Digging History – Alma Boykin

*This is Sarah.  I’m okay, just really busy as there is surgery upcoming on the sixteenth of March, and I’m trying to get my house ready for sale before that. Meanwhile the lovely Alma Boykin has sent me this wonderful post on Historical research.*

Digging History – Alma Boykin


So you want to write a historical fiction book. Or you want to learn more about X historical thing, place, or period. There are so many books out there, “curated” and otherwise, that you are tempted to start grabbing at random. And that can be very rewarding, leading down fascinating paths and trails into new areas of knowledge. Or it can leave you staring at the page thinking, “OK, this is written in English. I understand ¾ of the words. But what in the name of little green apples is the author talking about?” When I’m trying to learn something in a new field, the technique that works best for me is a funnel approach. (This is also useful for writing non-fiction, but that’s a post for my place. Maybe.)

Start broad. How broad? Let’s say that you are interested in the French Revolution and what women did during those years. After all, we all remember Madame Defarge knitting at the foot of the guillotine in A Tale of Two Cities. You can approach the from two different directions. One is the Revolution in general, then women. The other is women in France, narrowing your focus to the years between 1750-1820. I’m going to start with the first approach, because it is the easiest if you do not have ready access to an academic library. What you want is a general overview of French history, to get an idea of what was France, who the main characters had been, and what led up to the mess that began in the 1760s.

Next comes a general history of the French Revolution. You have several choices, from the relatively small Oxford History of the French Revolution, to Simon Schama’s Citizens, to other popular histories. Once you have those, read them, making note of people and ideas of special interest. And then you go through the bibliography and endnotes, picking out titles that seem to have promise. This is where it can get a little tricky. At this point I’d start looking at book reviews and catalogue listings, trying to see what the author’s viewpoint and purpose is. You can get mired in theory very easily, or lost in subsections of the field (like woman as a symbol of the Revolution, from Marianne to the Goddess of Reason, and how societal ideas of womanhood clashed with the needs of the radical revolutionaries as viewed in light of M. Foucault’s theories of power. That’s probably not what you’re interested in.)

Again, start with the general and narrow your search. There are some books about women in the French Revolution, in English, that are fairly broad. If you get interested in, oh, non-noble or bourgeois women who opposed the Revolution, you’ll need to branch out again, looking at regional histories and books about events like the massacres in the Vendee. Perhaps you can find a history of a convent that was nationalized, and how the Sisters dealt with it. As always, check the bibliographies for possible titles. Histories of family life discuss women, and there are biographies of Marie Antoinette that range from “evil greedy queen” to “poor victim” to more reasonable. (You might look for Antonia Frazier’s biography of Marie Antoinette.) Madame de Stäel has also been written about, and left her own accounts of events.

Don’t overlook translated primary source documents. Some of the major public documents of the Revolution are available in English, and many at least touch on the role of the woman as citizen. The book “Dangerous Liaisons” was widely read in France at the time of the Revolution, and is available in English (as is the movie version).

At some point, on this topic, you will probably run into language problems. Not everything has been translated into English. I find this especially true the farther east in Eurasia I go, so to speak. Sometimes English-language reviews are available, or articles. Otherwise, well, that’s kinda that, depending on if you want to read the book with a dictionary in hand.

If you are doing research for a book, you may need to venture into more esoteric fields. For example, in order to get an idea of how an early-modern army moved, I found myself renting a book on the logistics of the Ottoman Armies prior to 1750. I got what I needed, but it wasn’t exactly gripping reading. On the other hand, a fat book about the Thirty Years War (not the precise period I needed but close) gave me lots of material for later works, notably the Alt-hist WWI and post WWI books. In order to learn about the climate of Early Modern Europe, before people kept temperature and rainfall records, Emmanuel Leroy Ladurie combed through parish and monastic crop records, using the dates of grape harvest and frosts, and wheat planting and yields, to sketch out the weather of the Little Ice Age (Times of Feast, Times of Famine). Dendrochronology has supported many of his findings, although we have more refined ways to use those same records today. I know someone who is using sailing reports from the United Provinces to give a fuller account of how weather affected the Anglo-Dutch wars (answer – a lot.) If you are writing a historical fiction about that time, these historians’ works can give you details to flesh out your setting and the problems your characters face.

American history in some ways is easier, because everything is in English and is easier to find, Interlibrary loan, or read on the ‘net. Even so, you might want to follow the same funnel process. How and what historians write about history changes, and what everyone knew in 1970 may be totally wrong in 2010. If you write about the Iroquois in the colonial period using what you remember from the plains Indians, because all Indians are the same, readers are going to wall the book rather quickly. If you describe Native Americans as peaceful primitives living in harmony with “Nature,” unless you are writing fantasy or just brush the topic and focus on a trapper and his Spanish love-interest, you may sell a lot to the SJW and neo-hippie crowds, but the rest of us are going to point and giggle, then buy a different book. Ditto medieval romances with sweet smelling castles, peacock served every night, and where no one dies of gangrene or plague.

