Friday, November 2, 2012

Do Your Research; Get it Right

Canadian Historical Romance Writer Mary Balogh at the Surrey International Writers' Conference, October 2012
At the Surrey Writers’ Conference, I attended two workshops on historical novels and research. The emphasis was on accuracy. In a panel workshop, one participant told how he mentioned sugar as a dish served at a medieval party and received multiple e mails explaining sugar had not arrived in Europe by that time.  In other words, if you make an error, a reader will be by to point it out.

The panel participants all admitted that filing and organizing research notes is another problem.  An audience member recommended the computer program Evernotes to help keep track.
Anne Perry turns to newspapers for plots and I assumed she meant she uses old newspapers to get ideas. She writes Victorian and First World War novels.
If you use a real historical person in your fiction, you can use real quotes from that person to get great accurate dialogue. This is a technique used by Hilary Mantel, twice winner of the Man Booker prize.
You should always try to visit the locale of your story. Haunt the place, the museums, the terrain, especially the libraries which often have lots of local history and the names of local history buffs.
Anne Perry Writer  of Historical Novels
Shaaron Newman, a medievalist and author of a series of medieval crime novels, gave the participants lots of good tips in her workshop on research.
She uses Google Scholar which is in the public domain. She scans the foot notes in Wikipedia and other citations for they often provide a spring board to the next level.

She uses jstor, a search engine available from the public library or university.
She also uses questia, a paid service (she thought about 99$ a year) to find academic papers.
Shaaron visits libraries wherever she goes, not only public libraries but university libraries.
Like Anne Perry she looks up the newspapers of the time, and she is fond of old magazines for 19th and early 20th century information on food, clothes and manners. She loves old copies of Life, for instance, and I imagine the photos would be very useful for early 20th century fiction.
A city’s achieves are open to everyone. Shaaron has been able to get city council minutes and census records, the latter very useful. She likes census records from 1850 on.
Genealogical research is useful when writing about real people.
Shaaron is not shy. She contacts people who are experts or who have information she needs. She writes first and asks for an interview.
In order to get authentic names for characters who lived in the past, she has used the names found on tombstones.
Travel diaries are another favourite. Many universities have them. Others are available on line. Search under Travel Diaries plus date or event.
She buys books from used book sellers such as ABE Books which has a huge selection and an extensive on-line catalogue.
I tossed in me two cents worth during the discussion period. Dover Books, (catalogue on line) offer reproductions of North American catalogues as well as books on period costumes, right down to the underwear. Eaton’s, Simpson’s and the Bay catalogues can sometimes be found in antique stores.

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