ask the lit chick: historical research

Q: I’m working on a book that needs some historical context, so I’m wondering how I might tackle the research needed to make sure it is accurate and portrays a realistic setting. Can you help?

I can, as long as “historical context” isn’t short for “a complex novel series set in a rich historical period,” or words to that effect. If you’re taking on a complex anything – novel, history, biography, whatever – there are no short answers and no quick tips. That’s the kind of research that requires disciplined immersion and a real commitment of time.

But there are plenty of times when you need to dig into a bit of historical research to mine for those gems that will make your piece sparkle. The childhood remembered in your protagonist’s dream, the historic allusion in a poem, the paragraphs of historical perspective included in a memoir -- all these and more require research. Here are four quick tips that might benefit any writer, regardless of format or genre.

•    Make a plan. Think out exactly what it is you need to know and prioritize the list. Why? Research can be addictive. Scratch that. For those with curious minds (i.e. every writer I’ve ever known), research is addictive. If you don’t set some boundaries for yourself in terms of the questions you need answered and how much of your precious writing time and energy can be devoted to this task, you’ll find yourself lost.

• Get the basics right. Twain hit the nail on the head with this: “The very ink with which history is written is merely fluid prejudice.” Much of history is subjective and slanted by the teller’s viewpoint. But facts are neither subjective nor slanted, and getting the facts wrong is a sure way to lose a reader. Focus on elements like establishing time lines, eliminating anachronisms, understanding geography and climate, and getting the jargon right.

• Wikipedia isn’t a dirty word anymore. The website has risen out of the backwaters of the Internet, where information of dubious credibility lives. Its cadre of expert reviewers and contributors makes it a generally reliable source, as long as your needs are basic facts, general context, or a springboard toward other resources.

•  Ask real people real questions. Depending on your needs, a quick call to an expert may save you days or even weeks at the library. Finding that expert may be the biggest challenge, which brings us to another category of “real people” experts – librarians. For finding that expert, or just for help in making the best use of your research time, it’s still worthwhile to go down to the library and engage a professional in your question. They’re really good at their jobs, and they love being asked!

Not that I take any of this advice, mind you. I love research. I purposefully get lost just to see what happens. I still look things up in books. But hey, that’s just me. To each their own research path. Good luck with yours!