Setting – Research Sources

Two weeks ago, in Setting is Like an Iceberg, I included a grouped list of the ingredients that constitute setting – one of the seven elements essential to transporting readers in time and place. Where, you might ask, does an author find information about those ingredients?

Primary sources are foundational. They include: first-hand accounts, letters, diaries offer insights on period dialogue and attitudes, memoirs, maps, legal documents including wills, deeds, court rolls, treaties etc., which can also give a sense of language and attitudes of the time. Then there are judicial reports, school log books, ships’ logs, local newspapers, transcripts of old court cases, journals, advertisements, photographs, cookbooks, etiquette manuals, dictionaries of the time. Civil and military records.

Museums contain a wealth of primary material carefully collected and curated to reflect a particular time and place. I remember being in Stockholm where a 17th century ship that sank on its maiden voyage is on display –  mammoth, majestic, intricately carved, it gives ample evidence of shipbuilding practices of the time and could fuel the imagination with what it must have been like to sail such a beauty.

Site visits can be considered primary source material, although never assume that things look exactly the same today as they did in the past. Site visits allow an author to appreciate buildings, landscape, flora and fauna; to feel the land and see the people; to hear the language and engage your senses; to walk the streets and imagine your characters doing the same. Is the earth rich and dark or red and dusty? Are the streets narrow and windy or wide open? Do people speak with a lilt? What building materials were used in Haussmann’s Paris? Where does the sun set and the shadows fall in late September?

Secondary sources include academic writing, non-fiction books, archaeological reports, reference books, biographies, academic lectures, subject-matter experts. Paintings and contemporary portraiture  from the time period show people, clothing, how much traffic is around and what sort, the shop fronts and advertisements. They also illustrate attitudes and interests of the time. Re-enactment groups work faithfully to demonstrate life the way it was, wars the way they were fought. Books on historical slang and foreign phrases. Books on furniture, costume and houses.

Internet trawling is a favourite pastime of authors. Be very wary though of sources and it’s best to corroborate ‘facts’ with multiple sources. Nonetheless, you can find amazing articles, reports, historical timelines, sites dedicated to the fashion of a particular time period or to a specific regiment’s experience during one of the world wars.

Project Gutenberg and Google feee books offer out of print novels, diaries, journals and more. I’ve found fascinating accounts of World War One and the siege of Paris using Project Gutenberg.

Where else can you look? I’ve assembled a list based on my own work as well as suggestions from other writers.

  • Period novels (novels written at the time) to get a sense of how people thought about events then and not how a contemporary author thinks about them through the lens of today
  • Poetry of the time period
  • Government collections
  • Talking to locals
  • Bibliographies are goldmines that lead to other sources and experts
  • For language and dialogue, talking to actors and voice coaches
  • Dictionaries of quotations from the time period.
  • Books of names can offer popular names of the time. Or you can search plays, letters, poetry, stories, and newspapers of the time for suitable names that were popular in the period.
  • Copies of Who’s Who and Whitaker’s Almanack or equivalent
  • Hotel and tourist guides and maps from the era
  • Google maps; Google earth
  • Graveyards and memorials are also helpful for names, facts about your potential characters, typical life spans, class differences, causes of death, family sentiments
  • Broadsheets and plays are ways to access the authentic vocabulary of the time
  • Recordings conducted at the time.
  • Interviews conducted during the time period.
  • Pinterest boards – it’s fascinating the material collected by others!
  • Town histories
  • Farm journals
  • Listen to music, songs and instruments from the period
  • TV and film adaptations
  • Check records on the period for mentions of floods, snow, hot dry summers
  • Newspaper archives
  • Museum websites
  • Historical societies,
  • Educational sites like PBS
  • Children’s books

The possibilities are endless! So I’ll leave you with a quote from Helen Bryan author of War Brides and The Sisterhood.

Another good thing about research is that it’s possible to do it almost indefinitely without actually writing anything, while looking impressively busy.

Of course, it’s also possible to write lengthy articles for your blog instead of actually writing the next chapter of your novel  🙂

See you next time.


