Historical Fiction Writers as Archive Users – an Important Survey

A Canadian university is studying the use of archives through a survey. Please consider taking the survey ASAP. Deadline is June 9th. The following is background. With thanks to Lilly Decouto of Mount Saint Vincent University.

When people think of an archive, they may have this picture of a historian or archivist perusing through old records and dusty books. However, historians are not the only people to use archives. In fact, most archives are public institutions and open to anyone who wants to research something whether it be tracing their own family lineage, historical curiosity, or research for a historical writing project. Alina Ruiz, the Head Archivist and Records Manager at Mount Saint Vincent University, Halifax, Nova Scotia, focuses on alternative archival users in her project “Historical Fiction and the Archives: Creative Writers as an Integral Archival User Group.” 

In academic research literature, writers have often been overlooked and understudied as archive users, which Alina views to be part of what is holding archives back in regard to service, outreach, and education for non-historians. Her aim is to use a survey (quantitative data) on who is using the archives, who is not, why, how their experience using the archive was. The goals of the study are as follows:

  1. To explore how archival material has been used in the creation of literary works, with focus on the historical novel.
  2. To explain the connection between archival theory and literary theory in order to demonstrate why writers are an important user group of archives.
  3. To gain a better understanding of the specific challenges that writers of historical fiction face when looking for and using archives.
  4. To make recommendations to archival professionals on practices for working with writers as a user group.

The only other qualitative and quantitative research done on fiction writers as a user group of archives was Caryn Radick’s 2016 study on romance writers, and while many romance writers may also be historical fiction writers, not all historical fiction writers are romance writers. Alina seeks to fill this gap in academic archival literature. 

Why Would Writers Use a Historical Archive?

There are a number of reasons why writers may consult historical materials and archives. For one, even if they are not a historical fiction writer, they may gain inspiration from some of the documents, dairies, court records, and photographs available in archives. Moreover, the historical novel can also be a historical source, often being analyzed by those studying literature. Those interested in the life of a particular author may also use the archive to study their writing style and experiences in order to improve their own writing approaches. 

For historical fiction writers, perhaps they have an era of time, a place, or a historical event that interests them that they wish to write about. A lot of the time, the deeply personal details of someone’s life are limited online, or online material may cut out something seemingly unimportant that may be the inspiration for a character or novel. In some cases, a writer may visit the archive with no project in mind but in search of one. Something as simple as a family recipe book or catalogue of household items and expenses may open the imagination to someone’s life and story. 

If you are interested in helping out with this research project, please complete the anonymous survey. Those who complete the survey have the option to be redirected to a page where they may submit their email and enter a chance to win a $250 e-gift card to the bookstore of their choice. 

While this study mainly focuses on Canadian historical fiction writers, any writer who has used an archive for their research or has written a historical novel relating to Canada may participate. Moreover, you do not need to be an archives user to respond, as we are equally interested in knowing why authors are not using archives. The results of the research will inform archival professionals about potential improvements to services and outreach for non-traditional archives users.    

This survey will remain open to blog readers until June 9th, 2024. Click here to take the survey.

Many thanks for drawing this to our attention, Lilly. I look forward to seeing the results.


M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her new novel, THAT WAS THEN, will release next week. Her latest historical novel is THE ADMIRAL’S WIFE, a dual timeline set in Hong Kong. Mary’s other novels, PARIS IN RUINS, TIME AND REGRET, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from AmazonNookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on FacebookTwitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.

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