Welcome to part three of an ongoing series of posts about how authors conduct research for their books. Today it is my pleasure to have ROSI HOLLINBECK talk about her research for an MG she is writing.
If you write historical fiction, you know research will be a big part of what you do if you are going to do it well. Research is actually one of the things I like best about writing historical fiction. It is so much fun to learn about everyday life in a particular period I haven’t experienced and to find fun bits of history to drop into my story and make it come to life. But where to begin and how to go about doing the research is the dilemma. All writers need to develop methods that will work for them and help them dig for the historical gold.
One thing editors never want to see in a bibliography is the word Wikipedia. After all, just about anyone can get into a Wikipedia article and add to it or change what is there, so they can be a bit unreliable. That said, Wikipedia is where I always begin. Not because I think I will be able to take facts from the articles and use them, but because when you scroll all the way to the end of the article, you will find a pretty comprehensive bibliography. That is the place to begin. Look through the list and find good adult books by respected authors, the more recent the better. I once wrote an article on spec for a children’s magazine for which I used a book that had been printed in the 1970s. I later heard the editor who had turned the article down speak to a group, and she complained that she had no articles on that particular topic in her inventory and really wanted some. I spoke to her after and mentioned I had sent such an article. She remembered it and told me the sources I had used were too old. The main source I had used was an excellent adult book with the same focus as the article. I hopped on line and found the author of that book had revised and published a much later edition. I polished up the article and listed the later edition. This time the editor took the article to acquisitions!
This doesn’t mean you should never look at older sources. I am working on something right now where I am using books published in the 1920s, but one is the published diaries of my subject and the other is a book written by the subject’s sister about her famous brother. Diaries, letters, and biographical writings by family members are terrific sources no matter how long ago they were published. Also, even though I said to look for good adult books, don’t overlook good children’s nonfiction books as they might well have good bibliographies that will lead you to other sources. If you use a book you don’t own, copy the title page, the copyright page, and every page on which you found pertinent information and file those.
Look for newspaper and magazine articles in the Wikipedia list. You can access most articles through on-line services where you can not only read the articles but print copies out for your records. It is a lot easier to go back to an article you have printed out and filed than to go back to the on-line service and look it up again. You want to keep records of every source you use. You will need to have that information when you try to sell your book or article. There are some good on-line services that are free. The Library of Congress: https://loc.gov/ is a good place to start. Some of the on-line services are quite expensive, but you will probably be able to access them through a library. My public library has some services I can use from home by putting in my card number. Some I have had to use at the library of a local university. Make friends with the librarians. They love to help people find things and will lead you to discover even more and better information.
Check the bibliographies of any source you use. These might lead you to better, more specific sources. If you run across a section in a book that is very specific to what you want, check the end notes to see where that author got their information.
If there are people still around from the time period about which you are writing, contact them and see if you can interview them. If your story is set in Medieval England, you are out of luck, but if your story is about surviving the Dustbowl in Oklahoma, you might just be able to talk to someone who did. Don’t be shy. Ask if you can chat about old times. Chances are you will find a real treasure. Make sure to ask if you can record your conversation. While you are talking to them, ask if they have any family diaries or letters that might help in your research. It never hurts to ask, and you never know what you will uncover.
Ask a college professor who specializes in the area of your subject or write to an author who has written about your subject. Most of these folks love to talk about their special subject and can fill you in with lots of information and lead you to other sources that will be helpful to you.
You can get some great sources cheaply. My historical novel is set in 1926. I was able to buy some helpful CDs on line. One is a 1925 Sears catalogue. Did you know Sears sold food? I was able to find out the prices clothing, food, hardware, tools, camping gear, etc. from that. My character is a boy scout and refers to his Boy Scout Manual many times. Since he is pretty poor, he doesn’t have a new one. I was able to get a 1914 scout manual on a CD for a few dollars. I bought a 1926 Farmer’s Almanac that even helped me get the phases of the moon correct in several scenes. And the 1925 Columbian Atlas I found on Amazon helped me get the routes of roads and trains right. If your character talks about the 1926 World Series, as mine does, you had better know who was in it, who won the games, and what the scores were. It’s all on line. Trust me. If you don’t get those details right, someone will complain!
There are many books available on the craft of writing and some have good sections on research. My go-to book when it comes to research is Anatomy of Nonfiction: Writing True Stories for Children by Margery Facklam and Peggy Thomas. It has two chapters on research that are chock full of great tips. It’s a very accessible book and will help you be a better writer whether you are writing fiction or nonfiction.
Don’t forget to get back to your writing! Sometimes I have so much fun doing the research that I get lost in Research Land and forget to work on my own writing for days and days.
Rosi Hollinbeck writes mostly for children — fiction, non-fiction, and poetry. Her work has been published in Highlights, Highlights High Five, and Humpty Dumpty magazines, The Noyo River Review, and some anthologies. She has a middle-grade historical novel, a contemporary YA novel, and some picture book manuscripts out on submission. She also writes book reviews specializing in children’s books for the San Francisco Book Review, the Manhattan Book Review, the Tulsa Book Review and for her own blog which you can find at https://rosihollinbeck.com/blog/.