I’m not sure what historical novelists did before the advent of the Internet. What takes a matter of minutes to discover on the Internet today probably took hours of library work in the pre-Web Stone Age.
A case in point: In my first historical novel, The Disappearing Man, I had a character sporting a bowler hat. But as I prepared the manuscript for the publisher, I decided to do some final fact-checking, and I thought it would be a good idea to make sure people were wearing bowler hats in the 1849 world depicted in The Disappearing Man.
They were doing no such thing.
I discovered that the bowler hat was evidently invented by two London hat-makers, Thomas and William Bowler, in 1849—the very year of my novel. However, because my story took place in America, it was highly unlikely that the London fashion made it across the Atlantic that quickly.
But this was an easy fix, so I took the bowler hat off of my character’s head and replaced it with a top hat.
It goes without saying that you have to be careful about the historical information you dig up online, so I seek out what I believe are reputable sources, such as the History Channel page, and I also check facts on multiple sites.
The Internet is wonderful for these quick fact checks, but there is still no replacing good, old-fashioned books when it comes to the heavy-lifting part of my historical research. So this is a brief rundown on how I go about my research for my historical novels. The headline above says to “do your research right,” but I should note that there is no one system that is best for everyone. We all need to find our own method. Here’s mine.
First, I should say I have been blessed by living in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois, and having access to one of the greatest libraries in the country. That’s no exaggeration. The University of Illinois has the second-largest university collection in North America, and its Library and Information Sciences program is number one in the country, according to U.S. News and World Reports.
The University of Illinois may be struggling on the football field these days, but at least the Illini can do some serious trash-talking when it comes to its books. Take that, Ohio State and Alabama!
Although I have access to the U of I library, I actually begin my hunt for historical resources on Amazon. I like the Amazon search engine, so I begin by looking for books there. For instance, when I was working on Biblical history, my Amazon search turned up some gems, such as Daily Life in the Time of Jesus, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, and The World Jesus Knew.
Once I identify some promising books, I go to the U of I library and check them out. If the book provides only a smattering of information that I need for my novel, I stick with the library copy. But if a book looks like something that I will regularly dip into throughout the course of my research, I will go back to Amazon and purchase a copy of my own. In all, I may use close to 30 books when researching a novel, and of those I will purchase about a dozen.
By having my own copy, I can freely mark up the book to my heart’s delight. As I go through the research books that I own, I jot notes at the top of the page, indicating the topics covered on that particular page. As a result, I don’t spend forever flipping through pages, trying to find that handy tidbit of information; I simply look for my notes at the top of each page.
Another key component to my historical research is digging into historical photos and videos. Again, there are so many options available today that weren’t possible just 25 years ago. If you’re doing more recent history, the options expand exponentially. For instance, one of my novels—The Puzzle People—took place in the last 50 years, so I could find a wealth of footage on YouTube.
The Puzzle People is a suspense novel based on the rise and fall of the Berlin Wall, so I went to YouTube to see film of the Wall going up, as well as footage of that magical night on November 9, 1989, when the Wall came down. One key scene in the novel took place on November 9, so some of my descriptions came straight from viewing YouTube films.
But how do you know when you’ve done enough research to begin writing?
I tend to be a rather impatient writer. I love the research, but I am always anxious to get started on a new novel. So I do not wait for all of my research to be done before I begin to venture into a new story. I do just enough research to jump-start the process, and I continue to research as I write—about a one-year process.
Think of writing as a long-distance car ride, with research being your fuel. When I travel from Illinois to Florida, I don’t carry all of the fuel I need for a single trip. I fill up the tank, which is enough to carry me for a couple hundred miles, and then I fill up along the way. It’s the same with my historical research. I do enough research in the beginning to fill my tank and get me going on the first ten chapters or so. Then I fill up the tank all along the way—going to the library and doing more research as I write. I guess that makes the library my gas station.
As amazing as the Internet is for historical writers, there’s still something about physical books and brick and mortar libraries. So let me end by tipping my hat—my bowler hat (see photo)—to librarians everywhere.
The Internet is boon for research, but there is no replacing libraries. Not yet at least.
By Doug Peterson