Guest Post: How to Research for a Historical Fiction Novel (When You’ve Never Done it Before)

Guest Post: How to Research for a Historical Fiction Novel (When You’ve Never Done it Before)

How to Research for a Historical Fiction Novel: Guys, today we have a guest on the blog! Please, dive into the wonderful world of historical fiction! Visit Bailey here:

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How to Research for a Historical Fiction Novel (When You’ve Never Done it Before)

Hello, everyone. My name is Bailey and I’ve been invited to guest post on Isadora’s website. Bear with me, please, because for the record I have never done this before. I do, however, have a blog of my own which I will link below. (I was given permission to self-promote, which I quite appreciate.) I considered a few different topics when trying to decide what to write for this. Then, Twitter decided for me. I had posted a poll about what I might do when I reached two hundred followers. The option that won was “How I Research.” This was something that I, in no way, could condense to a two hundred and eighty character Tweet. So, this post was born.
A bit of context, I have always adored historical fiction. The first thing I ever remember writing, outside of school assignments, was historical fiction. The sole research I did for that, that I can recall, was the lessons I was taught in the classroom by my incredible social studies teacher. Beyond that, everything I wrote was either fantasy or contemporary. I love reading historical fiction but I never saw myself writing anything in the genre.
Then, I saw the musical Evita. This may seem unrelated until I mention that my novel is about the very subject of the musical, the life of Eva Peron, the First Lady of Argentina from 1946 until 1952. Out of curiosity, I began researching more deeply into her life (and by that, I mean reading Wikipedia) the more I realized just how much the musical, no matter how beautiful, failed to mention. Once I began to research, it was difficult to stop. Finally, I began to write Eva’s story. This story has been a FanFiction (about the musical, before I knew of all the historical inconsistencies) and a play (for my college Playwriting class) before finally becoming the novel that it is. Now, I am very close to completing the second draft and I have never been more proud of anything in my life. This is my biggest tip for any writer. Find a topic that you absolutely cannot stop thinking about. Find a topic that you feel you need to write about. Find a character, whether entirely fictional or rooted in fact, who speaks to you and allows their world to open up to you.

And, then, especially where historical fiction is concerned, you begin to research.

Oh! A bit of further context before I continue on; my novel is obviously is set in Argentina and spans the mid-1930’s to the early 1950s. So, while someone researching this time period for a novel set in Britain would focus on the Second World War, the Blitz, and the rations and the battles, I scarcely did, because Argentina remained neutral for most of the War. While someone researching this time period for a novel set in the United States might look into the administration of FDR, I had to discover things about the administration of Edelmiro Farrell. This is my first tip. Keep all of the context in mind, of the setting and the character. Does your character care about politics? If not, stick to the absolute basics and what would be relevant to them. If you are writing fiction, you are under no obligation to give a detailed account of each and every thing that occurred during the time period you are writing.
A second thing that I found vitally important was to remain organized. I have my reference organized by source in one document and by topic in another. I wanted to keep careful note of where my information came from in case I needed to back it up for some reason. I wanted to have “receipts” as the kids say. I wanted to be able to say, “yes, I know that Radio El Mundo was the largest radio company in Argentina because I read it in Argentina: What Went Wrong by Colin M. MacLachlan. (A lot, Colin, a lot went wrong.) As I would research, I would always take notes. It took me quite a while to organize all of the information I compiled by specific topics, but it was so, so helpful when I did. I knew that, if I was writing about Eva’s childhood, all I had to do was find the section I had made about her childhood as opposed to searching through and trying to find all the places wherein her childhood was mentioned.
Last but not least, don’t be afraid to look into a wide variety of research. My favorite thus far has been archived magazines and newspapers. I collect vintage magazines and I have been lucky to find a few where a certain Argentine First Lady happened to be mentioned. There is also this incredible website called Elephind wherein quite a few collections of newspapers are archived and stockpiled. You can search whichever topic you’d like and narrow it down by decade. I cannot tell you how many of those articles I read. Now, granted, many of the newspapers that I would have looked to have taken a look at were in Spanish. But, Elephind was immensely helpful. A second thing was documentaries. I was not able to watch nearly as many of these as I had liked, but they are great resources and often show footage and photographs that aren’t available anywhere else. There is also the British Pathe. The collection of their videos is available on Amazon and they also have a YouTube channel. Of course, most of my research came from books. This included biographies on Eva Peron herself, but also travel guides and even an incredible book about fashion in the twentieth century. There was quite a lot done online as well, beyond Elephind. This included articles from The Washington Post and The New York Times but also from La Paz and La Nacion (newspapers in Argentina.) There was also something I like to call official sources. This included interviews by those who had known Eva but also, most helpfully, The Eva Peron Historical Research Foundation. This website and organization provide a biography and interviews and photographs and it is all approved by Eva’s descendants. I went over all they had to offer with a fine tooth comb. The final suggestion I have for research might surprise you, Wikipedia. More specifically, the sources cited at the bottom of a Wikipedia article. There are usually quite a few of them and they are varied and they provide information that is more in-depth and reliable than simply using Wikipedia itself. Also, if you are researching a person or place from another country, try the version of Wikipedia written in that country’s language. The Spanish version of Wikipedia always had more information on whatever I was looking for than the English version and you can translate it with the click of a button.

Writing is hard. Writing historical fiction can be very hard. I once spent half an hour trying to figure out if, in 1943, there was an elephant in the Buenos Aires Zoo. But, I found that as a whole I love researching. I love discovering new things and with hours of research behind me, I have a nearly-completed manuscript. I have never been more proud of myself. I hope that you, whoever is reading this, feel the same way.

Oh, and for the record, there was an elephant.

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Another amazing post! Thanks a lot, Bailey! Guys, do pay her a visit, will you? And leave a comment here below as well! Did it help with How to Research for a Historical Fiction Novel?

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4 years ago

Hi! Really interesting article, thank you!
I would like to mention something that I have found helpful; talk with the enthusiasts. I was reading a novel set in Elizabethan England, and all the details were according to common beliefs, and that is usually wrong. A lot of them would have been corrected or avoided had the author discussed with someone from the Society of Creative Anachronists. There are fan clubs, societies, organizations and meetings about most of the subjects, and these people know their subject.

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