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Historical Novels—Your Research To-Do List

[1]Please welcome Lydia Kang [2], author of several books, including the newly released Beautiful Poison [3], to Writer Unboxed today!

Lydia is a physician and author of fiction, poetry, and non-fiction. She was born in Baltimore, Maryland and graduated from Columbia University and New York University School of Medicine. She completed her residency and chief residency at Bellevue Hospital in New York City and currently lives in the midwest, where she continues to practice internal medicine.

Beautiful Poison, set “just beyond the Gilded Age, in the mist-covered streets of New York,” demanded that Lydia research many things, from Spanish influenza, poisons and more–a skill set she’ll share with us today.

“Writing historical fiction requires a certain amount of passion, but passion only gets you so far in the research process,” said Lydia. “I wish I’d had a list like this to help me when I started writing historical, so I’m happy to share the neater version of the chaotic process I had to figure out myself!”

You can learn more about Lydia and Beautiful Poison on her website [2], and by following her on Twitter [4] and Facebook [5].

Historical Novels—Your Research To-Do List

Before I wrote A BEAUTIFUL POISON, my historical mystery novel, I’d fallen in love with the year 1918. The Gilded Age was ending and the roaring twenties had yet to even purr. I’d wanted to include true events in my story—the emergence of the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner at Bellevue Hospital; the worldwide influenza epidemic; the horrors of World War I, and the infamous poisoning of the radium girl dial painters.

It was an enormous task, but this is how I got my history work done so I could tell the story of Allene, Jasper, and Birdie with confidence.

Start with historical nonfiction. Go for award-winning nonfiction books that depict people, places, and events. I read books that were beautifully researched and entrancingly entertaining. A choice few were Deborah Blum’s THE POISONER’S HANDBOOK and John M. Barry’s THE GREAT INFLUENZA.

Poach bibliographies. If nonfiction books are the trees, bibliographies are the roots. Dig deep, but be wary of interesting yet haphazard side trips that aren’t helpful for the task at hand. I used Archive.org often, which has free online books from the last several centuries.

Fall down the Google/Pinterest black hole. Then dig yourself out. Everyone does it! Some advice, though:

  1. Make a folder on your browser’s bar to bookmark everything. Retracing steps is a pain.
  2. Don’t waste hours on a minor detail. Asterisk it in the manuscript, and move on.
  3. If it’s a key piece of your plot, check the validity of your source, especially if you found it on a random blog or Pinterest.

Read historical fiction…carefully. An obvious instinct is, “How did other authors do this?” But remember, novelists don’t always get things right. Excellently researched novels are a complement to your research, not a substitution. They are fiction, after all. Unless…

[3]
“An absolute gem for murder mystery fans, with a perfect period feel and fascinating forensic detail.” —Lindsay Jayne Ashford, author of The Color of Secrets

Read novels that were once contemporary. My setting was 1918. So I read and reread Fitzgerald, Hemingway and others who lived then and wrote novels that were contemporary at the time. Which brings me to other contemporary stuff…

Get your (virtual) hands on memoirs and documents. Hemingway’s personal letters were enormously helpful. Via Google, I found more letters and diaries that described what a normal day was like, what kind of candy was eaten, how people spoke, what clothes they wore, etc. Birth, death, and burial info is often searchable, as well as documents like draft cards.

Map things out. I mean literal maps, not plot maps. DavidRumsey.com is a huge resource where you can look at maps on your computer or purchase a print. I also went to resources such as Wikimedia Commons and printed out maps. The New York Public Library digital archives have a huge store of amazing maps, too.

Key in on language. Every time I came across slang terms or any language that was 1918ish, I wrote it down. If I noticed memorable phrases in books, I highlighted them. I ended up having pages and pages of words and phrases that I constantly used.

Make timelines. I always referred to these to be sure I was on track with how my plot corresponded with real life. Wikipedia has basics, and I double-checked them. There is a great series of books called Decades by Vincent Tomkins that goes over specific newsworthy and cultural timelines for each decade of the 20th century.

Check newspaper and magazine archives. The New York Times is your friend! Or the Delineator, or the Tribune. The New York Times “TimesMachine” was a wonderful step back into 1918. I read a lot of issues from that year to anchor some of my plot details, such as the ongoing drafts for World War I.

Have a look at visual imagery archives. Online archives are everywhere once you start looking. The NYC Municipal Archives has photos from my period of interest. If you’re researching an era pre-photographs, archives of etches and paintings can help out, searchable on Wellcome Images, for example, or the New York Public Library online archives.

Consult with real people. If you know an expert, ask nicely for help with details and if they’d be willing to read a draft for historical accuracy. Consider a trip to visit archives, museums, and historical societies for those original items you need for research. Most people I contacted via email or phone did contact me back eventually.

There you go. That was my research to-do list that helped me write A BEAUTIFUL POISON. It’s all nice and neat and organized. And though you may not feel nice and neat and organized when you research your book, at least you’ll have this road map to help you feel a little less overwhelmed. Good luck! And happy writing!

Have additional research tips you’d like to share — whether you write historical fiction or contemporary? The floor is yours.