Doing thorough research is just as important to your novel as your plot and characters—not only for historical novels, but for all genres.
Readers are smart, and they know their stuff. Someone reading your book is going to be knowledgeable or even an expert about some element of your story, so you’d better get your facts right.
Say the chef-instructor in your murder mystery notes to her students she will show them how to “braise” the beef, and then proceeds to throw the hunks of meat into the deep fryer. This mistake, however small you might think it is, can irritate, or worse, alienate your audience. If they find mistakes in any of your facts, they can lose trust in you and your entire story. Not good for your current book, and possibly future books as well.
Google and the Library are Your Friends
Google and other search engines are heaven-sent (well, cyber-space sent) resources for writers. All internet sources are not to be trusted, so it’s important to know from whom and where the information is originating.
But the web is a great place to find obvious information, such as what braising is and other cooking methods. Usually a search is going to overwhelm you with information, so study the links and choose the most reputable sources.
You can find more in-depth research on the internet, but this is where you really need to verify your source. Find out the source’s credentials and check his/her information against other sources in the same field. Don’t rely on just one resource.
The library is a great place to conduct research. There are references and cross-references so you can be sure you’re getting accurate information. When I was doing research for my historical novel Call Me Butterfly, I discovered the “California Room” at the downtown Santa Cruz branch. What a treasure trove of information! I not only verified facts I’d found on the internet, but I found information that changed my plot and characters. I ended up with more than three dozen primary and secondary book resources. (Note: in case you aren’t familiar with the terms, primary sources are original materials produced from the time period involved. Secondary sources are materials produced after the fact; generally they are interpretations and evaluations of previous events or of the primary sources themselves.)
Ask the Expert
Don’t hesitate to contact any expert who may be able to help you with hard-to-find information.When talking with someone knowledgeable about your topic, you may have the added bonus of learning details that can add richness and depth to your plot or characters, and possibly more help and support than you would have ever dared ask for!
While researching Call Me Butterfly, I came across a discrepancy in two of my book sources. I tracked down contact information for both authors via the internet and asked each about the difference in facts. It was a small detail involving the ages of two children who actually went on the expedition in my story, but I wanted to get it right, which I did with their help.
Afterwards, one of the authors, enthused about my book, offered to read and critique it once I was done, which she did much to my benefit. I kept in touch with her, and when I told her I had found a publisher for the book, she generously offered to write a marketing blurb for me. I can’t tell you how proud I am of that, and it never would have happened if I hadn’t contacted her in the first place to verify those ages!
Another source put me in touch with descendants of colonists from the expedition. Needless to say, talking with them added so much more to my story than I could have gotten simply through books or internet searches.
Organizations, Universities, Museums
You can also find information from museums in the area of which you’re writing. Organizations, universities, clubs, historical societies—all these can help you in your research. Often these groups have their information organized in an online format for easy access, and these are sources you should be able to trust.
Here are some reliable internet sources to get you started on your research:
AlphaDictionary.com (All sorts of dictionaries, languages, translations, more. Check it out!)
How do you conduct research? Do you have some good resources to share?