Wednesday’s post by Leah Klocek covered two important lessons on historical research. Today, Leah adds three more lessons. You can find out more about Leah and the work she does at Crossroads Historical Research.
Don’t neglect geography
Ah, geography: history and anthropology’s oft-neglected sibling. As an historian, I can tell you what happened, and sometimes, as a bonus, I can even throw in some theories as to why it happened. If you understand geography, though, you will understand why that very history could happen in the first place. A strong comfort level with geography will inform your characters and the decisions they make.
Don’t believe me? Here’s an example. Let’s talk about Japan (what can I say? Japan is in my wheelhouse). Picture the Japanese islands in your head, or better yet, look at some maps of Japan, like this:
Using this map – which only covers one small aspect of geography – what’s obvious right off the bat is that, in comparison with even the nearest countries, Japan is incredibly prone to natural disasters. Much of this is due to its placement on the Ring of Fire, some is a result of Japan’s geologic history, and some is just, “Well, that’s the climate in this area.” A rundown of the natural disasters Japan faces is nightmare material: earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, tsunamis and storm surges, typhoons, floods, mudslides, and (I assume) giant, fire-breathing lizards.
As a result of the constant and uncontrollable barrage by nature, the Japanese display a driving urge to control all the parts of nature that they can. Many Japanese beaches are seas of concrete, as are riverbanks, while the people flock to artificial beaches like the now-closed Seagaia Ocean Dome. Every leaf that has the chutzpah to fall from its tree will be swiftly terminated with extreme prejudice. As a whole, the Japanese are far less interested in the preservation of nature and wildlife than many other countries (a visit to a Japanese aquarium is an intensely uncomfortable experience, as your fellow patrons will openly discuss how delicious all these fish would be).
So, yes, you can write a novel set in mid-1900s Japan, but if you decide to make your main character a nature-loving conservationist, then you should understand the cultural context that will influence her actions and the actions of those around her, which have been shaped by a lifetime of interaction with their homeland’s geography.
Make use of the resources at your fingertips
There are essentially two types of resources today: those that are online, and those that are not. The ones that are not online still require good, old-fashioned, “wipe the dust off of the book” research. But much documentation and information is readily available through websites, which don’t require you to travel across the world. Here are a few general websites that have been especially useful to me in my research:
Eyewitness to History is exactly what it sounds like. A rather plain and ad-filled website hides a valuable collection of excerpts from first-hand accounts from all throughout history. It’ll give you some great ideas and at least one cited source per page for you to follow.
Best of History Websites is definitely strongly tilted towards teachers, but it’s still quite helpful to the rest of us. It’s an index of websites organized by time and place in history. Each website listed within the larger index includes a description of what it holds and a review of the website for usability and accuracy – and there are some amazing websites in there. It also has a section specifically aimed at researchers containing advice and tools to assist both beginners and experts.
The Internet History Sourcebooks Project contains collections of public domain and copy-permitted historical texts. Here you will find an index of a wide variety of primary source documents from just about everywhere and everywhen. The page is old and not often updated, but don’t let this stop you.
And finally, The Avalon Project is a digital library of historical documents related to law and diplomacy dating back to the beginning of written history. It’s a veritable cornucopia of documents ranging from Roman Republican agrarian laws to the 9/11 Commission Report. As many, if not most, historical plots intersect with conflict, law, or diplomacy, bookmarking The Avalon Project will not be a decision you regret.
Accept that sometimes the precise information you want is unavailable
When faced with an obstacle to finding the information he seeks, an experienced researcher will keep going and will inevitably find a new source to examine, a new expert to email, a new depth to plumb. That indefatigability is part of what makes us great. It can also be a weakness, however, because sometimes – especially when we’ve been on a roll – we don’t know when to stop looking. Unfortunately, the very nature of history means that, in the course of both human and natural events, sources will disappear and be lost forever, while some information may never have been set down in the first place.
When writing historical fiction, we use great swaths of information to populate and flavor the stories we create, and it does not do to get hung up on one or two pieces of elusive data. If you’ve used all of the resources at your disposal, if you’ve asked every expert you can find, if you simply cannot turn up that magic source that will tell you what you want to know… Take a step back. Consider that, just because you’ve already spent several hours of your time searching for definitive evidence on whether Charlotte Corday’s severed head actually blushed when slapped by the executioner doesn’t mean that it will be worth your time and energy to continue with that line of inquiry (look up the “Sunk Cost Fallacy”).
Once your head has cleared and you’ve gained a little perspective, think about how you can work around this lacuna in your story. How important is that detail, really? Can you change it to something else? Can you leave it out? Or, if that moment is really the sine qua non of your story, are you comfortable taking a small artistic liberty in order to maintain your plot and characters intact? Most of the time, you’ll find that your missing piece of information really isn’t as important as you had built it up to be in your head.
Many thanks for being so generous, Leah. You’ve given me, and I suspect many others, some great ideas for their research activities.
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M.K. Tod writes historical fiction and blogs about all aspects of the genre at A Writer of History. Her latest novel, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE is set in WWI France and is available from Amazon, Nook, Kobo, Google Play and iTunes. Her debut novel, UNRAVELLED: Two wars. Two affairs. One marriage. is also available from these retailers.