Historical research is a very interesting avenue to widen your knowledge about a particular time period. It is imperative that novelists working on such literary works get their hands dirty. To write a good historical novel, one must do extensive historical research.
While I was working on my writing skills, I was fortunate enough to be have worked for over a decade at Old World Wisconsin, an outdoor ethnic museum in Milwaukee. The site has been restored from 1845 through 1915 and includes crossroads villages and working farmsteads. Old World Wisconsin was an excellent place to do my historical research and get my hands dirty.
I was immersed in the daily domestic life and agricultural methods of that time. I was able to do my research and experience for myself how to loom, milk cows, and make lye soap and rennet. By the end of it, I was able to concoct my own wine, hops yeast, Finnish egg coffee and sauerbraten. Best of all, I had enough inside knowledge to give my characters life via extensive and immersive historical research.
To give you an idea on how to do great research, here are a few tips:
Historical research tip #1: Get hands on experience.
Mere understanding of a time period is not enough. When doing research, always remember that being book smart is not all there is to it. Spending time in a historical site will really add a lot to your historical research and, eventually, to your novel. To write a novel where your readers will lose themselves in, provide sensory details to bring it all to life.
In doing research, I was exposed to a lot of things—the smell of hog intestines being made into sausages, the feel of flax as its being twined into linen thread, the sound of various farm implements as they’re being used, and a lot more. Coupled with my vivid imagination, it opened my eyes to how it really was in the lives of people who lived during that time.
Emotional investment was also a big part of my historical research. The disappointment and heartbreak of seeing cabbage I carefully cultivated destroyed by moths, the ache of standing on brick kitchen floors, the exhaustion of running after draft horses escaped from their fences—all of these became a part of me. And I was able to translate these rich experiences into my novels. Doing due historical research can really be rewarding on so many levels.
Historical research tip #2: Work on a historic site
Anyone can do their research and gain some hands-on experience about the time period they are writing about. Visit historical sites. Of course, nineteenth- century sites are obviously much more available rather than Biblical day sites.
However, if you’re doing your historical research on eras such as these, do not lose hope. Visit sites that are even just loosely related. Any sensory experience you can glean from these sites will be a big help to you when writing your novel. Ask tour guides questions, visit during different times of the year. Take photos, notes, and anything that comes to you during your historical research site visit.
Historical research tip #3: Research through re-enactors
Time period reenactors will have done enough research themselves and so they are a great source of historical background. Go above and beyond the facts; ask about the experiences people of that time may have experienced. Hold their firearms or prepare your own sauerkraut. Involve and immerse yourself in your historical research.
Historical research tip #4: Be creative
You can start small—sew your own corset, carve wood decorative pieces with your own knife, grow vegetables in your backyard, pluck chickens, create a fire pit or bake your own bread. There are a lot of ways to do your own research if you are persistent and creative enough.
Don’t be scared to immerse yourself. Extensive historical research will bring to life your story and your characters.