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.
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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, Nook, Kobo, Google Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.