M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website

Writing Family Sagas – the Next Generation by Derek Birks

scars-from-the-pastDerek Birks and I met in 2014 at the Historical Novel Society conference in London where we talked about our respective time periods and the passion we share for writing historical fiction. He’s the author of a family saga set during the Wars of the Roses. Today, Derek discusses about the unique challenges of writing family sagas.

WRITING FAMILY SAGAS – the Next Generation by Derek Birks

When I started writing historical fiction, I did not really intend to write a family saga but that’s what happened.

I intended to write a series featuring a small group of characters trudging a bloody path through the Wars of the Roses. What emerged though, even in the first book, Feud, was a story about three fictional young siblings and those who served and loved them. Creating characters within a family gave me all sorts of connections and frictions that were born simply of the blood relationship between characters. What difference does it make? Well, for example, it doesn’t feel great to be betrayed by anyone, but if you are betrayed by a brother? It just adds a special ingredient to the relationship – and the story.

However, writing about the family of a minor fifteenth century lord, meant that I was also writing about those who lived in the same household: the servants. So I actually had more than one family all interacting with each other.

In terms of research, I have to say that this is a nightmare.

Writing multiple storylines required me to research, for each one, the historical background, locations, local history – not to mention any real historical figures with whom my characters interacted! In my first book I had three main characters all in different parts of the country. This meant I had to research far more places and circumstances than if I had just followed one central character through the story.

I visited a lot of places, sometimes real locations such as Middleham Castle in Yorkshire, and sometimes completely untouched places. Once I stood on a hill at a place called Queenhill, near the river Severn, and asked my wife where she thought the fictional castle should go.

A family saga sees it all: birth, death and everything in between.

I need to research it all: medieval childbirth, Christmas celebrations, funeral traditions, manorial estate management, etc, etc. Now you might say that a writer of historical fiction has to do all those things anyway, but with a family saga the sheer number of characters is that much greater. With each new book I have to remember the detail of their backstories. You can’t ignore them for long either otherwise the reader wonders what’s going on. But hey, I’m not complaining – I love it!

The interaction with real historical figures is critical because it fixes your fictional characters in time, place and circumstance. In this respect I found myself asking the same research question over and over again: where is the real person at a particular moment in time? It’s no good having him meet up with your fictional characters if it is recorded that he is somewhere else at the time! Not so bad when you are dealing with one or two people but a bit trickier when you are juggling the whereabouts of a dozen scattered all over Europe.

So over a period of seven or eight years since I started writing, I had invested a lot of time and research in this saga centred on the Elder family, but after four books spanning 12 years of history, I decided to end it, intending that most of them would go out in one great blaze of glory. Well, the characters who survived the third book, Kingdom of Rebels, were not having any of that; they wanted to live on!

I was already writing the final book, The Last Shroud, and also looking at what the next project might be but, the more I researched other periods and other characters, the more the familiar ones pestered me. You know in the zombie movies where the hero thinks he’s killed someone and then – shazam! – they’re back! Well that’s what it felt like and so, finally, I decided to at least hear them out. Could I really take some of these characters into a whole new series?

The last thing I wanted to do with my ‘brand new series’ was repeat the stories of before, so I took my cue from the historical fiction author who most inspired me to write: Alexandre Dumas. With his Three Musketeers he decided to miss out great chunks of time, revisiting his characters twenty and thirty years later. Wilbur Smith, amongst others I’m sure, used a similar formula. So, I began to consider this as a possibility.

How would it work? First of all, though I could keep some characters, I would have to create a new and younger generation. If I was going to do that, I’d have to act fast because it would need to be written into the final book which was already half-written!. Children would need to be born to provide my next generation. Thus, I had to decide at once. I can tell you that it’s strange feeling when, as you are planning to kill off a few important characters, you are also trying to work out how the new ones can be born!

I needed to consider the dramatis personae of the new series as a whole.

