2016 Debut Authors Share their Research Tips

Note from Julie: Today’s post is a compilation of advice on historical research from a few members of the Sweet Sixteens, a group of YA and MG authors who are debuting in 2016. You can learn more about the Sweet Sixteens and their upcoming books on their website. I’m very proud to be a part of this great group, and I’m excited to share some writing advice from my fellow debut authors!

The idea for this post came from a thread on the Sweet Sixteens’ discussion forum. Kali Wallace, who writes YA horror, posted a question for historical fiction writers. I thought it was great that a writer was reaching across genres to ask a question, and the replies were stellar! Thank you all for agreeing to let me share this great discussion with the readers of PubCrawl! (And stay tuned for more of Kali Wallace and YA horror in a future post!)

Kali Wallace pictureI have a question for writers of historical fiction:
How do you research for a historical novel? What sort of research do you do?
How do you balance getting the period details right with writing for a modern MG/YA audience?

Kali Wallace, author of Shallow Graves, Katherine Tegen Books 2016.
You can visit Kali’s website and follow her on twitter @kaliphyte.

Lois Sepahban

Sweet Sixteens Lois SepahbanMy stories always start with a character, and I think that even in a historical setting, the character’s experiences are what make his/her story accessible and interesting for modern readers. But getting the setting details right does require research. Over a period of several months, I devour everything I can find about the setting–books, newspaper articles, diaries, documentaries, and museums. During those months, the story starts to slowly come together in my mind. So as soon as I’m ready to start writing, then I’ve already done most of the research.

I use a notebook to keep track of what I learn, and I always need to go back and dig up new details while I’m drafting.

By immersing myself in the history and culture before I start writing, I have found that the details come naturally as I’m drafting.

LOIS SEPAHBAN is the author of the upcoming MG Historical, Paper Wishes, coming from FSG/Margaret Ferguson Books in Winter 2016. Learn more about Lois on her website and say hello to her on twitter @LoisSepahban.

Janet B. Taylor

Janet Taylor pictureWhen I FIRST started writing for REALS, I’d planned to write adult historical fiction. I was working with a hisfic author as a “writing coach” who told me—in no uncertain terms—that though I was a good writer, with potential…blah blah…my “voice” was too modern and too “YA”.
Now, at the time, I didn’t really know what “YA” was. And I certainly didn’t know what voice meant in writing terms.

Soo…I cried. A lot. Then I got to thinking. Okay. Modern voice. YA. Loves historical…..TIME TRAVEL!

I’ve been fascinated by the medieval period for years, and had studied it for a long time. Particularly England and France, and even more specifically, Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine. (I’d LOVE to write about her one day. Her teenage years are absolutely astounding. However, there are a LOT of wonderful books already written about Eleanor. And I’m not sure I have the chops to go up against someone like Elizabeth Chadwick or Sharon Kay Penman, for instance.)

Anyhoo, with that background, I basically did what Lois said. Total immersion for months. Websites. Read a lot. Traveled to Europe a few times. Read a lot. Castles, museums. Oh, did I mention I spent WAY too much money on books so I could read a lot? I got everything about anything to do with time period. I even got to spend the night inside Fontevraud Abbey in France, where Eleanor spent her later years, and is buried. I got to be alone with her (and Henry II and Richard the Lionheart) at night, in the cathedral, all alone. It was magnificent!

Now the sequel to my current book will take place in NYC during The Gilded Age 1895. That is requiring a LOT of new, very detailed, very intense research, as I wasn’t really familiar with that era. But it’s such a cool time and I’m enjoying it very much!

JANET B TAYLOR’s debut YA Adventure/Time Travel, Into the Dim, will be published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in Spring 2016. Visit Janet on her website and follow her on twitter @Janet_B_Taylor.

Patrick Samphire

Patrick Samphire pictureAlmost everything I write is set in one historical period or another. I’ve written short stories in Ancient Greece and Ancient Egypt, as well as in the first world war and prehistoric Britain. My novel, Secrets of the Dragon Tomb, is set in 1816, and I’m also working on a novel set in the 1930s.

But the shameful truth is that I’m an absolutely terrible researcher. I hate doing it. I pick up some incredibly informative, vastly heavy reference book and I rarely get past the introduction before my brain melts into a puddle of supreme apathy. I just can’t bring myself to do it. Come on. I can’t be the only one, right?

So, I have developed a special method of Historical Research for the Historically Ignorant and Terminally Lazy:

  1. Watch movies and read books set in the relevant period, to get a basic idea of what the period was like. You have to be careful that you’re not picking books and movies by people who are equally Historically Ignorant and Terminally Lazy. For my 1816 book, that meant reading Jane Austen, Bernard Cornwell and Georgette Heyer and watching lots of Jane Austen adaptations. Yeah, and some people claim this is work…
  2. Write your book.
  3. Figure out all the bits you should have researched and go and look them up. Wikipedia is, of course, not particularly accurate about many things, but admit it, we all use it… Alternatively, ask my wife (you’ll have to find someone else to ask; sorry). My wife loves doing historical research. She reads books like that for fun. She even has degrees in this kind of stuff.
  4. Realise that what you have in the book can’t possibly have happened, because you didn’t bother to research it in advance.
  5. Rewrite, making it less impossible.
  6. Blame the wizards/fairies/aliens. My books tend to have pretty heavy fantasy or science fiction elements, so when I get something wrong, I just blame the influence of magic/technology for changes to real history.
  7. Now no one will realize how little you actually know about your historical period. Unless you write a blog entry admitting it.

PATRICK SAMPHIRE is the author of the upcoming MG Adventure, Secrets of the Dragon Tomb, coming from Christy Ottaviano Books (Henry Holt / Macmillan) in January 2016. Learn more about Patrick on his website and say hello to him on twitter @patricksamphire.

