In today’s post Donna Schlacter writes about the value of research trips.

            Since I started writing historical fiction about a year ago, I have undertaken quite a few research trips. Truth be told, I hesitated to write historical because I thought I didn’t know enough history to write credibly. And I was correct. So, aside from taking university courses in history, how was I going to get the information I needed?

Answer: Research trip.

I hear you already: I don’t have the money, the time.

You do, because a lot of the work of your research trips starts right at home. A research trip can be an afternoon, a day, an overnight, or however long you want or need it to be. The cool thing about research is it opens new plot elements, new location ideas, and even births new ideas for other books.

There are many ways to do a research trip, but this is my method:

  1. Internet – do whatever research you can on the Internet. Search on the location of your book, and you are bound to find numerous websites with good information. If the location is real, most towns and cities have a Chamber of Commerce, many have a Historical Society or museums. Find out what happened in that town in the past and look for specialty museums such as mining, farming, flight, cars, and industrial. I print out whatever I find AND save the pages as HTML in case my editor wants to know where I got this information. Use trusted sources as much as possible.
  2. If your town is fictional, look for towns in the area of your setting. Glean one interesting fact from several different towns, tweak it a little, and use it in your book as the thing that makes the town different. For example, if your town is set in the Napa Valley in California, maybe it could be the town where the factory that prints wine bottle labels is located. Maybe the town didn’t repeal prohibition until ten years after the rest of the state. And maybe wine is only served on Sundays in restaurants in the town.
  3. Library – your local library is a treasure house of information without leaving home. Many libraries offer websites where you can request books from other library branches in the system and you can pick them up at your local branch. Librarians are a wealth of information as well, and larger library systems will have local non-circulating sections where you can find books, maps, journals, and newspapers.
  4. Go there – if you decide the only way to get the best information is to actually visit the location, do some preparation beforehand. With the information gleaned from the steps listed above, decide what is important to your story and the scenes you plan to write. I have found these are the best ways to get a feel for your location:

(a)    Museums are great, but choose the ones pertinent to your story. For example, one hour in a gun museum could do more for your scene with a Civil War scene than an entire day in the history museum. I visited a heritage center/living museum in Florida and got the feeling for how humid it can be there. I recorded the sound of the cicadas, smelled the trees and damp earth, and saw how the log cabin in my book would have looked.

(b)   Choose specialty museums if you have specific questions you want answers for.  A recent visit to a prison museum answered the question I had about the period of time from conviction to execution in Colorado in the 1920’s that I needed for a book I’m working on.

(c)    If the location has been preserved so as to be historically accurate, go there. I went to a Pony Express station in northern Kansas to get a feel for the terrain and what the riders would have seen as they came across the prairie in 1860.

(d)   Limit your location visits to two per day. If you have more than that, plan an overnight stay or two because otherwise everything you learn will all jumble together and you’ll be too exhausted to absorb it all.

(e)   Carry a small tape recorder with you to record your thoughts, the sounds, notes on stuff you see. Before you record somebody, tell them you’re doing it, and why, and ask if it’s okay. I’ve never been refused. When you get home, type up your notes and keep them in a file for future reference.

(f)     Bring a camera with lots of extra batteries. If you’re taking pictures inside a museum or display, ask about their picture-taking policy.

(g)    Be ready to ask questions. Curators and volunteers love to know you’re going to write about their museum. They love to share what they know about your topic. Make sure you get a business card or their name and contact information. You’ll want to remember these people when your book is published. You may have other questions you need to ask later on. I met the past president of the Colorado Pony Express Association, and spent a delightful hour with him as he shared stories and information. At another location on the same trip, I met the local expert on the Pony Express who knew just about everything there was to know about the Pony Express through Nebraska.

(h)   If you have time and energy left over at the end of your day, be open to visiting another site you hadn’t thought about. We were in Kansas on a research trip, and we stopped in at the last remaining limestone barn in Kansas that’s on its original site, just because it was there. We met some wonderful ladies who were quilting, and in the process, I got an idea for an element in my book that I hadn’t thought of before – a quilt – and we met the best friend of my husband’s mother. Small world.

                Don’t let history scare you. History is the friend of the novelist. Get out there, discover a great big world, and then write your story. Don’t expect to put everything you’ve learned into this next book you’re working on. Do expect to weave in sensory details, tidbits of information about the culture, the attitudes, the way things were. Readers love to learn as they read, as long as they don’t really realize they’re learning. Your book is historical, not history. But it should still be accurate as to what COULD have happened, just like the rest of your story is accurate as to this story COULD have happened just the way it’s written.

I’d love to hear some of your ideas and suggestions for conducting research, and if you have a favorite story about research, please share it with us.