Researching historical fiction: Make it fun
by Jessica James
One of the questions I’ve been asked most often about writing historical fiction is, “How much research did you have to do?”
The answer is easy: “A lot.”
But the follow-up answer to the follow-up question, “How did you do your research?” is not quite so cut and dry.
Many authors think of research as endless hours sitting in a stuffy library pouring over dusty pages of history books. In my case, nothing could be further from the truth. I did read some war records and timelines and tactics, but every author already knows the nitty-gritty work that needs to be done to get their facts straight. I thought it would be more interesting to share some of the not-so-common methods I used to learn about the Civil War era.
A novel idea
Believe it or not, some of my research involved sitting in a comfortable chair simply reading novels penned in the 1800s. I really felt guilty indulging in this exercise, but the wealth of information I gleaned from those pages about the manners, etiquette, lifestyle and dress of the Civil War period is immeasurable.
I also came away with something that is perhaps more ambiguous, but no less important—a feel for the language and the cadence of the sentences in the 19th century. I am a bit of a stickler for language, and spent a lot of time making the dialogue sound authentic.
An added bonus of reading old books is learning the techniques of writing “romance.” Novels in that era do not contain sex or promiscuous acts of any kind—requiring the author to really write from the heart.
Battle scenes? I’ve never been in one.
Battle scenes were some of the most difficult ones to write since, of course, I don’t have any actual experience in that setting. One option was to pour over books containing official records and military strategies of Civil War officers, but for the most part, I did not. Instead, I read diaries and newspaper accounts, again, to get a feel for the language, and also to develop an understanding of the personal and emotional elements of the war.
Living in Gettysburg, Pa., gave me the added opportunity to attend large-scale battle re-enactments where I discovered what a camp full of horses and a few thousand men (in wool uniforms in July) smell like. I remember being surprised at how the campfires stung my eyes and how hot and stuffy those white canvas tents could be. What I discovered by sitting in the dark and taking in the sights, sounds and smells of a military encampment could never be learned in a book.
The battle re-enactments also gave me a feel for the chaos of battle—clouds of smoke, whinnying horses, bugle calls, booming cannons, shouted orders, etc. These things can be imagined, but are so much more vivid when experienced first-hand.
Walking in the footsteps of history
As I said, many aspects of the history we write about can be imagined, but I’m the type of person that has to visit, feel and experience an historic site, even if it’s just an empty field where a cavalry engagement once took place.
I call it “capturing the energy,” and, though it may sound strange, I always seem to get a burst of creativity after doing so. Whether it’s standing on the exact spot where Gen. J.E.B. Stuart was mortally wounded, or walking the field where Pickett’s Charge took place, I “feel the vibes” and can hardly wait to get back home and write.
I also have to mention a few other research methods I’ve used that have inspired and educated me all at the same time. Reading old love letters and diaries are two of my favorites. Since writing was the main source of communication during the Civil War era, letters and diaries are so heartfelt and eloquent that they cannot help but serve as a source of inspiration.
I also enjoy visiting cemeteries, and reading the old inscriptions. By the way, this is also a great place to find old and regional family names (as are obituaries).
Old house tours are fun and can provide loads of information about life in the 19th century, period furnishings and architecture.
Don’t feel guilty! It’s worth your time to get away
One of the dictionary definitions of research is “study,” but another is “explore.” If you set aside one day or afternoon a week to go on a fieldtrip, you will find yourself “creatively refreshed.” Whether you go to a cemetery, a bookstore, a museum, or an empty field, the time you spend will not be wasted, so don’t feel guilty about being away from your computer. It’s research!
Another timeless novel about commitment, honor and faith from Jessica James, winner of the coveted John Esten Cooke Award for Southern Fiction.
A raging war
An unexpected love
A selfless sacrifice
Charismatic Confederate cavalry commander Douglas Benton would much rather flirt with a woman than work with one. But Rebel spy Sarah Duvall soon teaches him that faith is more important than glory—and love more important than life.
Genre - Christian Fiction
Rating – G
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