In Part 1 of this series on researching historical settings, I discussed some general, conceptual factors to consider. In Parts 2 & 3 I’m going take a more applied approach. The two periods/places that I have researched extensively for my writing are the Regency and Russia (19th century Russia in particular). The two present a useful contrast because of the differences in the availablility of materials and my access to them. There is an overwhelming volume of information on the Regency period (far more now than there was when I was writing, such that the temptation to get lost in the research and not get around to doing the actual writing would be all the stronger!). Russia, on the other hand, presented a very different series of challenges, including the fact that I do not speak nor read Russian and that until the 19th century, literacy was not widespread, so the availability of earlier accounts is scarce (and even scarcer in translation).
The Regency scenario will probably present a more common situation for those of you who are choosing to set your stories in a context where sources are readily available in your own language.
Step 1: Get Acquainted with the Period
This is a survey step. Spend a day or two reading/skimming through web resources, pulling out references to print books and making brief notes on interesting details that might tie into your story or affect your characters in interesting ways. Your main aim here is to get a general knowledge of the period, so you don’t have to note down everything. It’s about establishing a foundational knowledge of the period and the setting. If you’ve been reading Regencies, or are an Austen Afficionado, then your job is all the easier, because you’ve got a lot of those foundations already (you likely know some of the language–what things like phaetons, Hessians and a “matched pair” refer to, and you also are familiar with a range of the standard spoken idiom used in the literature–fabulous words like “ninnyhammer”, “peagoose” and “ape leader.”).
As you read the websites and build a sense of the period in your mind, you will start to know where you need to dig more deeply.
Useful Tip: when you bookmark the pages for later reference, create an appropriately named sub-folder for the relevant body of research (e.g. Regency Life and Times). Then, name the bookmarks based on how the pages have been useful to you (e.g. “latrines”, or even “good detail on tips for staff at parties”). This will save you having to load up all your bookmarks and comb through the pages later, when you’re looking for specific details.
Many of the traditional history books deal with political history. The challenge with novel research is that you are in search of what is known as “social history”–details of how people lived in their everyday lives, and not the movements of states and sovereign powers. For most novels, those “big events” form the backdrop, and knowing how and whether people brushed their teeth (and what they used, both as brush and as cleaning substance) is far more relevant than having all the details of the negotiations at the Congress of Vienna at your fingertips (unless, of course, one of your characters was at the Congress, but even then, readers will likely be far more interested in the juicy gossip and prurient detail, than in what was discussed and decided).
Given that, your most useful sources are first-person accounts (including diaries, collected letters, and memoirs), and novels that were written at the time (these are known as primary sources), as well as commentaries and resources that compile the details that have been derived from said accounts and discuss or analyse them in various ways (also known as secondary sources). Primary sources will get you a sense of the idiom in use at the time, but can also be very time consuming to comb through. So, while they’re often a better option, if you’re short for time, you’ll want to find a few reliable secondary sources that have extracted the kind of details you need. The better secondary sources will usually make reference to where they found their information. Indeed, many of the websites, created by people who love the period and are fascinated by it–and who are meticulous about citing their sources–will serve as excellent repositories of information. As well, if you have found a particularly helpful website that you plan to use as a source but that doesn’t contain cited references, it can be worth sending the creator an email, expressing your admiration for their hard work and asking for their sources so you can dig more deeply if you need to. You may also wish to offer to name the website and the individual in your “acknowledgments” or “sources” section.
Once you have that wider sense of the lay of the land, distill your large list into a shorter list of sources that are likely to provide you with the most amount of quality information in the least amount of time. A good rule of thumb is to go with a couple of catch-all secondary sources, and then to also consult several primary sources that deal with the specifics of your setting and period (e.g. urban/rural, Napoleonic/late Regency, etc.)–in other words, mix it up a little, between primaries and secondaries, according to your needs.
Step 2: Crafting Your Story
After your initial research period (including the first few days of general skimming and scanning, as well as a longer period of actually reading through the sources you’ve distilled) you should have a foundational, wide ranging knowledge of the period and a sense of the limitations and conventions of the time. So for instance, you’d likely know that it took a while to get anywhere because of the quality of the roads and the need to either rest the horses or change them at various stops; that houses tended to be cold and often damp; that food took a long time to heat because first you had to build a fire–ditto for water, so bathing was quite an undertaking; that people in society generally needed to be formally presented by a mutual acquaintance, either in person or by a letter of introduction, or they had to call on each other in very specific ways, before they could interact.
This general knowledge is important to have in place before you get into the nitty gritties of planning (or of writing, if you’re a pantser) because it will give you a sense of the limits of what could or could not be done. It also will create in your mind the beginnings of a “spidey sense” for the period–so that you are more likely to question certain assumptions you might otherwise take for granted (e.g. the idea of serving cold punch at a summer party. Now that you know something of the period, you also know that this isn’t a given. Now, you are likelier to ask, where they would get the ice, in a time with no refrigeration? And would they be of a class that could afford it?).
I like to keep my tasks discrete–so I try to resist researching if I’m in the middle of planning or writing. I just make a note of the question–which is often a detail, like what kind of lamp would have been in use at the time–for later verification, and keep going. The only exception I make is if the information is so central to my plot that I cannot get any further without determining the answer (this is rare). Otherwise, taking constant breaks disrupts the creative flow–and I often as not find that I’ve spent the last three hours looking the thing up and clicking through associated links (and checking twitter, maybe posting some comments on facebook and responding to several non-urgent emails) rather than getting my planning/writing done. It still happens, of course, but I do try.
Quick Tip: Bracket your “notes to self” or “notes for research” in some character you rarely use–[square brackets] are a favourite of mine. This will allow a quick “find” to hunt them down when you’re going back to do searches on the details that you need to look up.
As a final note, my focus in this series has been on method, rather than on specific sources, because that’s the sort of thing I like to read myself. I am always curious about others’ methods of doing these sorts of things, and generally find it helpful to read about them so that I can incorporate elements into my own workflow and use my time as effectively as possible. Bear in mind that not everything I suggest will fit with how your mind works and how your creativity flows–this is just what tends to work well for me.
And as to sources: there’s such a wealth of information available that I figure listing a few links on this post (links that will no doubt be outdated sooner or later) doesn’t make a lot of sense, given that a quick google search will give you a more updated set of starting points–not to mention the fact that with a search engine, you’ll be able to craft your search terms to suit your particular research angle.