WritersDigest.com recently published this article on how to research for your work. One of the reasons many authors enjoy writing is because it offers one the opportunity to explore many things they are curious about. History offers a huge amount of material and opportunity in this way. The article linked above is a very good starting point, but I wanted to make some history-specific recommendations to add to this writers’ guide. These are useful, I believe, for the author of fiction or non-fiction.
When a historian writes history, he or she writes an argument for his or her interpretation of the past. As with any argument, evidence is needed–if an author does not provide adequate evidence, be suspicious! History is always a journey into foreign lands as separated by time and sometimes physical space. It is faulty to presume that the past is always familiar, even when at first glance it appears to be a very familiar situation to present circumstances. This is one of the non-historians most frequent errors! Presumptions and generalizations based on supposed similarity may provide compelling reading, but are often misleading at best and an entirely misrepresentative of past peoples and cultures. (I find it particularly troublesome, because if we do it with historical peoples, do we not also run the risk of doing it with foreign peoples?)
Some common examples of this include the assumption that Renaissance artists were generally gay because they were so artsy–it is true that Leonardo da Vinci was accused of sodomy (a term which encompassed a rather large category of sexual deviance, of which when defined for modern audiences often seems odd and confusing) while he lived in Florence, as were many more people than were likely guilty, although evidence does exist to suggest he was in a relationship with a young man. Another useful example is Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible which was written as a commentary of Cold War-era commie “witch-hunts.” As such, it is far more descriptive of Miller’s contemporary America than of colonial Puritan Salem. Dan Brown’s accounts of the Roman Catholic Church’s history are incredibly flawed–I have no idea how accurate his accounts of science are or are not. Biographies are often, also, a difficult sort of book both to write and to use as a source. Often biographies are unbalanced, leaning too heavily towards vilification or laud. They are also frequently too divorced from the era or eras in which their subject lived, providing a myopic account of the figure’s actions.
So, how does an untrained researcher of history avoid these pitfalls for articles, books or fiction. Start with reliable sources. Start with the history book written by a history scholar. These are identified in many ways, my recommendation is head over to a nearby certified research library as designated by the American Library Association’s Association of College and Research Libraries. Access the JSTOR database and do a search for your topic, this way you can get both reviews and scholarly articles on your topic. Depending on the era you are researching, there may be other databases that are also more specifically targeted to your research–the librarian will be able to assist you with that. If you have a university close by and the history department teaches the area you are researching, faculty may also be able to assist you in building a reading list. (Remember your college schedule? Faculty are busiest in preparation for a semester and immediately after major due dates such as midterms and finals week–the soft spots are usually when the students are working on projects.) Another good place to start are the collections of published by Cambridge, Oxford and other preeminent universities and university presses. These are usually compilations on a subject, such as the Oxford Illustrated Guide to ___ and the The New Cambridge ___ History c. ___ to ___. (Note: these same companies often also have similarly good materials for youth!)
The advantage to using these sorts of academic resources are twofold: 1) you’ll get good information, and 2) you’ll get good, cited evidence that provides a paper trail for your research, including both secondary (scholarly written history) sources and primary (contemporary original documents from the studied era) sources. These authors have been through history boot camps, they understand how to interpret the past and are also on guard against assumptions of familiarity or strangeness. Also, there are general guidelines that they all follow such as stating the intended purpose of the written work, supplying evidence through cited sources, etc. (Always read the introductions! Also known as gold mines by history majors and grad students everywhere!)
When it comes to history research, your online sources are generally limited to the following options: 1) the American Historical Association and like organizations of scholars (many exist on more specific areas of expertise); 2) .edu sites that have information or collections of primary sources (caution: these can often be dead or neglected sites that a professor set up, but for whatever reason has ceased using and the school has since pulled), a very useful site of this kind is the Internet Sourcebook provided by Fordham University; 3) internet sites attached to a museum collection or related online exhibit, the Smithsonian, for example, does this regularly, now; 4) internet sites established by a historical site or preservation project which can vary widely from local projects to National Park sites or National Trust for Historic Preservation projects. Beyond that, one must tread carefully. History is a subject that many people enjoy, but fewer people actually do well and the web is absolutely groaning with bad historical information for anyone to misuse!
That’s my basic primer. I was motivated by the useful article from WritersDigest.com and from oodles of experience being disappointed or just plain offended by the inaccuracies that pass out there for fiction. I long for the day that people actually have a useful and vaguely correct concept of the Middle Ages, for example, as opposed to the prejudiced account of the Dark Ages that was largely, though not entirely, created during the Enlightenment and is wrong or vastly overstated on most counts. Whatever you do, don’t underestimate the importance of reliable sources and primary documents–that goes last bit goes double for writers of historical fiction!! Below are some additional reading recommendations before you really get rolling: