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About the Writer:

Victoria Grossack, a former moderator of a critique group with Coffeehouseforwriters, has published articles and short stories for various magazines. She is creating a set of novels placed in Bronze Age Greece with her frequent collaborator, Alice Underwood. Visit Tapestry of Bronze, and read about Iokaste: The Novel of the Mother-Wife of Oedipus, under contract for publication, as well as their work in progress.

Victoria also teaches a workshop in Writing Historical Fiction for Coffeehouse for Writers. 

Digging into the Past: Doing Research for Historical Fiction Part II: Where to Dig
Victoria Grossack
In the first part of this article we discussed what you need to research to make your historical fiction authentic for your readers, as well as how much research you need to do to give them that satisfied-reader experience. In this part of the article we’ll go into where you can locate the information you need.

Doing research may feel like a burdensome chore, rather like doing homework. But for the writer, who spends so much of her time alone, conducting research offers a chance to interact with other people, especially people who are interested in your time period. And the more it becomes your time period, the more you will most likely enjoy it. Moreover, many people with expertise will be delighted to help you, because it gives them the chance to share their knowledge with people who are truly interested. There are, of course, some who won’t be so helpful, perhaps because they already receive so many requests.

So, how can you find out what you need to know? Let us list the ways:

The Internet
We are really fortunate to live in the time of the internet, which growing in content and sophistication all the time. Start with the search engines, such as google or alta vista. Type in key phrases, and visit the sites suggested on your screen, and bookmark those which are most helpful. Warning: make sure you check more than one source! Some websites in the internet contain mistakes, and others have really far-out conspiracy theories. Of course, most of the information on the web has been uploaded by people in good faith.

Also, feel free to write to whoever put together the website – most of those people will be delighted to know that they have interested visitors. You can usually find contact instructions somewhere on the website, although some make it easier to access than others.

Libraries and more importantly, Librarians
Libraries, particularly those which are specialized, may have collections of books that are out of print. They also often have old magazines and newspapers, which are a treasure trove for understanding the past. More importantly, libraries contain librarians: experts trained conducting research! Librarians might even help you sell the book (after all, libraries buy plenty of books).

Bookstores, both virtual and real and bookstore owners
On-line bookstores have access to literally millions of titles. And some of them – such as Amazon – now have access to the text within books, so that words you type in may result in the texts with the information you need. There’s also the wonderful feeling of going to a real bookstore, and flipping through books on the shelves. This, to me, is still the best way of judging a book, to determine if it’s a worthy edition to add to my collection.

Note: Ask help the people who work in the bookstore for assistance. If you end up buying a book, you will pay for any questions. And who knows, they might just end up selling your book later.

Museums & Museum Staff
Are there museums which you can visit which are relevant to your research? Going to a museum lets you examine genuine objects from your particular time period. Once you look at the displays, you may be better at visualizing the past. But remember, much of what you see will be old, while in your time period the items were new. The dress would not be frayed, the blade would not have rusted, the cup would not be tarnished, and the colors of the paint would not be faded.

And don’t be shy of speaking to the museum staff! Many will be delighted to have someone show real interest in their displays.

Documentaries and Films
These days you don’t have to get all your information by reading. There are many detailed documentaries, and they can give you a sense of time and place and perhaps how things functioned.

Study maps, particularly old maps, or new maps which show where the old places were. You also may want to look at where minerals and other natural resources are located in your area, so that you can determine what your people had access to – and what they did not.

Scene of the Action
Visit the site of your action, even if all that remains of your time period is a pile of rubble. Still, although the buildings have probably changed, the geography may be the same (although this too, you may want to check – when traveling around Thebes in Greece I learned that the fields north of the city used to be lakes). What mountains could your characters see when facing, east, south, north or west? What sort of feeling does the sky give you? Can you describe the contours of the land? If you can’t go yourself, find guidebooks on the subject.

One of my richest and most enjoyable research experiences happened during my visit to Thebes in Greece, when I was learning all I could for the setting for Iokaste: The Novel of the Mother-Wife of Oedipus. I had made an appointment by fax with the director of the Archaeological Museum at Thebes. He answered questions, let me thumb through his library, and showed me recently unearthed shards. He even drove me around the area to significant sites in “my” legend, including where the Sphinx might have roamed, where Oedipus might have washed off the blood after killing his father, and where the sons of Oedipus might be buried.

Send thank-you notes
Show gratitude to those who have helped you by writing a thank-you note. If the person who helped you is lower down in some organization, send one to his or her supervisor. That is always appreciated. When the book is published, send a complementary copy.

List your sources
List your sources, including books, websites, documentaries and people. This is where you can publicly thank those who were especially helpful. A bibliography also gives your opus a sense of authenticity. And you just might help the next author trying to do some research, a student doing a term paper – or even yourself when you need to research another fact.

Last thoughts
What if you can’t find out what you need to know? What if you have to make it up? Well, you are writing fiction, historical fiction at that, so it’s unlikely anyone will sue you. Besides, if you have looked long and hard and still not been able to determine “the truth,” it is possible that very few readers, if anyone, would know the “real” answer. Perhaps your made-up answer, after all your research, is the most reasonable guess at the truth.

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