I already had an enormous family tree for the Elders, not to mention sundry other families. If I wasn’t careful both I and the reader would be overwhelmed by the plethora of characters! The pollaxe had to be wielded, but how? I tried to look at it from the reader’s perspective: what would my existing readers want and what could I do that might attract new readers?

I tried to preserve at least some of the characters that I knew were popular with readers – others I’m afraid perished in The Last Shroud. (I still get complaints about that!)

I wanted a blend of old and young too – you can’t just replace one generation with another. As well as that, I needed new faces that could bring something fresh to the stories. One of the joys of writing Scars From the Past, was placing existing characters alongside or against new ones, thereby creating new conflicts and liaisons all over the place – great fun!

Because I was starting something new, I could also change the parameters of my storylines.

This new story had to be different. Of course I could age my characters, introducing subtle changes here and there – for few of us stand still, do we? But the most crucial change was to make the new story a love story – this was new territory for me, so dear readers, please be gentle with me!

There were elements of romance in my first series but Scars From the Past is centred upon a difficult relationship between two 17 year olds. Difficult because one is the heir to the Elder lands, John Elder, and the other is Lizzie Holton, the daughter of the manor housekeeper. They have spent most of their childhood together, but one is destined to be a lord and the other will remain a servant.

This ill-matched pair are clearly doomed to failure. When the story begins, John is pretty much at odds with the world and decides that everyone will be better off if he just leaves. Suffice to say, he gets that wrong…

The time period is obviously important because if I set the new series ten years after the old, that would take me to 1481 which was a bit of a lull in the Wars of the Roses. How could that work?

What I decided to do was to use the young Edward, Prince of Wales, as part of the story – an attractive idea because for so long he has been something of an ‘also-ran’ in the history of the period. I wanted to make him as real as I could and the second book will see him take centre stage even more…

Whilst it’s important for the new series to be different, I need to maintain for loyal readers the style and character of the first series: accurate history, a character-driven plot, fast moving story, unrelenting action and tension that builds as the story unfolds to its climax. Actually, all of that sounds a pretty tall order. Hopefully, I’ve succeeded in blending the new generation with the old in the telling of the tale.

Scars From the Past: An unwelcome legacy. An impossible love. A relentless enemy.

By 1481, England has been free from civil war for ten years. The Elder family have discovered a fragile peace in the lands they fought to win back, yet scars from the past remain with them all.

Scars From the Past is currently out on pre-order as an e-book and will be published on November 24th with the paperback launching a week later. Also available in the US.

Fascinating, Derek. And you’ve given me some great ideas for the novel I’m currently writing! Wishing you lots of success with Scars from the Past.

FOR MORE ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION follow A WRITER OF HISTORY (using the widget on the left sidebar)

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction and blogs about all aspects of the genre at A Writer of History. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union on August 16, 2016. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website

Setting the Setting by Theresa Hupp author of Now I’m Found

now-im-foundToday, I’m welcoming author Theresa Hupp to the blog. Theresa and I have connected on many occasions and share a love of historical fiction, of course! Theresa has written two novels set in the American West in the late 1840s, Lead Me Home, and its sequel, the newly published Now I’m Found and I asked her to talk about her research into Oregon and California history for her novels.

Setting the setting: Researching Place and Time in the American West by Theresa Hupp

Wagon train migrations headed west on the Oregon Trail every year from the late 1830s until 1869 when the Transcontinental Railroad was completed. Some emigrants still made the journey by wagon even after the railroad was in place.

Readers have asked me why I set my first historical novel, Lead Me Home, in 1847. Part of the answer dates back to my childhood, and another part dates back many generations to my ancestors and to famous missionaries in the Oregon Territory.

I grew up in Eastern Washington State, about an hour away from the Whitman Mission site founded by Marcus and Narcissa Whitman in 1836. My family took several day trips to the Mission, and the first diorama I ever saw (around age 8) was at the Mission and told the story of the Whitman Massacre by the Cayuse. That’s when I first became intrigued by the Oregon Trail and the people who emigrated to the West. What propelled men and women to leave their homes and trek two-thousand miles to an unsettled wilderness?

