Historical Research For Writers (#Authortoolboxbloghop)

Researching is a skill that surprisingly few people have. If you do have it you should definitely put it on your C.V.; good research is often the thing you do not see, but the want of it is blindingly obvious. This is especially the case when you write historical fiction, or you’re writing about cultures and people you don’t know anything about.

Research isn’t about consuming every piece of information you can find on your topic; it’s about knowing what is and isn’t important. You can learn this by taking a degree of some sort (History in particular will smack you in the face with research skill requirements before you’ve even finished the first year… hoo-boy that was a learning curve, I can tell you), or you can piggyback my History degree; go on, I don’t mind. I’ll share some of the pearls I’ve discovered while cracking open every proverbial shellfish on that metaphorical beach.


Know Your Books

We’re writers, ok, I get it. I Get It. You want to read a super old, musty book and feel the thick, alien paper, and smell the centuries on it…

But these books are WILDLY out-dated. Hugely so, even when they’re less than one hundred years old in some cases. For example, The Problem of the Picts was published in 1955, but today is considered so obsolete as to be of use ONLY to historians and archaeologists, and only then as a contrasting study for those wishing to write about how far we’ve come. The answer? A hell of a lot; in the 67 years since this collection of essays on archaeological practice, Pictish culture, language, architecture, and art was published our conception of the Picts has evolved beyond all recognition.

The lesson here is that old books have their place; they can show you what the author at the time, what society at the time, thought to be the case. If a history text is older than 100 or 150 years old you may start to notice that the style of writing is less rigid, and by the time you’re reading something 200 years old or over referencing of sources becomes a sideline (or nonexistent) activity. A historian would treat these as unreliable materials; contemporary works have value because of their proximity to the time period, modern works are valued because they apply all the available techniques.

Everything else varies.

As an author you don’t need to know all this, per se, but it helps to understand that you should be sticking to more modern texts, or that you can return to the seminal primary sources.


Technology is Your Friend

If you have an encyclopedia which covers the relevant time period throw it out the window… haha, no, don’t do that; you’ll kill someone. But seriously, don’t trust encyclopedia; they age poorly. If you want to do surface skim research just use the internet. In fact, for much of the research that authors do online sources are the best sources;

  • They’re up to date
  • They are often written in less flowery, dense language
  • You can do a pinpoint search with ease
  • They’re free

Even if you need or want specialised, academic sources you can often find them through Google Scholar. Remember that book, The Problem of the Picts? When writing an essay discussing our development since it’s publication I made more use of an article by Steven Driscoll found on Google Scholar than I did of many books from the University library. The internet may be full of misinformation, but if you look in the right places you can find exactly what you need quickly and easily. Consider;

  • Google Scholar
  • Foundation/trust pages for specific historic places or events (e.g. the Highland Clearances webpage, or the website for Stirling Castle)
  • Wikipedia (to an extent, but be sure to fact check)
  • Pinpoint searches, e.g. “when was X invented” or “what did Y do with Z”


Note-Keeping Tips

When researching you should keep notes as you go; make sure you keep a note of which book the information came from and which page you found it on (this will be a God send if you have to double check the information). When keeping notes most people make the mistake of writing down every single fact that they come across. This is time consuming and unhelpful.

When taking notes you need to keep two things in mind: your question/topic, and what kind of information will be relevant to it.

You should think about;

  • What events are key to your story
  • How important wider context is (i.e. will what’s happening in France during the period affect your characters as much as what’s happening in Germany?)
  • Whether or not you need a chronology and what events should be present on it (for example, if you’re writing a story about Jewish people escaping/hiding in Nazi Germany the dates/chronology will be more important than if you’re writing about someone who happens to live through the highland clearances but is not affected).
  • Details of material culture, e.g. clothing, architecture, pottery. These will likely be more important to the authenticity of your story than things like medieval warfare tactics or the foreign policy of the country your characters live in.

Keep your notes concise and in bullet points for quick reference; you could consider colour coding, too, for ease.


Alternative Sources

There are some things that academic texts cannot give you a feel for, or which will be better illustrated by alternative sources. Speech patterns, for example, or architecture can be better grasped out with the local university or college library. You can consider the following options to supplement your more academic resources;

  • Movies or TV Series in the same time period or place
  • Books dealing with similar themes, countries, or based in the same time period
  • Visiting places you mention first hand
  • Talking to experts in the field; many academics will be happy to answer questions if you approach them politely and with the understanding that they are busy people.