Heidi Heilig

Heidi Heilig PictureFor starters, picking historical fantasy/time travel over straight up historical fiction made things easier when it came to research. In the world of the book, characters can travel to historical and mythological maps, so I am not tied strictly to widely-agreed-upon reality.

That said, accurate history can really make the fantasy aspect shine. When I did my research, reading was key for me, and I often went down the research rabbit hole for hours on something small that never made it into the final draft–or even the draft I was working on at the time. But that time wasn’t wasted–having all that information in a soup in my head made it easy to pick small things out and weave them into a detailed story.

Obviously, primary factual documents were very useful–boat time tables, newspaper articles–but I also found fiction of the time period very helpful for dialogue and speech cadence. Old pictures helped (the bulk of the story takes place in 1884 so there are some) and maps, of course, so I could see, for example, what areas of town smelled because they were near the tannery or how noisy things were due to proximity to the market. Paintings, art, or songs of the time helped me humanize the characters and understand what people filled their time with when they weren’t doing Important Book Things, because I have this tendency to see historical people as Very Serious.

In the future, I hope to be skilled enough to do straight up historical fiction. I love history. I think there are some issues that are universal. No matter when, teens are always growing up, or falling in love, or looking for their place in the world.

HEIDI HEILIG’s debut YA Fantasy/Time Travel, The Girl from Everywhere, will be published by Greenwillow/HarperCollins in February, 2016. You can learn more about her on her website and follow her on Twitter @heidiheilig.

What are your thoughts on historical fiction? Do you use any of these techniques when you research? Please share you thoughts in the comments!


14 Responses to 2016 Debut Authors Share their Research Tips

  1. Abby Apr 17 2015 at 10:00 am #

    I love this post! I write primarily historical YA, so it’s always interesting to find out how other people tackle research.

    I majored in history as an undergrad, so I’m a major research nerd who would spend my entire life looking up arcane facts if I could. I use some combination of all the strategies above: read a broad general history of the era (or a few), note the historical trends, and get down to the details. This can include reading secondary sources about specific topics (daily life in Victorian America, women’s housework in 19th-century America), reading biographies, and poring through archives. (Digitized archives are a godsend.) For my last book I relied heavily on letters written by my great-great-grandmother, which helped supply slang and facts of daily life you wouldn’t necessarily think about (like the fact that they still called the youngest girl “Baby” at age 14). And I also read fiction from the period and watch historical films, more for the atmosphere, emotions, and speech cadences than anything else.

    Anyway, I could go on and on…but this is a great conversation!

    • Janet B Taylor Apr 17 2015 at 10:28 am #

      Wow, Abby! How cool is it that you still have letters written by your great-great-grandmother! I am SUPER jealous!! 🙂

    • Lois Sepahban Apr 18 2015 at 10:00 am #

      Those letters, Abby!!! So lucky! I agree with you about the digitized archives–it’s great to be able to get so much of the initial research done without having to travel.

  2. katz Apr 17 2015 at 10:42 am #

    In contrast to everyone else, I deliberately *don’t* watch movies or read fiction by modern authors set in my time period while I’m writing in order to avoid propagating memetic errors. If it’s not from a primary source, I assume it to be unreliable, and given that I write such a misunderstood setting, this is usually a wise assumption.

    • Patrick Samphire Apr 17 2015 at 11:00 am #

      You’re quite right that movies and modern fiction aren’t a good way to establish historical facts, but they are a pretty good way of getting “in the zone”. Of course, there are other ways. My wife used to read Jane Austen’s letters every day before she started writing, for example.

    • Rowenna Apr 20 2015 at 2:46 pm #

      I was going to note this–while I think it’s a great way to start to play in historical spaces, most (all) movies have some errors and some are just atrocious. I’d probably tend to advise that any movie-gleaned fact be double-checked against academic sources. I know, my nerd is really showing. But I spend a lot of time in my volunteer work as a living history dork correcting film and fiction misconceptions that people carry around with them from Hollywood’s influence.

      • Patrick Samphire Apr 21 2015 at 6:44 am #

        You’re right, of course, Rowenna. The real difference here, I think, is between people who do lots of research up front and those who do their research after the first draft (or outline) when they know *what* they need to research.

        There is also the question of what historical facts you actively choose to ignore in sacrifice to the story. Some would choose to ignore none, others would be willing to ignore a lot. The choice is even more complicated when you’re writing historical fantasy or alternative history.

  3. heidi heilig Apr 17 2015 at 10:54 am #

    Letters from your great-great grandmother, what a fantastic resource. My own family passed down an ancestral diary from someone who crossed the Oregon Trail–the writer was an intensely practical man and despite the epic nature of the journey, his notes made it seem almost boring. I think letters with slang sound much spicier.

    • Abby Apr 17 2015 at 2:50 pm #

      Sometimes the slang is fun, and sometimes it’s confusing or painfully racist. But it’s another way to look at how people interacted. A diary of the Oregon Trail sounds like such a great family resource, even if it’s not written in the most exciting language–and a lot of it must have been boring (all that traveling)!

  4. Maria Gianferrari Apr 20 2015 at 4:00 pm #

    Thanks for sharing your research and immersion techniques, everyone!

    • Julie May 18 2015 at 6:24 pm #

      Glad you enjoyed the post, Maria!

  5. Karen May 18 2015 at 4:38 pm #

    Love this post. I’ll use this as reference as I’m drafting/writing a historical. It’s so much fun. Being a writer is quite the education — we get to study anything we want. 🙂 Thanks for this!

    • Julie May 18 2015 at 6:30 pm #

      I’m glad you found the post helpful, Karen! It is pretty great that writers get to dig in and study what interests them. 🙂

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.