We In It Shall Be Remembered

26 February 2013

"Those who don't know history are destined to repeat it."
Edmund Burke

I was meaning to write a post today about the necessary knowledge needed to write historical fiction and the amount of time that must be dedicated to bringing a piece of literature alive, but as usual, Jenny beat me to the punch. Her post, however, was just the catalyst I needed, and it rather jostled me into topic also concerning history, but of a more literal nature.

Some months have passed since I've last mentioned Rifles in the South Field. The reason for that is quite a logical one, and like most matters of logic, not terribly interesting: I've been researching. By research, I don't mean to imply that I've been using Wikipedia to find out whether a British Regular carried a musket or a rifle (although examining my search history would probably provide an eclectic bounty). The project in which I'm invested has grown much more involved than that, and though I have been writing, I don't believe I'll be able to return unreservedly to Rifles until the end of the school-year in May. I have a list of books on the American Revolution through which I am slowing working, taking notes along the way and attempting to soak up as much about the period as possible. 

This is the first time I've had to actively research for a book I'm writing, and it's been quite difficult to set aside the progression of Rifles for the sake of historical accuracy. When I was writing Violets Are Blue, I was only required to do a bit of Internet research here and there; this time I intend to finish several books. In a way, though, I have been preparing to write this book my whole life. My family's favorite historical period has always been the American Revolution, and for as long as I can remember, we've discussed, read, researched, and virtually lived in the 1770s and the decades that followed. For that reason, I feel rather comfortable in the era, but I should like to speak its battles, sieges, and skirmishes more fluently before I venture into Kenneth's part of the novel.

Like most writing habits, there is no right or wrong way to research. We all have our methods, and today I'm sharing the tips that most help me.

Take notes as you read. I'm currently keeping a purple spiral-bound notebook in which I record small details, dates, and other facts that I don't want to forget, especially if I plan on weaving them into Rifles. You're not trying to recreate the book, of course, so this doesn't need to be too extensive; a few sentences per fact should work just fine. The purpose is not to write a textbook, but to jog your memory and cause the details to resurface. Further, don't be afraid to underline and use sticky-notes in the books you read. I know the practice sounds sacrilegious, but it's worth it when you want to locate a certain small detail or quote in a six-hundred page book.

Don't lose sight of the big picture. Jenny made an excellent point in her post about understanding not only the era in which your book takes place, but also those that came before it. History is not separated into neat little boxes: one era bleeds into the next, and the words and actions of the greats are revered and quoted for years to come. For me, this means having a knowledge of Greek, Roman, and English history, as the works from those periods most affected the eighteenth-century Americans about whom I'm writing.

Improve your mind by extensive reading. Simply knowing a list of facts does not help to capture an era. You must understand the heart of the period as much as the detail, and such an understanding can only be gained through experience. Before you assume I'm suggesting you manage to build a time machine and transport yourself back to the era of your choice, know that I am speaking of the knowledge that can be gained through books. (Wonderfully useful things, they are!) They don't all have to be dry, dusty tomes — find a book that brings the period to life and inspires you.

Set daily goals. Lately I've been trying to read 1776 an hour each day, which for me means about forty pages (I'm not a terribly fast reader). Though I haven't always lived up to it, I begin each day with this goal at the forefront of my mind. Even if you can't devote an hour, try snatching just thirty minutes of time. History can't always be taken in great chunks, especially if you mean to comprehend it well. Chip away at it each day, and you'll find yourself being much more productive (plus, you'll get more out of what you're reading).

Balance research with pleasure. Just because you're trying to research actively does not mean you can't read other books. As mentioned above, I'm currently making my way (rather slowly) through 1776 by David McCullough, but I've also been reading The Last of the Mohicans (albeit with some trepidation), and I recently finished (and adored) Dickens' classic, A Tale of Two Cities. If a book is well-written, it is always worth your time. Consuming all your hours with research alone will only serve to make the era dull to you. Exercise moderation in your reading diet, and don't try to take in too much at one time lest you get indigestion.

how do you research?

2 epistles:

  1. Great post! I've written two historical novels before (not published or anything), and research is probably the hardest but most important aspect.
    And I'm also reading The Last of the Mohicans right now for literature. I'm finding it pretty challenging to read, which is rare for me. :)

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  2. I loved this post very much, Elizabeth. Well done! Actually, as I also write historical fiction I can most positively identify with the whole continuing process of research and marinating oneself and one's stories in history :D. It is challenging - very challenging in fact, but well worth it in the end. With my new novel, 'A Love that Never Fails', I've had to switch from a very different historical time period (Ancient Rome) now to World War II era in England and Australia which has been taking me a while to accustom myself to. I am in the process of doing all the research (going to the library and borrowing an armload of history books about D-Day, the London Blitz, and WW2 history volumes etc,). But the thing about historical fiction is the skill to translate what one reads about into what one writes about which is the most tricky aspect of the genre. These tips that you shared have been a helpful reminder to me as I continue to research, so thanks :D.

    P.S. all the best with your research for 'Rifles of the South Field' too! I look forward to eventually reading this novel one day =D.

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