Friday, September 28, 2012

The Way Back To The Facts

Someone said "Never Let Facts get in the way of a good story" and that's an important rule for the historical novelist. --
William Martin tells us we must remember that Character and Plot are master and mistress of the novel, but THE WAY BACK TO THE FACTS can be a most interesting journey. Several years ago I conducted a workshop on research after having taken that journey to research my own historical novel.
My dream was to write a multigenerational story of family members connected through three eras - a trilogy with settings in the American Revolution – The Civil War - and early Twentieth Century.   BIG DREAM !
Here are my findings which subsequently became components of a research workshop:
Books, primary & secondary sources filled with details give the power of personality, & personality breathes life into your fiction.
 HISTORY GIVES YOU STRUCTURE and structure means story or plot
It offers beginnings, middles and ends.
 HISTORY GIVES YOU SETTING to help you blend the historical with the fictional
“So, you've decided on an era, a location and the characters you wish to write about.  Some of your characters may be true characters in history.  When you can't be there physically in the setting of your story you must depend on sources of information.” That's how I began my research. My hope for a trilogy ended up as a  single Civil War story which was successfully published in hard cover and Large Print, but the research took five years!
I used Primary Resources, Secondary Resources and Internet Resources.
I Started with my community LIBRARY where I spent countless hours and received much, much help. Be that your Community library, County and State Libraries, or University Libraries,I feel libraries are my best friends and I used that statement in an acknowledgement for one of my books.
My novel was to be about American history; consequently the books below are sources I found that helped with structure and character.
Almanac of American History by Schlesinger
Chronicle of America - Clifton Daniel, Editor
Dictionary of American History (vol. 1 & Index)
American Decades (1st vol. of ten)
Millennium Year by Year A Chronicle of World History
2000 edition A Darling Kindersley Book  
Those were the biggies in my community library, but I also read countless books, fiction and non-fiction, many from the Children's Book Section.  I found children’s books clear and focused, and they contained the most important information on a given topic:
Ex.   Florida In the Civil War,& Florida Historic Homes ( points out details to be found in local settings and gives structure)  Old books like the Seminoles of Florida giving language of Native Americans. 1787 by Joan Anderson a post-revolutionary story sprinkled with true characters such as Washington, Ben Franklin, & Hamilton.
And children’s novels: The Ransom of Mercy Carter, Mildred Taylor's The Land (prequel to  Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry & Chipper,

One scene in my book took characters as passengers in  a mail boat on a trip around the Florida peninsula during the Civil War. For that setting I went to The Historical Resources Library in Sarasota, and visited their archives to find out about lighthouses in the Gulf, who lived in the Keys & how they lived.
When I needed information I couldn't find locally in Library system databases, I went to Primary sources and websites listed below and/or I used books, tapes, periodicals and publications:

Reference Collections in State Libraries

Manuscripts in University Collections and Historical Societies

Newspaper, maps and photo collections

Family History Centers of the Mormon Church

County Courts and Census Records,

The National Archives

Church and Cemetery Records

Library of Congress
           The History Channel
The above internet databases may not be valid in today’s cyber space, because I used them to research my first book twelve years ago!
Whether or not you are researching for historical fiction, today much time is saved by writers (me included) searching the internet for information. Having said that, I still feel that Libraries are a touchstone for writers.   "Libraries are my best friends."



Jacqueline Seewald said...


This is a fascinating discussion! Only one of my historical novels has been published. Like you, I did a great deal of research and used a number of historical figures. TEA LEAVES AND TAROT CARDS was thoroughly researched for authenticity of historic detail. Again, like you, I really enjoyed the research and spent a great deal of time in libraries hunting down sources.

Mary Fremont Schoenecker said...

Its always good to know that someone shared your experience. Thanks so much for your interest to comment.

Susan Oleksiw said...

That's a very impressive list of sources and references. I enjoy historical novels for the flavor of the times and the fascinating details writers select and present. I've always felt historians could learn a lot from fiction writers.

Alyssa Sabbatino said...

Historical Fiction is always a huge way to get students and young readers involved in history in a more authentic way. I think that it works as an exciting and humanistic way to incorporate information in teaching, rather than a text book. Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry is taught in my school.

Mary F. Schoenecker said...

I agree, Susan, that historians could learn a lot from fiction writers. I bravely said that to the Civil War Round Table,a group of which I'm a member.
I also am happy to hear that Alyssa feels it has a valuable spot in teaching methods. I wish all teachers felt that way.

Carole Price said...

Impressive list of resources. I admire authors who can write historical novels...all that research required to be correct with the time period. Someone told me once that reading children's books would help tighten my own fiction. I believe it.

Maryann Miller said...

Very helpful links. I am always impressed with folks who can do this kind of historical research. Researching for contemporary stories is hard enough. LOL