How Much is Too Much?

This is a hard question to answer as researching for a novel is wildly different from researching for an essay; you will pass on much less to the reader when writing a novel than when writing an essay.

What they have in common, however, is that it’s important for you to know and be familiar with the largest part of the issue. In both case you would need to know about WWII, for example, the start and end dates for all major parties involved, the key battles, the key figures, and the kinds of equipment available to people then. Unlike when writing an academic essay, however, writers producing a novel might need to know how the rationing system worked on a day to day basis, what foods were most commonly found and which were very rare, what the average worker earned, and the common fashions of the day.

As a basic benchmark, however, you consider perhaps reading a basic, high-school level educational text, a novel written in the same period, and perhaps watch any available documentaries which cover the period in question. After this point, you can rely on the spot research for minor details. If research is getting in the way of actually writing then you should definitely call a halt and move on; you can always go back to fill in gaps in your knowledge later. 

Historical research is not only a good tool for writers, but is a skill that can carried across to other jobs; it requires the ability to prioritise information, recognise reliable sources, and deploy facts in effective ways. This is a skill well worth developing, but remember that it should be secondary to actually writing your novel. 

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Re-evaluate, Re-vamp, and Revive Your Writing in 2019

New Year, new me; isn’t that what we say every year? 

Well, I think I speak for all of us when I say that 2017 and 2018 were complete clusterf**cks. 2019 has to be our year, lets face it, because it’s about time we all got off of this downward facing roller-coaster…

I can’t tell you how to meet all your goals this year, nor can I promise that this is the year that it all changes. What I can do, though, is help you to get fresh ideas, develop them, and better your writing style; so stick with me, kids, and we’ll weep our way through 2019 together. 

Planning For Success; Time Management and The Writing Habit

Plan and Prioritise to Keep Your Workload Under Control

In the past we’ve discussed time management and the benefit of getting in to a habit of writing in detail elsewhere, so in the interests of brevity we’ll cover a few quick and dirty ways to manage your time and get into a habit of writing!

Quick Time Management Tips

When you have a busy day, or week, ahead and a workload that just won’t quit there are a few quick things that you can do to get things under control once more;

  1. Get Up And At It; I advocate sticking to normal working hours as much as possible (time to relax is key for everyone, but easy to lose altogether as a freelancer), but when the going gets tough an early morning or two can go a long way towards getting you back on the right track. 
  2. Clear The Decks; A quick way to give yourself a feeling of accomplishment and de-clutter your to-do list is to deal with all of your small tasks in one morning. Get all of your calls, emails, and small “house-keeping” tasks like invoicing out of the way and you’ll notice that the white-noise recedes a little. 
  3. Prioritise; Make a list of the tasks that are left numbered from one downwards, number one being the highest priority, and work your way through it. 
  4. Re-evaluate; Once half of the day has gone, look at the work you have left, re-evaluate it and renumber if necessary. 
  5. Leave Yourself Notes; If you have unfinished work at the end of the day make a note of what needs done and knock-off at a reasonable time so you can do it all again tomorrow. 

Getting Into The Habit Of Writing

The truth is that you can only build a habit by, well, actually writing (I know, right?), but if you’re having trouble with your fiction at the moment there are a few things you can do to build the framework of your new habit. 

  1. Start Keeping A Journal; Whether you write about your life, your hopes, story ideas, or just b*tch and moan about how you can’t write, keeping a journal will not only get you into the habit of writing every day, but can actually help you clear your head. Set out ten to thirty minutes to just empty the contents of your mind onto the page first thing in the morning, or just before bed, and you might find that ideas start to crop up. 
  2. Write Fanfiction; Don’t turn your nose up at fanfiction! Sometimes letting yourself run away with favourite characters and worlds could be just the thing to get your motor running again. 
  3. Let Your Family In; Tell your family about your goals and your workload – ask them to hold you accountable (this will become annoying quickly, but hopefully it will motivate you to work in order to AVOID the reminders). 
  4. Sprint It Out; Quick sprints can ease you back into writing without risking becoming overwhelmed by an ambitious word count goal or work appointment. Ten minute or 500 word sprints can be an excellent way in which to make progress without pressuring yourself.

