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!”
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:
- Make a folder on your browser’s bar to bookmark everything. Retracing steps is a pain.
- Don’t waste hours on a minor detail. Asterisk it in the manuscript, and move on.
- 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… [Read more…]