Researching For Historical Novels, by William C Hammond (guest article)
As time-consuming and demanding a process as historical research can sometimes be (a writer wants to write, right?), it is a critically important component of writing a true historical novel. Data confirms that people read fiction primarily for entertainment and for an escape, but they read historical fiction also to learn about history: their own country’s history or the history of some specific place. So in a real sense the author of historical fiction becomes a teacher of history, the “fiction” part notwithstanding, and as a teacher, the author must endeavor to be as accurate as possible about the historical era he or she is writing about, as well as the definitions and terms associated with that era. Certainly there is room for creative license – what drives the novel and maintains reader interest is, after all, an engaging plot – and historical research does become less vigorous in a novel that is set in history (for example, Harper Lee’s epic To Kill a Mockingbird set in early 20th century Alabama) as opposed to one that is steeped in history (the novels of Bernard Cornwell, for example, or those of Philippa Gregory).
I research my novels in the Cutler Family Chronicles primarily by reading books, some of them published more than a century ago. Because there are real historical figures in my novels – for example, John Paul Jones, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Horatio Nelson, and Thomas Jefferson – I read a great deal about them, not only published biographies but also, whenever possible, their personal journals. The log that Captain Jones kept in Bonhomme Richard is but one example. I doubt one can find a Kindle Edition of that title or many of the other titles I have read in the course of doing my research. And the Internet is a wonderful source for research, especially in providing photographs, videos, or line-drawings of people and places and ships. I have toured USS Constitution in Boston perhaps twenty times. She is an absolutely gorgeous ship, as awe-inspiring in her own way as is HMS Victory in Portsmouth, England. While I am living here in Minneapolis, more than 1,500 miles away from where she is moored at the Charlestown Navy Yard, I can take a virtual tour of her anytime I choose simply by turning on my computer.
This brings up the interesting question of whether or not an author should travel extensively for the purpose of doing research. While traveling to an exotic spot such as Tahiti or Bora Bora in order to be “on locale” has its appeal – and while U.S. tax laws still oblige authors with generous tax deductions in this area -– I personally do not believe such travel is required in our modern age. For example, I have never been to any of the West Indian islands featured prominently in my novels. But I have bought travel books of these islands, and I have studied a great deal about their customs, and their flora and fauna, and their physical terrain. When combined with photographic spreads readily available on the Internet, such “in home” research usually does the job. After A Matter of Honor was published in 2007, a reader wrote to tell me that my alluring descriptions of Barbados and Tobago had convinced him and his fiancée to honeymoon there. He later wrote to tell me of the places they had visited on the islands that matched my descriptions – and to thank me for directing him and his bride to the lagoon with the waterfall where the love-scene in chapter 14 takes place!
An author never knows when good historical research will pay off. Another letter I received after A Matter of Honor was published was from a gentleman named Tom Mayrant. He wrote to thank me for how I portray his great-great-grandfather John Mayrant in the novel, serving as midshipman in Bonhomme Richard. He told me it was as though I had actually met his ancestor! (A heavy dose of luck was involved, of course, since there is precious little about John Mayrant in the historical record.)
The opposite, of course, is also true. When you get something wrong, no matter how picayune it may appear to be, readers will let you know about it. As well they should, especially if they have paid good money to read what you wrote.
William C Hammond’s author website: www.bill-hammond.com
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