Tuesday, September 27, 2005

On Historical Accuracy...

On my main blog yesterday, I mentioned that I'd risen rather vociferously to the defense of the historical romance genre.

In response, Rene said "But not all historical detail is conducive to a good romance. My heroine has all her teeth and smells pretty good. Same with my hero. Would this be likely in reality?" I agree totally with this. It's one thing to mention the refuse in the streets and the stink of the Thames, but morning breath? I don't think so.

For me, historical accuracy is about creating the past as accurately as possible. Note the final two words of my previous sentence. No matter how much research we do, unless we time travel to the past, there's no way we'll ever get things exactly right. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't strive for it.

One of the biggest problems I encounter is writers relying on faulty information. They find something they think is accurate and use it. But if they're not professional historians, they likely have no idea that it's really a good idea to check several sources. And look to primary sources.

My own education has made me take this for granted, but let's face it, many writers aren't as familiar with "the rule of three" (using at least three independent sources) unless they also happen to be journalists. Which is why, when asked, I do give basic research advice which includes tips on how to verify information in history books.

There are those writers, however, who do wilfully ignore history and this does bother me. It's not just a matter of glossing over the less savoury details of life in the past, but moving major events, changing the personalities of historical characters or just plain ignoring the mores of the period. One book I tried to read, but ended up not being able to finish, featured floor to ceiling glass windows in a castle on the border with Scotland in the early 1100s. I'm not kidding. This same book also had me grinding my teeth over the author's portrayal of Mathilde of Boulogne, the courageous, capable and loving wife of King Stephen. I barely recognized her as she'd been transformed into a jealous, evil, scheming, cheating harridan - the stereotypical "other woman". Granted, there's not a lot known about Mathilde, but NONE of the primary sources I've seen have ever even hinted at her being anything but a strong, devoted and faithful consort.

In her comment Melissa said "BTW, I'd LOVE to read his email and your response!!!" - well, Melissa, you can. Go here for the email that set me off and here for my first response. Once you're into the thread, you'll see my other posts on the topic *g*.

Sarah - thanks for explaining Dr M's background. I was so angry I couldn't go and look at the article. Sounds like it's a good thing I didn't. And I'm glad I wasn't the only one who couldn't abide such horrible stereotyping.


Monday, September 26, 2005

Research and software

I love software. And use it for research. What are some of my favourite programmes for this?

WriteWayPro, to start. It has Research Folders, where you can store all kinds of information and access it easily.

Book Collector. This software is a book cataloguing programme. I use it to keep track of my books and generate bibliographies. You enter books in your library using the ISBN and/or title/author. Most of the time the book's detail can be pulled off one of the many sites the programme searches (you tell it which one). I even keep a separate file for books I want.

NetSnippets. I use this for organizing my internet research. Not only does it save your favourite websites, but you can copy and paste information from the net into it and it records the url and day you collected it, which makes for easy referencing. One of the best features is the ability to generate a webpage of ALL the links you've collected! Yep, every month or so, I generate one of these and save it elsewhere, just in case something happens.

Each of these programmes offers a free 30 day trial. NetSnippets has a free version, but it's not as powerful.

So, what software do YOU use to organize your research?


Thursday, September 22, 2005

Research Primer and Some Links

Wow, I can't believe how long it's been since I updated this blog! I'll try to do it a little more regularly from now on.

Research Primer

For me, doing research is one of the things I love most about writing. I can (and do) spend hours in the local university libraries, digging for details or just absorbing bits of information I might find useful in the future.

Don't think that because you're writing a contemporary that research doesn't matter, because people will catch your mistakes even more easily, especially if you're using real town or city. In fact, you actually have to research the same things whether you're writing a historical or a contemporary - professions and occupations, costume (ie. police officer and fire fighter etc. uniforms will differ from city to city, state to state), setting, both physical and political, speech patterns and language, local culture, furniture styles etc.

Using a combination of library sources and the internet, finding the right details for your story can be both time-consuming and fascinating.

What are the key elements?

First, organization. Yep, before you even start browsing the stacks and thumbing through books, you must have a plan. Remember, though reference libarians are there to help and usually do so quite willingly, you'll not be their friend if approach them and say "I need to know everything about 18th Century France by the end of the day." So, while still at home, make a list of the most important things you want to find out. DO NOT try to do it all in one day.

Second, use a variety of sources, primary and secondary - newspapers, journals, letters, magazines, tourism guides, catalogues and books.

Third, take good notes and reference EVERYTHING! I can't emphasize this enough. Editors will want to know from where you took your information if a question is raised. And it's always good to be able to go back to the original source if necessary - either for clarification or further

Fourth, file your notes - binders, folders and plastic tubs all work well. If you keep a lot of research on your computer, then be sure to BACK IT UP, just in case.

I know that for some people, research is more of a chore. But with the right questions and tools, it can be fun. And the details you find will always
enrich your story, enabling you to draw your reader deeper into your characters' world.



Researching the Historical Romance by Charla Chin

Researching the Historical Novel by Sarah Smith

A Research Primer for Historical Fiction Writers by Erika Dreifus

How to Research Historical Fiction by Rita Gerlach

Other Resources

Research Articles at Michelle Prima's Literary Liaisons site.

Writer's Resources at Literary Liaisons.

HF writers answer the question "How do you conduct your historical research?" at the Historical Fiction Author Roundtable.

Research Techniques by Alan Dix - a tutorial for his undergrad students. He's in the computing department, but much of what he says applies to writers as well :-)

Research Guides from the New York Public Library - they cover a variety of topics and many are very useful.

How to do Research from the Kentucky Virtual Library - a site for children. It's a great intro to the topic.

Finding Information on the Net from the UC Berkeley Library

How to Do Research in the Library from the UC Santa Cruz Library. In this case, some of the info will be specific to that library, but most of what's said can be applied in any library setting :-)

There are some all-purpose sites, such as Voice of the Shuttle, Wikipedia, which is similar to About.com in that it's maintained by volunteers and Writers Free Reference, which has links to free sites on all kinds of topics. The Humbul Humanities Hub is more specialized, but includes notes about each site they reference.

LibrarySpot maintains a list of online encyclopedias (though not all of them are free) as does Resource Central, and RefDesk.

Link of the Day: Fascinating History