspapers of the day).

Almost every source you find can be vetted one way or another, and this can be critical to ensure that your information is valid. When I was researching a biography of a colonial era woman, I found repeated misinformation on the internet about her. At first, I believed this information because it was prolifically scattered across the internet. But that research led me to a biography written about her by a college history professor in a well documented book that used primary sources and contradicted the rampant misinformation about this woman, and even explained how it had come into existence.

To thoroughly research your topic, you should always make that extra effort to vet your sources. The internet is a wonderful starting place, but anyone can post anything, and you don’t want to risk your reputation as an author on misinformation. Someone, somewhere, will realize you’ve made a mistake and be sure to call you out on it.

Of course, we can’t always ensure that we have every detail of something that happened in the past correct, but every effort you can make to guarantee that the information you are putting on the page is true will help your readers believe in the past you create and that will help transport them to that past.

There are times when the internet just isn’t going to be enough. Even then, if you can’t travel, you may be able to find nonfiction books that cite primary sources for you. Or you may be able to access the primary sources yourself as libraries and museums bring more and more data online. Contact historical societies and other institutions for information. When I needed to know the application requirements for Pratt University in 1970 for my protagonist, Rachel, I emailed Pratt. It took me a few tries to get to the correct person, but when I did, she was more than willing to help me and gave me the precise requirements on when the application had to be in. Double booya.

When all else fails and you find you have to travel, the research you’ve already done on the internet or through phone calls and emails can help you limit the time you will need to be at a primary resource. I made a lot of trips to Kent, Ohio, while writing Leaving Kent State, but without the internet, I would have had to make twice the number of trips.

There’s nothing quite as good as standing in the place of an historical event and seeing for yourself what it might have looked like. There is no substitute for primary resources when you have to get the facts, as much as they are known, right. And there is something to be said for seeing the topography, viewpoint, and sentiment of a place for yourself. But research in the digital age owes a special debt of gratitude to the wonders of the internet and those who work to make primary information accessible to us all.

Do you have research tips to share? I’d love to hear them!

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