I recently had the opportunity to make use of my master’s degree in history when I gave a talk to a local writers group on how to use history to spice up your fiction writing. The idea is that history is filled with stories–millions and millions of them. Down through the ages cultures have developed, flourished, and fallen, each of them expressing a path uniquely its own. There’s little need to do extensive world-building in your story when you realize the manifold variations of government systems, religions, wars, art forms, costumes, literature, philosophy and so on that have arisen in the past. But how do you find out about such things?
Does it sound boring? Fie up on you if it does! It’s not, once you get the hang of it, and then you will find yourself lost down endless tunnels of delight, rarely to emerge, like a gopher whose treasure lie underground. Wait. Did I just compare you to a gopher? Er … a quite splendid gopher, I assure you.
Let’s get at it. You are after two things in research: primary sources and secondary sources. Both have their places and both work off one another and provide you with juicy, delectable details.
Primary sources include historical and legal documents, eyewitness accounts, results of experiments, statistical data, pieces of creative writing, audio and video recordings, speeches, photographs, artifacts, tools, and other objects. In the more modern age, primary sources can be found in interviews, surveys, fieldwork, email, blogs, listservs, and newsgroups. They are firsthand experiences such as a letter about a battle from a Civil War soldier; a diary entry from the Queen of England about her coronation; photograph of a woman, arms raised in horror, after a student is shot at Kent State University in the 1970s. They can also be artifacts like ancient Greek urns with painted figures on it (beware though – some of these are downright pornographic. Naughty Greeks.). Basically, primary sources are the closest you get to what happened in the past. Consider this primary source from the beginning of Popol Vuh from 16th century Guatemala:
Secondary sources depend upon primary sources; they are the study of them and the interpretation of them. They describe, discuss, analyze, evaluate, summarize, contextualize, and process primary sources. Secondary source materials are articles in newspapers or magazines, book or movie reviews, articles found in scholarly journals that discuss or evaluate someone else’s original research, and most frequently, books and web collections. Here is an example of a secondary source that discusses the Popol Vuh:
Pretty big difference, right? Both are necessary for research. Secondary sources so you can get your head around the culture/event/person from the past in an objective, intellectual way. Primary sources are present, impactful, vivid, in your face – and studying them will inform your fiction by helping your tone, voice, setting, and more.
Okay, so now that we have terms down, here is how you are going to go about finding them. With the ….
Isn’t it beautiful? And by beautiful I mean barely acceptable, appearance wise. But the info! Oh, the info! Let’s dig in.
On the left you see those nifty arrows. You’ll start at the BOTTOM of the triangle, which are sources that are okay, and you will proceed up the triangle to sources that are better and better and more wonderful until finally you will reach the apex of amazing primary sources! *cue dramatic music*
- Start with Children’s Books and/or Encyclopedias/Wikipedia
Once you have a general idea of your topic, such as Ancient Rome, I recommend that you start your research with children’s books. Say … what? Heck yeah! And not just because I’ve written a gozillion of them. Children’s books – usually middle grade, not picture books or alphabet books! – are great at distilling information down to a level that will quickly and clearly orient you to place, time, and the people/institutions associated with it.
An encyclopedia is also good for this. I often go to the juvenile section of encyclopedias to get the simplest information, and work my way up. Respected encyclopedias are the best, such as Britannica. My local library has a subscription to the online version that I access from home. Yours might as well.
I also recommend Wikipedia with a caveat. It’s good to get a general overview of a topic and to give you ideas about how and where to start more intensive research. Beware, though, because anyone can change the content and while problems are usually corrected promptly for popular subjects, this may not be the case for more obscure ones. Wikipedia is best for sources which you will find at the bottom of the page – the footnotes and underneath them, the external links. These will give you respected sites to work from.
2. General Interest Books and General Interest Books with Bibliographies
You can find these books at your local public library, or online if you prefer – Amazon, Abebooks.com or Thriftbooks.com. These books are for the general reader, not the specialist, and usually for adults. They will generally be well-written and an overall pleasure to read. In addition to the content and whatever interesting details/important figures/events you discover, you will also want to flip to the end of the book to the bibliography, which most general interest books have, though not all. Sometimes the bibliography is separated by primary sources and secondary sources. These will provide you with many more resources to follow up on.
I recommend that you use a number of different books, since each author has their own biases that color what they choose to focus on and how they present the information. For example, let’s say you are writing about Alexander the Great. You will find no shortage of books by authors who think he was a magnificent bastard who triumphantly conquered in the name of Western Civilization. And then there are those books whose authors find him to be a despicable, murderous megalomaniac. Both kinds of books are helpful but as you can imagine, they provide different evidence to support their theses.
3. Specialized Books and Journal Articles with Footnotes and Bibliographies
These books are authored by academics and can generally be found in research libraries on university campuses. They are usually not written very well and can be dry as the dust, but they can provide you with laser sharp focus into the subject at hand. I find that they can be a bit much, though, since you have to take high level scholarship and translate it to something on the page. Maybe that appeals to you, but sometimes for me it can be difficult to wrap my head around and translate into fiction.
The footnotes and bibliographies will lead you to even more resources. And thus you are deep into the gopher hole. You will begin to find the same names of authors and academics pop up again and again. These will likely be the recognized experts in the field. They will provide you with the highest quality information.
Each of these categories will also list primary sources, which makes up the next tier.
4. Primary Sources in English and Primary Sources in Native Language
As demonstrated above, your primary sources are going to give you fantastic subjective details and commentary on whatever you are studying. Those sources in English can vary (think about how many translations of the Odyssey there are) depending on the translator, so you may want to get several versions depending on what is available. The absolute best primary sources are in the native language but they are not always accessible if you don’t read Old English, ancient Persian, German, or whatever.
If you’re lucky, you will be able to find lots of information online – including primary sources. A couple of good ones are the Internet Sourcebook at Fordham University (every time period you can imagine) and StoryCorps (oral history interviews numbering in the thousands). Universities (.edu) will provide you with high quality information, as well as government agencies (.gov). Institutes and organizations can also be a good source (.org) though you may want to figure out their bias, if they have one, by reading their “About” page.
So that’s a quick and dirty look at how to do quality historical research without getting too overwhelmed by the subject and avoiding, you know, actually writing your work in progress. Like I may or may not be doing by authoring this blog post.