5 Essential Tools for Historical Fiction Research

tools of the tradeTools of the trade:

One of the first things I learned about writing historical fiction is that research is an integral part of the process. Of course, I knew when I made the decision to write a historical novel that research would be key, but I had no idea just how important it would be. (To find out, try writing a scene where a character walks down the street in a place you’ve never been, in a time you didn’t live in. Actually, this is kinda fun, so you should try it anyway, just for kicks). Having the right tools to complete said research goes a long way to making it even  more enjoyable.

I’ve compiled a list of 5 research tools that have helped me, in the hopes that they might help you too - especially if you’re on a tight, starving artist-style, budget like I am. I haven’t listed things like paper, pens and pencils, and a computer or computer-like device with access to the internet, as I’m assuming that those are tools of the trade for all writers (please do correct my ignorance if I’m wrong though).

5 Essential tools for historical fiction research:

1. A library card

Even in this digital age, the library can still be your best friend when it comes to hunting down random facts. Why? Librarians! Your local librarian can help you find out which road your character would have taken to travel from Boston to Poughkeepsie in 1883, and s/he can also likely help you find out what kind of buttons would have been on your hero/heroine’s jacket. With a library card you can also usually gain access to databases that might have cost you a pretty penny on your own. For researchers on a budget: Library memberships are often free, or offered for a nominal yearly fee.

2. A decent sized filing cabinet

Although a lot of research can be completed online, I still end up with lots of paper floating around my desk. Unless you have an iPad or a similar device (you lucky dog), when you’re out ‘in the field’ you’ll be jotting down notes left and right. Even if you do have a digital device for note taking, you’ll want some way to keep the flyers and pamphlets you collect from museums, art galleries and libraries organized. For researchers on a budget: Check Kijiji.ca or ebay Classifieds for secondhand filing cabinets in your area.

3. Index cards

Index cards are great for keeping track of settings, characters and major events. I like to give each character a card, and then arrange them under index cards with settings, and then maybe even assign them to major events (also listed on index cards). Mapping out the work like this helps to target places where you need to learn more, and also identify any gaping plot issues early on in the writing process. For researchers on a budget: Index cards can usually be purchased at your local pharmacy or paper supply store for under $5.

4. Small sticky notes

I personally can’t imagine research before sticky notes. I know I did research before I had sticky notes, but now that I’ve experienced them, I’ll never go back. A pack of different coloured sticky notes can help you tag interesting passages or tidbits of information in books, or call out specific points in your notes. For researchers on a budget: Although it may cost over $10 for a multi-colour package of small sticky notes, they’ll last for a while and make it worth the splurge.

5. Large and sturdy bookshelves

Just weeks into my research, I have already amassed more books than I care to admit. Having a place to keep all of the books that you don’t need to return to the library is key for research; It’s important that you are able to find the book you’re looking for when you’re in the middle of writing. For researchers on a budget: Hunt down some secondhand shelves, or build your own. Check out these 30  super creative bookshelf designs for inspiration.

What other research tools do you use? Any suggestions for tools that would also work for writer-researchers on a budget?

One Response to “5 Essential Tools for Historical Fiction Research”

  1. Meghan I. March 18, 2011 at 12:14 am #

    Love the bookshelf idea! I wouldn’t have thought about something like that, but now that you’ve pointed it out it seems intuitive. My writing isn’t as yet very research heavy, but that isn’t to say it won’t become so. IKEA, here I come!