(Continued from Part 1)
My previous post on researching to write historical fiction recommended starting large.
That is to say, beginning with a book that provides a broad overview of the historical era in question.
In truth, I recommend reading two such books back to back. Not only is this to compare, contrast, and verify the various claims of both books, but also to help solidify the basics in your mind.
For me, I know I’ve done well learning the basics when I’m able to spout germane yet impromptu facts during social engagements the moment people seem the least bit susceptible (as well as when they don’t seem that susceptible at all, to be honest).
However, overarching knowledge of a historical era will only take you so far. Definitely not far enough to recreate that era in a novel, complete with all the intimate details, customs, and ethos of the time period, especially for a reader who knows their history.
For this reason, choosing a good overview reference book to start with becomes all the more important, for the better the reference, the better its bibliography.
The bibliography is your passport into a greater depth of historical knowledge.
Since an overview texts touches on numerous topics, its bibliography will be a goldmine of sources covering specialized subjects, all neatly contained in one place. They are often organized by chapter/the order in which they’re cited rather than alphabetically, and thus by subject matter.
The bibliography of a good overview reference will likely list the works of other respected, long-standing scholars in the field, and also primary sources in which you can read about life in the time period from the hands and mouths of those who actually lived through it.
Figuring out options for your third, fourth, and subsequent references thus requires significantly less searching and vetting than is needed for the first reference.
(I do still like to search subsequent titles on Amazon or Goodreads, though, to see their star ratings and recent reviews since it is possible for a once seminal text to become outdated by new discoveries).
But although the possible options are taken care of in a good bibliography, there remains the question of how not to turn into the proverbial kid in the candy store. That is to say, how specifically to choose what’s next from such a list, which could be quite lengthy.
Discovery vs. proof
Ideally, you want to become well-versed in the time period without going down any rabbit holes, researching things that have no bearing on either the plot itself or your ability to devise and/or understand it.
One method for choosing your subsequent references is to let your style as a writer be your guide. That and how much of your story you already have in mind.
If you’re going into your research with a basic grasp of your plot well in hand, you might subsequently zero in on specific holes in your knowledge that you already know need filling.
Conversely, if all you know upfront is the historical era you want to write about—if you’re instead using research to find your story rather than to prove it—you might start reading about the next broadest relevant topic, and then the next next one, uncovering your plot bit by bit as you go.
I’ve employed both methods. In researching my medieval WIP, the next book I read after my two overview books was a very specialized title on three centuries worth of clothing details and patterns from England and France.
With my Ancient Greece WIP, I followed up with a comprehensive book about slavery in the Classical world.
Whichever method you adopt, the next most important consideration is how you plan to keep track of what you discover. I’m quite hands-on with my reference books—highlighting, marginal notes (and I crack the books’ spines if the margins aren’t wide enough), tape flags. This has the result of imprinting on my brain, if not verbatim lines of text, then definitely the text’s precise location in the book, as well as which book it came from, so that I can quickly look it up again as needed.
Transcribing relevant facts, whether in longhand or typed, is another useful way to remember and learn (and also to keep your research backed up if your physical books get damaged or destroyed—I really should do this more).
When transcribing, it’s best to organize the facts by subject for easier retrieval, and also to note both the page number and edition number since page numbers can vary across editions. As well, be sure to copy each passage word for word in case you later need to quote it, especially for reference books that you don’t own.