New Year, New View 

Narrow or Widen Your Focus for Interesting Results

When the old year goes out you have the chance to begin again; improving your writing does not always mean focusing on the technicalities of grammar and prose. Sometimes it’s about experimentation and lateral growth. 

Expanding Your Repertoire

That old saying “write what you know” is not so much a restriction as a challenge; if you increase your knowledge, embrace new points of view, and read voraciously you can write with more flair, more breadth, and more confidence. 

This isn’t just about knowing your history, your geography, your anthropology, however, but about writing style, and about the genre in which you write. If you understand and know the tropes of your genre, and you have experience of various writing styles, you can turn your hand to more. 

So, if you want to expand the pool from which you draw your stories and your ideas you can spend 2019 in this way; 

  1. Read Speciality Magazines; history, gossip, hobby, industry. Whatever takes your interest, whatever you think can be of use to you. 
  2. Read Novels Within Your Chosen Genre; search google for, for example, the seminal fantasy novels and read any ones that you haven’t already. 
  3. Read Novels Outwith Your Genre; dip in to science fiction, literature, romance, horror… anything that takes your fancy outside your genre. Broaden your horizons and see what tropes, themes, and turns of phrase you can pilfer from elsewhere. 
  4. Undertake Writing Challenges; prompts, one line starters, and theme challenges are a good way to stimulate creativity. 
  5. Live A Little; don’t spend all day every day reading and writing! Get out and live life; experiences inform our writing as much as anything else. 

Style And Substance; Making It All Count

Crown Yourself King or Queen Of Writing Excellence!

So, you’ve got your time management skills on point, your workload is prioritised, and you’re world view is broader than it has ever been; all you need to do now is make sure your prose is on fleek!

Nuances and Technicalities

People will tell you that writing is an art, that a good story trumps technically flawless writing, and that rules are made to be broken… 

It would be wrong to say that all of the above is false, but there is a caveat to consider. Writing may be an art, but it is also a craft which requires work. Good story telling can compensate for bad technique, but a good story becomes great when your technique is also good. Finally, rules are made for a reason. 

I know, I know, this is an unpopular and old fashioned opinion, but i hold to it; the rules are like scaffolding. Learning and following these rules helps you to learn in a structured way and create pieces of writing that are functional as well as pleasing, if not overly original. 

Understanding why these rules are in place is the next step; when you understand why they are there you can figure out which can be bent without making your story structurally unsound. 

If you want to improve your technique and style you should;

  1. Read About Writing; books such as On Writing (Stephen King), and Zen in the Art of Writing (Ray Bradbury) are good basic texts to get you started. You could also consider The Art of Voice (Tony Hoagland) which, yes, is about poetry, but should be required reading for all writers (I think). No craft will prepare you for novel writing quite like
  2. Brush-up On Your Grammar; English Grammar For Dummies is not the last word on English grammar rules, but if you were never formally introduced to the foundational aspects of grammar (as so many people in the UK were not) this is a great place to start.
  3. Learn How To Edit; when you look into the practice of editing you’ll find yourself surprised by the way in which editors consider fiction (I know I was!). You don’t need to have professional editing skills in order to write well, but a basic level of skill will help you to prepare your manuscript for literary agents. Better still, it will help you up your skills so that there’s less work to do when the editing stage rolls around! Consider Copy-Editing For Dummies or Copy-Editing  to help you on your way.


Finally, fuse your new found skills and techniques with all that new knowledge and your expanded world view for interesting (and often pleasing) results. How?

  1. Rewrite A Famous Fairy Tale; a fresh take on an old story could be just what you need to revamp your portfolio. Try a sci-fi, horror, or modern take on a few different fairy tales. Don’t just stick to the big ones, either; look into some of the more obscure examples too. 
  2. The Train Of Thought Challenge; sit down with a phrase, word, or character and start writing. Whatever comes into your head until it comes to a natural conclusion. 
  3. Revisit Your Old Work; see how your new eyes feel about old writing. What changes would you suggest? Do you feel the same way about the idea that you used to?
  4. Write In A New Genre; move out of your comfort zone to put some of your skills to the test. 
  5. Try New Points Of View; used to writing in 1st person? Try 3rd! Used to past tense? Why not give present a go? In fact, if you want a real challenge try writing in 2nd person with a future tense (that’ll bend your head!).

Above and beyond all of this, however, you should have fun with the process; life is for living. Make 2019 your year, and stay merry!