By the time I was a young adult, I knew I would someday write a novel about a couple traveling the Oregon Trail. In my daydreams over the years, I developed the characters of Mac McDougall and Jenny Calhoun, the protagonists in both Lead Me Home and Now I’m Found.

Also in my young adulthood, I learned I had a great-great-great-grandfather who brought his family to Oregon by covered wagon in 1848. The family settled in Polk County, Oregon, and remained there through my maternal grandfather’s generation. Because of my family history, I first considered having Mac and Jenny travel to Oregon in 1848.

But I really wanted Mac and Jenny and their wagon company to meet the Whitmans. So when I realized the Whitman Massacre happened in November 1847, I knew I had to set Lead Me Home in 1847. My fictional characters pass through the Mission in September 1847, and a crucial turning point for Mac and Jenny takes place at the Mission.

One of the resources I used in my research for Lead Me Home was a book titled, Marcus and Narcissa Whitman and the Opening of Old Oregon, by Clifford M. Drury (available on the National Park Service Whitman Mission website). From Drury’s book, I learned Marcus Whitman was not present at the Mission in September 1847. Therefore, Mac and Jenny only met Narcissa.

Another Oregon Trail resource I used was the maps Charles Preuss created after the John Frémont expeditions in 1842-1844. I compared those maps to Google Maps to locate the present-day locations and topography of campsites for my fictional wagon company. Of course, where rivers have been dammed and cities now cover stopping points, my research required more imagination. For example, Celilo Falls, where Native American tribes fished on the Columbia River, was dammed in 1954, a few years before I was born. But I remember my father describing weirs and scaffolds the Native Americans built to spear fish from the churning cascades. Their way of life was something I wanted to include in Lead Me Home.

Those are examples of how I conducted my research into the West. Diaries, letters, weather reports, and early newspapers also provided primary source information to improve the veracity of my story.

I may have had a reason for setting Lead Me Home in 1847, but that decision perfectly prepared the way for the sequel, Now I’m Found, which takes place in 1848-1850. Mac decides to leave Oregon in early 1848, and he starts back East on a ship bound first for California. He arrives in San Francisco in March 1848—just as the local newspapers report the discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill. Mac is swept into the gold fever of the era. After a year of prospecting, Mac uses his training as a lawyer to obtain a role at the California Constitutional Convention in 1849.

If the route to Oregon was the primary plot device in Lead Me Home, the rapid development of California during the early Gold Rush years was the device I used to move my story along in Now I’m Found. I relied heavily on newspapers published in California and Oregon and on prospector diaries to write Now I’m Found. Almost every anecdote in the novel had its basis in first-hand accounts from the times. Such stories include the California posse avenging killings of prospectors at Murderer’s Bar, the hanging of a prostitute for stabbing her rapist, and the vitriolic debates over slavery at the Constitutional Convention.

And each of these historical incidents inspires Mac to act—for better or for worse—until he realizes what he most yearns for in life.

Wagon trains, massacres, the California gold rush, debates over slavery – you’ve been living in a, exciting and volatile time and place, Theresa. Many thanks for telling us about it and best wishes with your latest novel.

Now I’m Found by Theresa Hupp – After reaching Oregon by wagon with Jenny Calhoun, Caleb (Mac) McDougall must choose—return to the East or remain on the frontier. Mac’s passion for Jenny has grown, but abuse in her past numbs her to his feelings.

Mac starts east, then learns of the California gold strike and joins hordes of prospectors seeking wealth, independence, and adventure. Alone in Oregon, Jenny forges a new life but fears losing her home if neighbors learn she is not Mac’s wife.

Separately, Mac and Jenny confront violence, temptation, and heartache in a savage and abundant land. Their quests for happiness travel paths more tortuous than the Oregon Trail they conquered together.

FOR MORE ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION follow A WRITER OF HISTORY (using the widget on the left sidebar)

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction and blogs about all aspects of the genre at A Writer of History. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union on August 16, 2016. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website