Primary Sources: Letters, Diaries, Newspapers, Official Documents, Books written during that time period
Secondary Sources: Research Texts, Scholarly Articles, TRUSTED Blogs (from museums, historical societies), Ph.D. dissertations
Reliability: Information from a single source is SKEPTICAL, from two sources, DOABLE, triple is TRUSTWORTHY
1. Have fun with the research, but do your homework. This should go without saying, but I’ll say it anyway. Borrow some good reference books. Become comfortable with the time period. Try to understand both the larger scope of the period, while examining aspects of daily life. This will help create an authentic backdrop for your novel.
2. Let the characters engage with the historical details. This goes along with that “show don’t tell” truism writers are told all the time. Rather than just dumping a bunch of facts on the poor reader, let your characters interact with these details with all these senses. Let them smell the offal dumped onto the cobblestone streets. Let them squint in the fading light of the tallow candles. Let them feel the tingling sensation as the physician places a leech on their bare skin.
3. Allow your characters to question and explore their place in society. This will help reveal the larger political, social, cultural context of the time. What were the expectations for women? For sailors? For criminals? How did people from different parts of society interact with one another?
4. Use the internet wisely, to inspire and inform. The internet can be a researcher’s best friend, especially for arm-chair time travelers. Need to know how long it would take to walk from the Louvre to the Eiffel tower? Use the walking feature on mapquest. Need to see the inside of the Hagia Sophia? Check the dozens of tourist videos on YouTube. Sometimes I’m amazed by what the internet can’t answer. Certainly, the internet is a treasure trove of interactive maps, images, videos, and historical documents, which can be both informative and inspiring.
5. The internet can be bad, bad, bad for historical research. Unfortunately, the internet is also full of flawed information, lies, plagiarized material and half truths. (I’m looking at you, Wikipedia! Which I do use, but cautiously). Check all “facts” against at least two sources when possible. If a story or definition is repeated nearly verbatim in more than one source, there’s a good chance someone simply copied the information without verifying the accuracy. This is how a lot of bad information gets passed along and taken as “true.”
6. Don’t fret the details; let the story be told. Strive for accuracy, but when necessary, make your best informed guess and move on. And if you have to fudge something, well, that’s what the ‘historical note’ at the end of your novel is for!
Article from The Writer's Digest by Susanna Calkins