Researching Historical Fiction

Can I just say this at the outset?

I have no idea what I’m doing. 

I’m too new at this to suggest that I hold the key to doing it right in “10 Easy-to-follow Steps.”

Researching is as personal as housekeeping. We all tend to do things in our own way, don’t we? Some of us follow a schedule: toilets on Monday, dusting on Tuesday, and so on. Some of us wait until we can’t stand it any longer and have all-day cleaning marathons. Some of us don’t think about it until a friend texts that she’s on her way over, and then it’s a flight-of-the-bumblebees race against time with a trashbag and a closet.

Whatever works. I’m not going to champion one method over another. I’m simply going to share a part of my crooked journey through the labyrinth of information available.

I always shrink a bit when I tell people I’m writing a novel about Pilgrims. I know that must sound so boring to them, so puritanical. Gag!

I’ve been in the American school system recently enough to know the bad rap they’ve received in modern history books. They’re either clownish with their stiff collars and giant buckles, or they’re the bad guys in the story of the founding of America.

The truth, as I’ve come to know it, is that these stoic, faithful people are devastatingly misunderstood.

I possess the same access to information as everyone else with an internet connection and a library card, so what led me to this conclusion?

Let me begin at the beginning.

Well, not the very beginning. If you want to know what inspired me to write about them in the first place, you can read about it here. The short version is this: I had been given a book on American history that presented the Pilgrims in a positive light, as courageous bulwarks of faith and light, almost super-human in their ability to withstand and rise above their afflictions.

Now that I knew I wanted to write and, just as importantly, what I wanted to write about, I had to begin. Of course, there was a character, a love interest, and a struggle. And I knew enough of Pilgrim history from this nonfiction source to get these things situated in the right country, year, and political climate, so I began.

In hindsight, maaaaybe I should have done more research before beginning. But it’s a big maybe. If I’d have known all I didn’t know, and all I would have had to absorb to get it right, it’s likely I would have given up before I finished Chapter One.

Alas, I finished that sweet, naive little novel in ignorant bliss and moved on to the next.

Eventually I went back and revised what I had written, thought maybe it was ready. It wasn’t. I accepted it. Let it marinate for a while.

I matured as a writer and as a historian during this time. Curiosity led me to dabble in online and reference resources. I began to understand how little I knew when I began.

I made an important discovery: the limited knowledge I had in the beginning, which served a wonderful purpose in inspiring me and filling my imagination, was heavily biased to make the Pilgrims look like flawless saints.

I didn’t want to believe it. I loved that version of them. It made of them something heroic and righteous. It made them victims of modern academia, which is not such a bad thing.

But that version isn’t entirely accurate.

If I want this story to matter, I have to get it right. I have to know, from unbiased sources, who these people were, and why they did what they did.

My quest to get it right has taken me all over the map in terms of resource materials, and I guess that would be my only research tip for other writers of historical fiction.

VARIETY. 

Read Christian authors. Atheist authors. Authors who love their subject. Authors who are critical of it. Neutral authors. Authors who are generous with primary source materials (journals and letters written by the people their nonfiction books are about). Authors who don’t know a thing about theology, but who are committed to chronological and geographical accuracy.

Read and study so widely, that when the source you’re using grossly mis-characterizes the subject matter, you can strike it through with a pencil, scribble, “WRONG!!” in the margin, and move on.

If you’ve already begun to write your story (or completed it like me) by the time you reach this point, don’t despair. Truthfully, I nearly cried when I thought of all the work that would entail revising a character I’d imagined as a silversmith, to be an ironmonger, as he really was. But I owe it to the memory of this man who really lived to get it right.

And I have to tell you this. Something wonderful happened to my manuscript when I began the hard work of getting these details right.

The world I built in my early, flimsy, limited knowledge became anchored with the scaffolding of historical fact. My characters and their motivations sprang to life with a word, a line, a memory that I was able to add, now that I knew what I knew.

The writing got better as the research got better.

It has been like a dance for me. A little writing. A little research. Back and forth. Time devoted to one, then time devoted to the other. Sometimes there are marathon days of writing. Sometimes just absorbing information. Sometimes it’s a flight-of-the-bumblees to fix a blatant error I recently discovered.

Research however you like, and at the pace you like, but make the truth your standard. Don’t shy away from it. Don’t let it make you feel incompetent to begin such a challenging work. Be bolstered by what you’re learning, by an urgency to get it right and get it out into the world.

If you’re interested in reading more about the Pilgrims, these are the sources I’m currently using.

The Light and the Glory 

Making Haste From Babylon

Mayflower

The Birth of America

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