How many of us have shied away from historical fiction because of research? Hand raises. Yes, it is a terrifying part of the process. Your biggest fear? That history buff reading your book with a disgusted face at your gall to say they used gold spoons in the Jamestown fort.
I have been a part of a debate team this past school year. The bulk of the work on the team is research. Tons and tons of research. I personally have always loved researching. Fact finding is like treasure hunting for me. So over the school year I have had way too much experience at research. Which leads me to be able to share with you all some simple steps to attack the terrifying monster we call research.
1. Pick Your Topic
Simple enough, right? Start very broad. Are you writing in the Biblical era, Revolutionary war, Great Depression? For example, let’s go with World War II. Great, we have a topic! World War II went on from 1939 to 1945. So now we have a time period to go off of. This may seem too basic, but trust me: you need to start as far out as possible. The next step is where we go in depth.
2. Mind Map
Now we get to start making our categories to research. If you already know how to mind map, you are good to go to the next step. This process is easy to do in a notebook, or you could use a resource like mindmeister.com. Begin with listing your topic in the middle of the page. Then start listing some basic subcategories surrounding your topic. For World War II, I started by surrounding it with the topics: Cause of war, countries involved, aftermath. From these three subcategories, I began writing smaller categories connected to them. For example, Countries involved: America, England, France, Germany, Japan, Italy…
Keep up with this, creating subcategories, and then adding subcategories to the subcategories. It may feel overwhelming to see so many topics to research, but don’t worry! You won’t be researching all of these: it is simply so you can narrow down what to research. Here is an example of one I did using Mind Meister.
3. Choose Subcategories
Now we come to deciding what information we need, and what we don’t need. Remember those three main categories I picked when mind mapping? Cause of war, countries involved, and the aftermath. These will be crucial for me to research. These are the underlying facts of the time period, something I must know in order to write anything in this era. Now, think about your actual story, and look back at the mind map. Narrow down the topics to research based on the characters and the progression of the stories. If my characters are American, I will need to know about their home life. But unless they travel to Europe, I probably won’t need any European home life information. After you finish your list based on the story, we are now ready to fact find.
4. Choose Resources
We have a list of things to research. Now we need research. Best place to go.Wikipedia! No, just kidding. Please do not use Wikipedia. It is easy, but seriously not reliable. If you use the internet, look for reliable websites. Blogs are not reliable or credible. Make sure you write down your sources with your research when compiling it; then you can go back if you need more info.
I personally find that books are the best source when it comes to history research. The library is a beautiful bastion of knowledge. I like to order every book on my topic imaginable. Generally going to the library is more enjoyable and more handy, that way you can get reference books scanned, browse the online resources, look through stacks of books without checking them out, etc. Once you start fact finding, you will be able to identify which facts you will need and which just aren’t necessary.
5. Relax and know there will be mistakes
Don’t stress about accidentally saying a chair was made of a wood that was generally only used for crates. Even if your reader happens to be an insane history buff who knows you are wrong, it is not a big deal. Sometimes we can get so bogged down in the little details, we forget what year we are even writing in. Don’t lose the heart of your story because you are too worried about keeping it accurate. There will be flaws. You will miss a random fact. That is okay. It happens to the best of authors, and it does not ruin your story. Just chill and have fun!
When all else fails, when the research has clouded the story in your mind: just write! Let go of the critical-fact-oriented part of your brain, and just write your heart out. Let your story shine through. When the rough draft is done in all it’s glory, then go back and make sure they actually had bananas in London during the winter months. What is the point to the story if you stop in the first chapter because you are too overwhelmed with facts? Drop the facts, embrace the story. I would rather read your story with a few warts than never get to read it because it had to be perfect.
I hope you learned a little something from this list. It’s just the basic facts I have learned over the years of treasure hunting for information. Are you currently writing a historical fiction novel? I would love to hear about it! Do you have any favorite research tips to share with your fellow writers?