And if the one book on the topic is a painfully academic tome of intellectual history *coughRudolph II Habsburgcough*, well, I’ve felt your pain. You have my deepest sympathies and I’ll happily loan you my crying towel.

12 thoughts on “Digging History – Alma Boykin

  1. If you’re writing American history in your own region, try asking your librarian. Mine has an entire side of an aisle, and the reminder that I can always get stuff from the University Library through ILL if I only know what I want. I also got the suggestion to ask the local historical society and the local churches (apparently some of them collect their own history and publish it, who knew?).

    1. Absolutely. Local libraries often have materials that have been riffed from other sources (although the reverse can also be true, alas) and sometimes you can find gold in scrapbooks that reference librarians have compiled. A county’s anniversary book, if such things have been done, can be a great asset. Or it can be head-shakingly useless, unless you are doing family histories and nothing but. Local genealogical associations often have lists of references, if not their own reference library, as can state associations. Sometimes Catholic parishes and diosceses publish histories, and many Eastern Orthodox congregations do as well, because of telling the immigrant story.

  2. Been there, done that – doing the funnel thing, and going from broad to narrow. One of my favorite sources are local historical enthusiasts, who have worked very hard on their particular aspect of local history. They will comb through the archives with the verve of a terrier going after rats, and their results are very useful for setting a story in their particular neck of the woods. One of my favorites of this sort was a centennial history of a little town called Comfort, in the Texas Hill Country. The writer was a local gentleman, from one of the old families, and he threw in just everything – wonderful, gossipy stuff like how his great-grandfather’s first wife eloped with a soldier from Fort Martin Scott, and how the first schoolmaster was a fat Yankee transplant who was too lazy to birch the bad boys, but shot pebbles at them with a sling-shot instead. Another favorite local history was written by a woman who combed the Texas State Archives for information on the residents of another small town – Gonzales; names and brief histories of various families in town, where they lived, what they did, the names and ages of children. These were no end useful when I wrote stories set in those towns, because I could throw in those little tid-bits…

    1. One of the must useful books I found for my dissertation was by a small town’s local newspaper reporter/nosey parker who was so peeved by the official county anniversary history that she up and did her own. It’s a magnificent work and includes scads of people and events the official volume (compiled by the town’s Leading Ladies) omitted.

  3. Beware the siren song of primary sources 😉 My sister did some research for a master’s thesis where she got to look at letters from Abigail Adams to Thomas Jefferson (giving very good advice about how to pack furniture for an overseas posting) and the diary of an early ambassador to France who went a bit, er, native and had a wonderful turn of phrase. She would tell me choice bits, like his comments on a dinner where every man present was bald, or his amazing inventiveness in euphemisms for sex. (Never repeated himself once, and he was a busy lad….)

    Me, I just got lost in the Baedeker guides for late 19th century Berlin. Amazing what you can learn in those things.

    1. For the WIP I found travel guides to the Dalmatian Coast and parts of what is now Italy and Croatia from 1900 or so. Very useful, and interesting – apparently some tourist traps have been around since the Romans. Primary sources are wonderful things and can be massive time-sucks. I lost waaay too much time reading the comics in the 1930s-50s newspapers I was supposed to be skimming through.

    2. I got lost enough in secondary sources just of the history of titles in England. (Doing a ‘parallel universe’ style story set in the ‘robin hood’ myth setting.) They’re FUN rabbit trails though.

  4. Just read and reviewed ‘Death of A Musketeer.’ It’s a great example of doing the research; the little details make the story come alive. I’m sure that it does get tedious, when you are doing it, but I surely do appreciate it as a reader.

    1. It was great fun, actually. Research was done over visit to Portugal. I ordered a box of books from Amazon Fr and sent it to family abode. Then I got to brush up my French. Of course two details were wrong, which are now available online. Eh.

  5. If you’re writing something historical in your local area ala Anne Rice and New Orleans, you may be able to find a local archive with some good primary source documents as well. All of the histories in the world won’t do match up to the feeling of reading something written by someone who was alive when (insert event here) happened. Most archivists can steer you to the good stuff if you can ask an intelligent question or two as well. Also, for older histories, check Project Gutenberg. I was working on a project regarding some US Army Reserve units that served in Russia during the Russia Revolution (yeah, you read that right) and came across a history written by some of the officers that served there. Two weeks earlier I had been told that it couldn’t be found for less than hundreds of dollars.

    1. Yes. County and regional history museums often have archives, as do many university and colleges, all of which are open to the public. I’ve thought about doing a “Care and Feeding of your Archivist” piece as well, especially now that there are new restrictions on what materials you can use (computer, paper, no paper, use only their paper and pencil, use their paper and your pencil, use pencil in this area but pens are OK over here . . . Thank you Sandy Burger and the map thief.)

  6. An excellent general resource is the British archeological TV show Time Team. I’ve picked up lots of great details for my Fantasy writing from it, and they have excavated sites going from the Bronze Age up to World War II.

    It makes for fascinating watching.

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